Since moving from Philadelphia to New York City, one thing I’ve really had trouble with is the culture around money. Mind you, I’m a professional fundraiser, so the subject of money isn’t a strange one; but there’s a real difference in the way money, and wealth, make their presence known. In all the wealthy cities I’ve visited, including Toronto and Corona del Mar, I have never felt as low on the totem pole as I do in Midtown Manhattan. Almost every day, I walk past one or more businesses aimed at people wealthier than I could ever hope to be.
In a city with the world’s second highest population of billionaires, money is always going to make itself known–but I find something vulgar in the way New York obsesses over wealth. It isn’t the number of businesses that cater to the super-rich, so much; it’s the number of businesses that specialize in making a fuss about how wealthy their clients are.
Philadelphia doesn’t compare with New York City for wealth of course–they’re sort of opposite ends of the spectrum, frankly–but in my line of work I dealt with plenty of wealthy people, and there seemed to just be less emphasis on status and materialism. Sure, there are exceptions–the Union League has a healthy membership, after all–but the culture of wealth just seems very different.
There may be some reason for this I haven’t considered, but I wonder how much of it may be a product of history. Philadelphia was the cultural capital of the United States from the time of the Revolution until about 1850, when New York City took over that role. Philly was founded during the Enlightenment, and its early citizens shaped it largely around those principles. Private clubs like the Ethical Society and American Philosophical Society are founded around thought, education, science, and civic improvement.
New York City’s culture, meanwhile, was developed during the era of monopolies, its most prominent citizens robber barons. While the Carnegies and Rockefellers were certainly philanthropic, they sure can’t compare with Benjamin Franklin. Their primary interest was commerce and status–and as their funds shaped their city physically, perhaps their personalities shaped its culture.
The strong influence in Philadelphia of Quakers, with their eschewing of materialism and commerce, likely also has an influence. Sociologist E. Digby Baltzell’s 1979 book Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia examined the way differing religions shaped the cultures of those two cities, including the social taboos around discussing money.
Then again, maybe it’s just that New York City attracts ambitious people looking to build their fortunes, and Philadelphia does not. It may just be that simple.