The Philadelphia skyline. Courtesy of Dough4872.

The World Series starts tonight and, for Roanoke and much of Southwest Virginia, Philadelphia should be regarded as the hometown team.

The ties between the City of Brotherly Love (which often isn’t so brotherly or loving when it comes to its unforgiving sports fans) and the part of Virginia west of the Blue Ridge date to 1727, when the German-born Adam Mueller – later Adam Miller – became the first permanent white settler in the Shenandoah Valley. Over the next decades, two main groups of immigrants settled the region: Germans and Scots-Irish. Many of them sailed into America at Philadelphia and then followed the Great Wagon Road south out of Pennsylvania and into Virginia. If the western part of Virginia feels estranged from the rest of the state, it comes by this naturally: The patterns of settlement here were different from the very beginning. Philadelphia, not Jamestown, was our port of entry. (Mark Knoplfer wrote a song about this: “Sailing to Philadelphia,” in which he and James Taylor dueted as Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason of Mason-Dixon Line fame.)

Long before there was Interstate 64, geography made Philadelphia a more logical market for western goods than Virginia’s own port. In the 1870s and 1880s, there came another tie, this one made of iron: the railroad. A Philadelphia financial firm was behind the Shenandoah Valley Railroad and, later, bought the bankrupt east-west Atlantic, Mississippi & Ohio Railroad that it turned into the Norfolk & Western. One of its principals was Frederick Kimball. He was largely responsible for picking the inconsequential village of Big Lick as the junction between the two railroads. A civil engineer with an interest in geology, Kimball pushed on to extend his railroad into the coalfields of Appalachia. The people of Big Lick were so grateful that they voted overwhelmingly to rename themselves in Kimball’s honor. He declined, and suggested Roanoke instead – but a small town just over the state line in McDowell County, West Virginia, went ahead and named itself Kimball after he died.

As late as 2001 the business ties between the western part of Virginia and Philadelphia persisted, except then they were illicit ones. The federal investigation known as Operation Lightning Strike found that moonshine from being transported up Interstate 81 to nip joints in Philadelphia.

If we have all those ties with Philadelphia, perhaps we should look for others – and they are easy to find, just less direct. It is my custom to mark a major sports championship by looking at the economies of the two cities represented to see what lessons they might hold for us. Last year’s World Series pitted the Houston Astros against the Atlanta Braves. Houston is back this year, with the Astros taking on the Philadelphia Phillies. The lessons I identified from Houston last year still hold, so I recommend you give that column another turn at bat. Today I’ll focus mostly on Philadelphia, not because I’m a Phillies fan but because of the economic similarities between Philadelphia and many of the communities that Cardinal covers.

Philadelphia, like other so-called Rust Belt cities, is a former manufacturing city that remains in the process of reinventing itself. As late as 1970, one in three workers in Philadelphia was employed in manufacturing. Today the figure is just one in 10. In many ways, that’s the story of America; we just see it more clearly in Philadelphia than we do Houston, a city that grew up more on oil than on manufacturing. Philadelphia has more in common with Danville, Martinsville and other places that are now former textile cities. Philadelphia was once famous for men’s clothing brands; now none of them are made there.

There is no point looking backwards, though, as much as some might prefer it. The big question is what is Philadelphia doing now, and what can we learn from that? (OK, maybe that’s two questions.)

