Will missteps on handling the pope’s September visit deliver a reputational hit to Philadelphia, a city that’s no stranger to being the brunt of jokes about dysfunction?
It’s a question that the Washington Post posed in Monday’s paper in a piece documenting the anxiety and apprehension perceived by some city residents and businesses ahead of Pope Francis’s Philly stop Sept. 26 and 27.
Describing the city’s old Colonial streets as having been built for carriages rather than motorcades, reporter Frances Stead Sellers asks: Will a pope-planning mishap fortify the city’s stereotype as a “second-rate stopover between Washington and New York?”
“To host an event like this has a lot riding on it. And we’ll be watching that to see how Philadelphia copes,” Sellers said in a phone interview.
She said Washington Post reporters got a foretaste of what could be in store when several of them tried to purchase SEPTA regional rail tickets while the website collapsed under the weight of traffic.
“We managed to get tickets from the Springfield Mall, but not Media, where the journalists are staying,” she said. “When you see big organizations like ours having to wrestle with the logistical problems, you know they’re real.”
Washington-based Sellers, a U.K. native who came to the U.S. to do graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, said Center City’s burst of development has brought prosperity for businesses in the city’s core, but when it comes to managing 1.5 million visitors, it also poses a thorny problem.
“People are living downtown, there’s a sense of urban renewal, and that, in a sense, is also a problem, because those people live there, because of all the small restaurants, there’s an awful lot that has to be managed during a visit like the pope’s arrival,” Sellers said.
Even though the Security Service is taking the lead on pope planning, coordination with city officials is going far from smoothly, she said.
“It’s definitely problematic for the mayor, who’s got a lot of fans, among the people I spoke to,” she said.
Pope Francis’ Sunday Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway overshadows appearances the pope has scheduled in D.C. and New York — which makes comparing Philadelphia’s planning to other places a little tricky.
“Philadelphia is going to be hosting the biggest event for what has become a rock star pope. So the big public Mass on the mall is unlike anything that is happening in D.C. and New York,” Sellers said.
“That’s an event all on its own in a city that has a structural problem dealing with this number of people,” she said.
Doubling a city population, as the estimates project, also makes Philadelphia’s host city status remarkable.
As condo owner Charles Layton told Sellers, it doesn’t matter who comes to New York, the population doesn’t go from 8 million to 16 million overnight.