Boston v. Philly: the long view

In 1723, Benjamin Franklin, having spent his first 17 years in Boston, set out for Philadelphia to begin a new life. In those days ambitious and talented young Americans made their way to the thriving city much as today they flock to Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

Ever since Franklin’s time the two cities have been taking each other’s measure. And they have long invited comparison by historians and cultural observers.

While Boston and Philly were hardly in direct competition in politics or finance, both played vital roles in the founding and defining of America. Each owed its origin to a persecuted religious sect.

Later, Boston had its Tea Party, Bunker Hill, Paul Revere, Sam Adams and John Adams. In the 19th century, Boston was home to the so-called American Renaissance. And in the years leading up to the Civil War, the city was a hotbed of abolitionism.

As for Philadelphia, it could claim the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and, of course, Ben Franklin. Both places were attractive destinations for working-class immigrants from Europe.

One can find other grounds for comparison.

As early as the colonial period, Philly and Boston were economic hubs. Both placed a premium on education. No other 18th-century American city could match the museums, libraries and learned societies of Philadelphia and Boston.

Over time, however, the two places grew in different directions and at a different pace.

Henry Adams, writing of America as it was in 1800, observed that Boston was the Bristol of America, while Philadelphia was our London. Adams rated Philadelphia higher in music, painting, science, architecture and theater. Boston excelled in theology and literature.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Henry James, a sort of Bostonian, returned from England to survey the American scene, which to him consisted mainly of the leading cities of our eastern seaboard. Naturally, Boston and Philadelphia were on his itinerary. He set Philadelphia’s “comprehensive flatness” and straight lines against the hills and “old-world crookedness” of the New England city. He found Boston bristling with commercial energy. Philadelphia, he noted with approval, did not bristle; it was placid. Philly was “a place of consanguinity.” Boston, on the other hand, was not a place at all, but “a state of mind.”

At a more mundane level, late-20th-century Boston had become, in the words of historian Thomas H. O’Connor, a city of a city of “bohemians and bosses.” Philadelphia, too, had its bosses (think of Boies Penrose), but preferred to be known as “The City of Brotherly Love,” even as the appellation grew increasingly irrelevant, even something of a cruel joke.

Nowadays when one links Boston and Philly it usually has something to do with professional sports. Super Bowl LII is only the most current instance of a long-standing narrative.

It was in 1947 that I got caught up in the whole thing. In my 10th year I became a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies. (It’s turned out to be a lifelong affliction.) The Phillies back then were a ragtag collection of aging castaways who habitually finished last in the eight-team National League. Boston had two major league teams back then: The National League Braves won a pennant in 1948 (those were the days of “Spahn, Sain and pray for rain”), while the American League Red Sox, featuring All Stars Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky and Dom DiMaggio (Joe’s little brother), were in 1947 reigning American League champions. Naturally Philly fans envied and sometimes reviled their Boston counterparts. In recent years inter-league play has made the Phillies and Red Sox occasional opponents, but more intense rivalries developed in the two other major sports.

Think back to the era when Wilt Chamberlain starred for the 76ers and Bill Russell was at the heart of the CelticsNBA dynasty. There was no greater rivalry in professional sports. Even after Russell and Chamberlain retired, both teams were perennial playoff participants.

And though they compete in different conferences, the Boston and Philly football teams have a competitive history. The New England Patriots have defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in seven of their 13 meetings, including Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005.

Whether speaking of culture or sports, Philadelphia and Boston have a historic connection. The rivalry continues and intensifies on Super Bowl Sunday. Perhaps, as with young Ben Franklin, the Lombardy Trophy will find a home in Philly.

William Hughes (bill.hughes.37@verizon.net) is the author of “James Agee, Omnibus, and ‘Mister Lincoln’: The Culture of Liberalism and the Challenge of Television.”

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