Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 11.04.56 AM

Parochial Philly: Is the city too hostile to ‘outsiders’, and does that hold us back?

“Oh, you’re not from Philly.”

We were reminded of Philadelphia’s reluctance to accept outsiders in the run-up to this spring’s mayoral primary. When the Democratic candidates spoke of the possibility of replacing police commissioner Charles Ramsey, only Lynne Abraham said she would consider candidates from cities like Chicago, New York or Washington D.C. The other five candidates were clear in their belief that any potential successor would have to be part of the Philadelphia police department and promoted from within.

So the thinking often goes: You must be from here to succeed here. And if you have moved here from somewhere else, well, why?

The answer, in many ways, should be clear. Philadelphia is a city on the rise. We’re hosting the Pope this fall and the DNC next year. Soon, Philadelphia could become the first American city to earn World Heritage status. Jim Kenney, the Democratic mayoral nominee, says he wants to remake Philadelphia’s image by embracing its growth.

It’s also a place where Mummers march on New Year’s Day (with some possibly still wearing blackface), people define their personality based on their neighborhood, City Council members — who are almost always natives — serve lifetime appointments, “awareness” cones count as solving an infrastructure problem and puzzling tax strategies have lived past their usefulness. Kenney, despite his newly-anointed progressive reputation, also owes much of his election success to old-school, union-fueled Democratic machine. In short, Philadelphia can be an odd and sometimes unwelcoming place for people who didn’t grow up in the city.

The numbers bear out these beliefs. Compared to peer cities, Philadelphia has far fewer residents from outside the area and fewer big businesses that bring young talent. Does the city’s celebration of its traditions and quirks also make it resistent to embrace new people and ideas? And is that keeping the city from becoming truly great?

More like Pittsburgh and Baltimore than New York

No data exists to show exactly how many of Philadelphia’s residents grew up in the city, but you can see how many people currently living in a city grew up in the state where the city is located, giving a general idea of how many natives inhabit it. And Philadelphia’s share of Pennsylvania-born residents is striking.

According to 2013 U.S. Census American Community Survey data, 68 percent of people who live in Philadelphia were born in Pennsylvania. None of America’s other 10 biggest cities have a higher share of residents born in the same state where the city is. Most aren’t even close. Chicago comes in at 59 percent, Phoenix at 40 percent, New York City at 49 percent. The closest comparison of the 10 biggest cities to Philadelphia is San Antonio, hardly a bastion for innovation, business and fresh thought, at 65 percent. Philadelphia’s share of in-state residents resembles smaller, less-cosmopolitan cities like Pittsburgh (72 percent) and Baltimore (68 percent).

The number is more jarring when you consider Philadelphia’s geography. The 68 percent does not include anyone from South Jersey or Delaware. Those places are both considered part of the Philadelphia metro area, and according to other Census data, people from Gloucester, Mercer, Burlington and Camden counties in South Jersey and New Castle County in Delaware have comprise around 10 percent of all people moving to Philadelphia in recent years. Philadelphia is also a short distance from several other states, whereas a city like San Antonio is located in a massive, populous state and would presumably attract newcomers from hundreds of miles away who are still from Texas.

‘Where did you go to school?’

So why has Philadelphia had a tougher time enticing people from out of the state and metro area to live here? The city’s tax structure could be a reason. The Business Income & Receipts Tax, wage tax and other taxes have made Philadelphia expensive for both businesses and individuals and have been routinely criticized as preventing large companies from moving to or staying in the city. Of the 32 biggest cities in America, Philadelphia ranks 26th in Fortune 500 companies per capita. Its number of Fortune 1000 companies, per capita, places it eighth of America’s 10 biggest cities (ahead of San Antonio and San Diego). Those are the types of businesses that can draw new employees from all over the country year after year.  

A 34-year-old entrepreneur with a technology company who asked to remain anonymous because of his ties to local boards says he sees the restrictive taxes harming smaller businesses, too. He says he’s found most of his funding from elsewhere in Pennsylvania and his biggest clients in other East coast cities. He plans to embark on a couple of new business ventures,  “and,” he says, “I’m not going to locate them in (Philadelphia).”

