Some journalists tell us the story from the most straightforward angle possible. But others tell us the real story, and go behind the facts to tell us why we should care. Nathaniel Popkin is one of the latter. His Song of the City: An Intimate History of the American Urban Landscape is a brilliant piece of nonfiction, going behind the scenes of Philadelphia to describe why the American city is not in decline -- rather, it is thriving more than ever.
The author traveled around Philadelphia, simply listening and jotting down notes. And he came up with a handful of individual stories that personify the city --Philadelphia especially, but really any city -- more than any historical or political book could ever do. He understands that not everything happens in Center City, that if one really wants to see Philadelphia, he or she must travel to University City, to Kensington, to the Far Northeast -- in fact, to every inch of the 135 square miles of "endless" Philadelphia, as Popkin calls it. Popkin delivers what the title says, an intimate look at Philadelphia. He starts with a broad subject and comes out with a personal viewpoint. He rides the EL and the Broad Street Subway; he brings the story behind the story. And isn't that what a city is really all about?
Of interest is the account of the West Philadelphia residents' fight against the proposed McDonald's on 43rd Street. And yes, Popkin includes Reverend Larry Falcon and the other major players -- but he tells the story through City Paper reporter Daryl Gale, who wrote a feature about the fight. Popkin not only tell us about the McDonald's issue, but tells us about the people behind the battle.
Supposedly, the city is dead. The suburbs long ago took over the metropolis as the most important part of American living. But Popkin's wonderful look into the people behind the sprawling lands of Philadelphia proves otherwise.
- Dan McQuade