“What Is Philadelphia”

What is Philadelphia? Allie Caren and Luke Rafferty set out to discover just that. In a short documentary, the Philadelphia Inquirer summer staffers asked Philadelphians for one-word descriptors of their city: the good, the bad, and especially, the honest. Could you describe your city in one word?

As a journalist, my main questions are always “what” and “why”.

We were lucky - all it took was an idea, four words and a little perseverance.

“What is Philadelphia?”
“Why?”

Luke Rafferty and I, Allie Caren, are journalism students at Syracuse University. And we were both interns for the Philadelphia Inquirer this summer.

For the past month, Luke and I cozied up to Philadelphians. We stopped people: on their way home from work, buzzing through the city streets; people sitting at the park, chatting; a pair smoking electronic cigarettes in an alley on their dinner break; a wedding party taking pictures on the summer-hazed stairs of the Art Museum.

We asked them - dozens of them - to describe the city of Philadelphia in one word, and if they would, explain why they chose that word.

“It doesn’t matter if the word is good or bad,” I told people. “Just make it honest.”

Everything starts with conversation, and, could it be that the world might benefit a little if we listened to each other more?

It’s too easy to label or judge or generalize others - let alone an entire city - when there’s no conversation to base anything off of, and that was part of the mission of this project: to challenge generalizations.

The people, the places, the adventure that the project led us on was more rewarding than anything we could have imagined.

For Luke, the photojournalist? He says he learned to describe things through other people’s words, and stories - not just how he saw them through the viewfinder.

For me, the features writer? I was assured that it’s okay to be a little less afraid out there - there’s nothing wrong with going up to someone and saying hi; or smiling at a stranger as you wait for the light to turn green; or sit, as Luke and I did, for nearly an hour as a man (not featured in the video) rattled on about pollution, his job, Nancy Reagan and living alone.

You’ll never learn a thing about this world unless you ask the “whats” and “whys”.

So ask.

“What is Philadelphia”.

(Coming soon to a city near you)

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