Another possible reason goes back to Philadelphia’s traditions and the belief you must be from here to understand them. Nathanael Brouhard and his wife, Isabel Lowney Brouhard, are North Carolina natives who moved to Philadelphia for Lowney Brouhard’s graduate program at Temple after meeting in college in Tennessee. Brouhard didn’t have a job lined up and had a difficult time securing full-time employment at first. Without a social network from work, he also spent plenty of time questioning what he was doing in Philadelphia.

“It was really hard initially,” says Brouhard, who now works as the director of academic affairs at PAFA.

But he says his early struggles with getting a job and developing a network may have had to do with his choice of major — he has a master’s degree in religion and philosophy — as much as any constraints of Philadelphia.

Mustafa Rashed, president and CEO of Bellevue Strategies and the chief of staff for Doug Oliver’s mayoral campaign, grew up here and believes the parochial atmosphere extends even toward natives who haven’t grown up in the powerful circles.

“Philadelphia one of the first things they ask you is, ‘where did you go to school?,’ says Rashed. “They don’t want to know where you went to college. They mean high school. That continues all the way through your professional career.”

Now in his late 30s, he says he and his friends are still having the same conversations about trying to gain a foothold in senior-level positions that they were having in their 20s. Rashed says leaders in business and politics too often hang on to their influence as long as they can and share the power with a select few who maintain the same old ways. 

“And I completely understand it,” he says. “Why would you create a system that would lose or erode its own power?”

How young transplants unite

People who want Philadelphia to grow into a more hospitable place for new people, businesses and ideas can celebrate a few things. The share of Pennsylvania natives living in Philadelphia has decreased slightly — from 70 percent in 2009 to the 68 percent it’s at now. Non-native college students have also become more likely to stay in Philadelphia after graduation. According to Campus Philly, the percentage grew from 29 percent in 2004 to 48 percent in 2010 to 51 percent in 2014.

Young people are also finding ways to unite, too. Nathanael Brouhard and Isabel Lowney Brouhard started joining networking groups and are currently board members for Young Involved Philadelphia, a group they say whose members are mainly transplants. They had originally planned to move to New York City after Lowney Brouhard graduated from Temple but decided to stay. 

“You live here for a certain amount of time and you establish friendships,” Lowney Brouhard says. “Once you get connected and you’re involved somehow you have something invested in the city. Philadelphia just felt accessible. Like you could do something, make a difference, meet enough people. It wasn’t as intimidating once you kind of get involved. You kind of have to make the effort to do that.”

The tech sector, as much a sign of change and growth for a city as any industry, has been particularly adept at inviting new people to Philadelphia. Rick Nucci, the co-founder of Guru and the president of Philadelphia Startup Leaders, remembers a much different environment for startups in the early aughts. At networking events for bringing entrepreneurs together a problem persisted: hardly any entrepreneurs came.  

“I think that precipitated a lack of community,” Nucci says.

Philly Startup Leaders began in 2007 with a goal of bringing together entrepreneurs so they can share ideas. One of its most powerful tools is a listserv where members bounce questions off each other. Nucci says newcomers to Philadelphia will routinely post that they’ve moved into the city and describe what they’re doing, and they receive several responses with ideas or invitations to meet for coffee. 

Shaw Irwin, who’s originally from Florida but has lived in Philadelphia since attending Drexel, says he posts all the time. A few weeks ago, he was out getting ice cream and someone greeted him who recognized him from the listserv. 

“It really adds to the Philly community,” Irwin says. 

Other entrepreneurial-minded organizations have developed with similar goals. Start. Stay. Grow. is trying to help college students build connections through mentorship programs with local professionals, meet-ups and events.

Brad Denenberg moved to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh and has launched startups Seed Philly and Decibly here. Over email, he says he doesn’t recall any business-related challenges different from those he would have faced moving to any big city out of college. 

“It’s all about who you know,” Denenberg says, “and moving to a city where you know almost no one can be very difficult.”

×