The Cable

It’s Always Sunny in Pope-adelphia: Cheering for Pope Francis in the City That Booed Santa

For some Philadelphia residents just trying to get on with their lives in Pope-istan, the papal visit begged the question: “What’s gotten into our city?”

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 26: A police officer takes a photo of a group holding "Pope Emoji" smasks while they wait for Pope Francis to arrive at Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on September 26, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After visiting Washington and New York City, Pope Francis concludes his tour of the U.S. with events in Philadelphia on Saturday and Sunday. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 26: A police officer takes a photo of a group holding "Pope Emoji" smasks while they wait for Pope Francis to arrive at Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on September 26, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After visiting Washington and New York City, Pope Francis concludes his tour of the U.S. with events in Philadelphia on Saturday and Sunday. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA — The bus I took from Washington, D.C. to the city of brotherly love on Saturday morning stopped in the city’s industrial outskirts, near a warehouse. The passengers looked around, uncertain. “We can’t go any further, because the pope is in town,” the bus driver informed us over the PA. “I apologize for the inconvenience.” She didn’t sound sorry.

I got off and asked a police officer: “Which way is downtown?” He waved a limp arm southward.

The further I walked, the more curious my encounters became. National Guard soldiers in uniform on every street corner. A pizza place with two signs in the window: one welcoming Pope Francis, the other promising “Big Ass Slices.” Middle aged groups from out of town, traveling together, clad in #PopeInPhilly shirts, devouring cheesesteaks. Habited nuns hashing out animated disagreements with each other about which way to walk. Seminarians chanting. Seminarians consorting with nuns. People taking selfies with nuns. Hawkers hawking garish popewear.

Pope Francis’ visit to the city — the final leg of a trip that included stops in Havana, Washington, D.C., and New York, with an official visit to the White House and addresses before Congress and the U.N. General Assembly — is expected to draw record crowds, with hundreds of thousands of visitors projected to show up for an outdoor mass on Sunday. The pontiff’s full itinerary in the city will include: parades, a speech at the Independence Mall, several masses, an appearance at the Festival of Families, and a visit to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, a city prison that serves as the system’s principal intake center. On Sunday, he met in private with a group of victims of sexual abuse.

In preparation for the weekend, the city took unprecedented — and by some accounts, suffocating — crowd control and security measures: police, national guard, and federal agents blanketing downtown; armored vehicles parked everywhere; barricades funneling pedestrian traffic; a three-square-miles area cordoned off from vehicle traffic entirely; limited trolley and subway service; highways and the Ben Franklin bridge closed. Authorities towed away more than 300 cars belonging to owners who’d somehow missed the temporary “no parking” signs on curbs all over the city.

All of that was for the presence of the 78-year-old pontiff, who in 2013 could ride the Buenos Aires subways without being recognized. “Someone who was very serious, very dour as archbishop of Buenos Aires has suddenly become this wildly charismatic figure,” Vatican watcher Rocco Palmo, author of the Whispers in the Loggia blog, told WNYC’s On the Media. “Argentinians who have spoken to him since his election said, basically, what’s gotten into you?”

For some Philadelphia residents just trying to get on with their lives in Pope-istan, the papal visit begged a similar question: “What’s gotten into our city?”

I decided to get out of City Center to see how people were weathering the weekend. “Is the subway running from 2nd street?” I asked a police officer.

“I don’t know,” he said. “50 percent chance.”

He wasn’t alone: Amid the transit closures, residents found themselves unsure of what was open and what wasn’t. “Communication from city officials was very bad: confusing, ever changing, and piecemeal,” said West Philadelphia resident Sam Maldonado, out for a walk in her neighborhood. And the security measures, which included mazes of gates and barricades, struck her as overkill. Some women in the late stages of pregnancies, she said, were leaving their downtown homes to stay with friends or volunteers west of the papal events, to ensure quick access to hospitals. “It’s been a massive inconvenience for many people, and to me at least, there was no clear reason why most of the security measures have been put in place,” said Peter Myers, also of West Philly.

Jeff Birou lives in the Logan Square neighborhood in central Philadelphia, which was barricaded by police throughout the visit. He said Drexel University told him and other employees to stay home Friday and Monday, and that he had stocked up on food so that he wouldn’t have to brave the streets. “People online are saying it’s what a post-apocalypse Philly would look like,” he said. “I think that’s overstated, but it’s somewhat like after a large snowstorm.”

Many of his friends, he said, faced a tough decision as the weekend advanced: dig in or retreat. “I know a fair amount of people who left the city,” he said. “But a lot of people are like, ‘What kind of Netflix shows should I binge on this weekend, because I don’t want to leave my house.’”

Others wanted to go out, but found themselves hemmed in by road closures and other security measures.

“I got a ton of books from the library in preparation,” said Alix Gerz, who lives in the East Falls neighborhood, northwest of the downtown grid. “We can’t actually go anywhere. We are surrounded by highways, and they’re blocked. It’s not unlike a police state out there right now, and people are using it as a chance to go out of town.”

Nonetheless, she said, the infectious furor the pontiff engenders wherever he goes was able to reach even some of the crotchetiest among the inconvenienced.

“We are the city that booed Santa Claus,” she said, referring to an infamous incident wherein disgruntled Philadelphia Eagles fans pelted a man in a Santa costume with snowballs as “Here Comes Santa Claus” played over stadium loudspeakers. “But we certainly didn’t boo the pope. It’s good to see people get excited about something.”

Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @bsoloway

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