While thousands of diehard Eagles fans flocked to Canton last weekend to honor Brian Dawkins as he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, another Ohio town was grilling cheesesteaks to gear up for the preseason.
New Philadelphia is an Ohio town about 30 minutes south of Canton, 397 miles from the original.
It’s a bit smaller — total population, 18,000 — but there are many similarities, like the underdog attitude, blue-collar vibe, manic football obsession, thriving arts scene and growing farm-to-table movement. Unlike Philadelphia, their mayor has never dissed Jay-Z, or used the word “jawn.” However, he did get laughed at once while eating lunch in Old City.
“We were grabbing a sandwich around Independence Hall and I told our server we were from New Philadelphia, Ohio,” recalled Mayor Joel Day, a lifelong resident and former broadcast journalist. “He just looked at us and said, ‘How cute.’”
Day has visited his city’s more famous namesake twice, including once on the Fourth of July. As a history buff, Day appreciates the city’s passion, especially in a place where “guys were putting their heads on the line for freedom.”
Not the only New Philly — but definitely the first
New Philadelphia founder John Knisely enjoyed it so much that he stole the name for a fertile stretch of land along the Tuscarawas River.
Knisely, a Quaker born in Lancaster County, purchased the tracts in 1804 from a Philadelphia merchant named Godfrey Haga. Inspired by his many trips to Philly, Knisely mapped his news city in the same grid plan. He even borrowed some roadway names, like High Street and Front Street.
“History doesn’t tell us why Knisely loved Philadelphia,” Day told Billy Penn, “but the use of a checkerboard plan just makes a lot of sense.”
In 1807, New Philadelphia was chosen as the county seat for Tuscarawas County, and Knisely had three public squares laid out: Franklin Square, Washington Square and Market Square. In 1929, the town erected a replica of Independence Hall to house their post office.
“We’re the miniature version of the City of Brotherly Love,” said Day, adding that he is aware that there is another town called New Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania, settled in 1840.
“We’ll lay claim to be the first New Philly in the United States — and if the mayor of New Philadelphia, Pa. wants to fight it out, we’ll take that challenge.”
Like Philly, a farming and tourism boom
Day, elected mayor in 2016, recently had the interior walls in his office painted powder blue to match those in the authentic Independence Hall. He studies Philadelphia policy, and built his political platform on utilizing the city’s waterfront for a recreational economy, including kayaking and canoeing.
“You have to double down on your assets,” Day said. “First, why do people want to come here? And then, why do people want to stay here?”
In New Philadelphia, agriculture is king, particularly corn and soybeans, and tiny paved back roads lead to some of Ohio’s best grain and dairy farms. Daily Grind Cafe — the city’s first farm-to-table restaurant — has an entire “Veggie” section on the menu.
“Do you like corn? This is the best crop in years,” Day offered.
There are many signs of a robust economy. Fueled by the success of nearby Lockport Brewery a few towns away, a craft brewery is under construction. A new housing complex for Kent State’s Tuscarawas campus is going up. The courthouse is getting a shiny new copper dome, part of a $1 million facelift. Tuscora Park has a fully restored and operational 1928 Herschell-Spillman antique carousel. There are churches everywhere and more being erected.
“This is a wonderful place to come visit and hopefully stay and raise a family,” said Day. “I am proud to be a member of a special community, a very giving community. When any one of us is in trouble, our people step up to help.”
No escape from the opioid epidemic
But the opioid crisis has hit John Cougar Mellencamp’s America, too.
Day says two to four New Philly residents per week receive Narcan injections, which help keep overdosing addicts from dying. The CDC found overdose deaths in Ohio rose 39 percent last year, nearly triple the U.S. average. The state trailed only two others — Florida and, yes, Pennsylvania — in total number killed by the epidemic.
Like any self-aware politician, Day understands these problems won’t dissipate overnight.
He is proud of the work his administration is doing, most notably the New Philly Health Department’s Vivitrol program, which helps rehabilitate people behind bars who are addicted. Meanwhile, the police department is also cracking down on dealers, Day said.
Another local solution is the Ezekiel Project, an organization started by Rick Arredondo and Kris Lemmon. They invite people in recovery from addiction into their screen-printing studio, and let them experiment with art as a coping mechanism. The results can be seen in the form of new murals popping up all over town.
Football and cheesesteaks: Close, but not the same
The Cleveland Browns might be a laughingstock everywhere else, but not in Northeast Ohio. While Browns fans will wholeheartedly joke about their team’s perennial futility, they continue to believe that one day, they might win their first Super Bowl. Kind of like Eagles fans once did.
“When the Browns win the Super Bowl,” Day boasted, “you will see nothing like it in the history of sports.”
In the meantime, New Philly turns to the schoolyard. Ohio State legend Woody Hayes got his first gig coaching New Philadelphia High School, appropriately nicknamed the Fighting Quakers, and his name is stamped all over the high school’s playing fields and stadium. Their main rivals are the Dover Crimson Tornadoes and the teams play every year around Thanksgiving.
“The joke around here is the guy you line up against may be the brother of the girl you marry,” said Day.
And, much like in the original Philadelphia, a first date might consist of grabbing a cheesesteak.
Yes, they have those messy meat bombs — kind of. Here, they sub Swiss for Whiz. J-N-G Grill, a greasy spoon located just a few blocks from the mayor’s office, grills up the best one.
“It’s not quite a Philly cheesesteak,” said Day. “Then again, I guess that’s why this is New Philly.”