A sign at the celebration in front of Philly's vote-counting center on Saturday

? Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn email newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.

The birthplace of the United States is no stranger to national attention. But it’s been a while since the spotlight shined on Philadelphia with such a piercing ray.

In 2020, Philly landed in the crosshairs of some of the world’s most gripping stories. The city made headlines covering everything from politics to the pandemic, pop culture to police violence.

As expected, the outside attention brought out more than a healthy bit of defensiveness from Philadelphians.

Here’s a dozen times Philly made national headlines this year — for better or for worse.

Hospital millionaire gets dragged

Among Philly’s unpopular 2020 players: Joel Freedman. The Hahnemann Hospital owner was called out on a national level by the New York Times, NPR and CBS.

The hospital closed back in June 2019, but it sat vacant for so long that city officials started to wonder whether they could reopen it this year — as the pandemic threatened to overflow hospitals in its first surge.

Freedman, a millionaire himself, was unwilling to rent the space out to the city for less than $1 million per month for at least six months. (Temple then offered the Liacouras Center, rendering the Hahnemann issue moot in city officials’ eyes.)

Other Philadelphians weren’t ready to let him off so easy, spray painting  “Joel Kills” and “Free Hahnemann” on his Rittenhouse home.

Pandemic dos and don’ts

Philadelphia of a century ago became the American poster child of what not to do to eradicate a deadly virus, because of the city’s choice to hold a war bond parade during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

We also tasted a morsel of sweet redemption when the nation looked to our example of how to “flatten the curve,” or prevent a spike in virus infections. Philly’s century-old mitigation techniques, including banning gatherings and closing schools, are still being used.

Margaret Hart and Maisie Rush at Bryn Mawr College in September 1918 Credit: U.S. National Archives

Bad things happen

It was Tuesday, Sept. 29, when Donald Trump uttered five words that’ll go down in Philly history.

Bad things happen in Philadelphia,” he said, referring to completely unfounded accounts that Republican poll watchers were illegally prohibited from Philly satellite election offices. A state court later rejected the Trump campaign’s lawsuit that related to this quote.

You could almost hear the head of every city resident tuned into the debate tilt to the side: Did this man just say Philadelphia?

Yes, yes he did.

Trump’s no stranger to bad-mouthing American urban centers, and he targeted Philly back during his first presidential campaign in 2016, too.

“Bad things happen in Philadelphia” naturally took on a life of its own, with plenty of t-shirts and other merch sporting the quickly-adopted phrase.

The Economist fails

On first glance, this Economist tweet seemed innocent, even flattering. “Tonight, Philadelphia is the most important city in the world,” the publication posted on the night of the November election.

But one look at the very first sentence in the long read and it became very clear that this was some unfortunate soul’s attempt at an own on a tough city known for its historic firsts and “I don’t care” attitude. Big mistake.

“Philadelphia lives up to its nickname, the City of Brotherly Love,” the piece began, “about as well as North Korea lives up to its formal name: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Wow. The writer went on to mention the tired tale of Philly sports fans heckling Santa. Like, get over it.

No need to worry about the paywall to try toread more.

Instead, check out some of the replies reminding the Economist to keep Philadelphia’s name out of its mouth.


The election is called for Biden

Philly City Commissioners stepped to the podium, announced a few thousand more votes had been counted — and the crowd went wild.

The city was already ground zero for election week protests and celebrations that drew international reporters. Then Philly released the votes that finally pushed the AP and other national news orgs to call the race for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Four Seasons Total Landscaping shines

Remember that time Rudy Giuliani scheduled a Trump campaign press conference the week of the election at a random landscaping company in Northeast Philadelphia?

If you forgot, you’re probably the only one.

The Four Seasons Total Landscaping debacle was such a big deal to national news outlets that New York Magazine literally published a 6,000-word story about it *just last week.*

The hilariously random location spurred stories all over the country and attracted so much attention that the shop started selling merch. The situation also inspired an internationally-attended charity run and sculpture art as far away as Germany.