  1. “Eds and meds” drive the economy. Here’s something both Philadelphia and Houston have in common. Both are known as world-class medical centers. Philadelphia has the longer pedigree: The first hospital in British North America was in Philadelphia. The nation’s first pediatric hospital was in Philadelphia. So was the nation’s first school of pharmacy. Again, all that’s history, but the present is very much about health care in both cities. That’s the “med” part of “eds and meds,” a catchy phrase designed to capture the interplay of education and health care because the two are often intertwined with teaching hospitals and research centers. That also conveniently lines up with how the federal government tracks jobs. Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that 33.3% of the jobs in Philadelphia are in the “education and health services” sector, more than twice as many as the next bigger sector (professional services). Roanoke, with its growing life sciences sector, is headed in that direction but still comes nowhere close to Philadelphia on a percentage basis. In Roanoke, education and health services is likewise the biggest employment sector but accounts for just 17.9% of the jobs – not quite half as big as the Philadelphia share. On the other hand, despite Houston’s global reputation for health care, those jobs account for just 13.4% of the jobs there. So if you want to measure it this way, Roanoke has a bigger “eds and meds” economy – proportionately speaking – than Houston. I’ve written before about how the life sciences sector in Roanoke is growing: The Fralin Biomedical Research Institute now draws about $180 million in research funding, more than all of Roanoke’s official peer cities put together.  The General Assembly’s decision to invest $15.7 million to help build lab space in Roanoke will help accelerate that growth.
  2. “Eds and meds” doesn’t benefit everybody. Now, for the downside of “eds and meds” growth: Statistically speaking, these jobs may have supplanted manufacturing as the biggest employment sector but not many line workers are taking jobs in medical research. These “eds and meds” jobs are also unevenly distributed across the country for obvious reasons: Not every place has a university or even a hospital. Roanoke can realistically pursue an “eds and meds” future, Martinsville can’t – so one size does not fit all. That said, health care is clearly a growing field everywhere – an aging population drives that – but the “eds and meds” configuration is more geographically limited.
  3. Philadelphia’s job growth has been uneven and that’s why it’s so poor. Herein lies a cautionary tale. On the one hand, Philadelphia seems to be booming. It boasts the nation’s ninth-biggest economy, with a gross domestic product so big that, if Philadelphia were its own country, it would be the 27th biggest in the world. Philadelphia might be marked as a rising power that someday might challenge for an invite to the G20 summit. On the other hand, Philadelphia is, by some measures, the nation’s poorest big city. Other cities are poorer (Detroit has 33% of its people living below the poverty line), but among the nation’s 10 biggest cities, Philadelphia holds that unenviable distinction, with a poverty rate of 23.3%. (In Roanoke, the figure is 20.1%; Houston is at 19.7%; Lynchburg is at 17.08%.)

Why is Philadelphia’s poverty rate so high? A 2020 report by JEVS Human Services identified two major reasons. The first is an answer that some won’t like because they deny it exists: systemic racism. “Philadelphia’s high poverty rate didn’t happen by chance; it is the logical outcome of policies that turbocharged suburbanization, underfunded the school district, and allowed racist structures to go unchecked,” the report said. “For decades, people of color were shut out of the city’s best-paying jobs and routinely denied business loans and home mortgages. The effects of that racial discrimination can be seen in today’s poverty statistics: Two-thirds of Philadelphia’s poor are either Black or Latino.” For those who question whether systemic racism really is a thing, or whether problems from long ago still persist today, I call your attention to this: This Philadelphia report sounds eerily similar to a 2017 report that the GO Virginia economic development group issued about Southside Virginia. That report, commissioned by the state’s business community (not generally a source of bleeding heart liberals), found that schools in the region don’t have a particularly good reputation. Why not? The GO Virginia consultants talked to small business owners in Southside (again, not usually a place you find much “wokeness”) and found that “Vestiges of Massive Resistance and other racially-divisive actions are still evident, particularly as seen in lack of support for public schools.” When we look to Philadelphia’s poverty and the causes, are we also looking at ourselves in the mirror?

The other reason Philadelphia’s poverty rate is so high is also instructive. “A significant portion of the adults classified as poor go off to a job every day, but their wages aren’t sufficient to cover the cost of food and shelter,” the JEVS Human Services report says. “Philadelphia’s biggest failure over the last two decades, says Anne Nevins, president of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., is that ‘we haven’t grown the same proportion of middle-wage jobs as our peer cities.’ You can find high-paying tech jobs at Comcast and low-paying janitorial jobs, but not enough in between.” Philadelphia may have a disproportionate problem with the lack of middle-class jobs but this is hardly a unique problem. Don’t look for me to have a snappy bullet point with a solution for this, either. If I did, I wouldn’t be sitting here typing for a living; I’d be off accepting a Nobel Prize. This is one of the great challenges of our time – to rebuild those middle-class jobs. Both left and right agree on this, although they might disagree on how to do it.

Meanwhile, here’s one thing we don’t have in common: Philadelphia, like some other major cities, is grappling with the effect of the shift to remote work. The Philadelphia Inquirer frets that “Empty offices could cause ‘fiscal doom loop’ in Philly and other big cities.” We, though, are potentially on the other end of the spectrum for the Age of Zoom: Many of our localities are now seeing more people move in than move out. That in-migration doesn’t make up for the big gap between deaths and births but while Philadelphia frets about remote work, our localities are looking for ways to attract those workers. Score one for our team there.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.