Former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani speaks for the Trump campaign at Four Seasons Total Landscaping on Nov. 7, 2020 Credit: John Minchillo / AP Photo

Tear gas used on protesters and residents

During Philadelphia’s Black Lives Matter protests in June, police released tear gas several times. One of the incidents trapped hundreds of protesters in a cloud of chemical spray on I-676. Breathless, they had to climb a hill and hop a fence to escape.

The incident was so appalling that it compelled the New York Times to make a 10-minute documentary, with a map showing the protesters’ route, cell phone footage from the ground and interviews with people affected.

Though Philadelphia news outlets had already reported all these details, the national focus seemed to make a difference to Kenney. After the NYT video, he and Outlaw demoted a police commander and put a moratorium on the use of tear gas.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw apologized for the use of tear gas on peaceful protesters on I-676 Credit: Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

Rizzo statue disappears

The protests against police killings of Black people in June forced Mayor Kenney’s hand, leading to a striking visible action: The removal of the Frank Rizzo statue.

The bronze visage was installed outside the Municipal Services Building in 1991. Rizzo’s likeness stood looking forward, appearing to take a step while waving. But for many Philadelphians, it long represented the former police commissioner’s legacy of violence against Black people and LGBTQ people.

The accelerated removal of the 10-foot figure, conducted suddenly and overnight in early June, attracted plenty of national attention. It’s since been replaced by a Black Lives Matter mural.

Protesters attacked the Frank Rizzo statue in front of MSB on Saturday Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

Police kill Walter Wallace Jr.

In the fall, Philly police shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old father said to be having a mental health crisis.

The late-October incident, during which Wallace held a knife and walked toward officers, was captured on cell phone video. It went viral on social media more than a week before the city released body camera footage, prompting another round of anti-police violence protests.

PPD came under fire for failing to equip all officers with non-lethal weapons like Tasers. The two officers who responded to the 911 call for Wallace and subsequently killed him did not have them on their persons.

Walter Wallace Sr. speaks to the media the day after his son was shot by Philly police officers Credit: Ximena Conde / WHYY

Kobe is memorialized

Yep, this happened in 2020.

The Philly region garnered international attention as the hometown of fallen NBA superstar Kobe Bryant after Bryant, daughter Gianna and seven others were tragically killed in a Los Angeles helicopter crash.

Bryant was born just across City Avenue in Lankenau Hospital. His parents Pam and local basketball phenom Joe Bryant were West Philly natives. They raised their children in nearby Montgomery County.

Per Bryant’s Lower Merion High School basketball coach, the hometown hero was “a Philadelphian through and through.”

John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah and Payton Chester, Christina Mauser and helicopter pilot Ara Zobayan were also killed in the crash.

Iverson argues with Bryant at the end of Game 2 of the NBA Finals in Los Angeles, Friday, June 8, 2001 Credit: AP Photo / Kim D. Johnson

Gritty accused, and vindicated, of child abuse

There was a time when the most eventful news coming out of Philadelphia still centered around the bizarre orange thing repping our hockey team. Pre-pandemic 2020 was a time of innocence, one we can now only yearn for.

In January, national media scrambled to pick up the story when a Philadelphia father claimed that the Flyers mascot punched his 13-year-old son in the back after a November 2019 meet-and-greet for season ticket holders.

Police had to conduct a literal investigation. “Justice for Gritty,” read a Guardian story at the time. The mascot was ultimately cleared.

Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Shockingly, people still decide to live here

After all this, if you can believe it, people still want to live in Philadelphia — even *gasp* Broadway stars.

Thank the New York Times for this profile of Rob McClure, former Marlton, New Jersey resident who moved to the city in 2006 to rent an apartment with his now wife. McClure scored a sweet gig for when the pandemic ends: He’s starring as the lead role in the Broadway adaptation of “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

In heroic fashion, McClure’s going to brave Amtrak so he can stay in Philadelphia.

Avatar photo

Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...