The Rocky Statue at its original location, July 29, 1982. Five years ago, the statue was
installed at its current location near the base of the Art Museum’s steps.
Rocky’s been in place for five years now, and it’s been 35 years since the film character gave Philadelphia a boost and Sylvester Stallone a brand worth $1.2 billion. But eventually, possibly sooner than later, Rocky will have to step aside as a Philadelphia story that has outlived its time.
Born during a recession in a place with an evaporating manufacturing economy, Rocky’s day job as bill collector speaks to the lack of opportunity in a city of homes and a paucity of jobs. In the 1970s, Philadelphians still believed they still had a shot at bringing the factories back. It took several decades more for the leadership (by then Ed Rendell in the 1990s) to openly admit industry as Philadelphia knew it was gone and a constellation of emerging economies (Eds, Meds, Tourism & Tech) would have to replace it.
Philadelphians have come to their senses and moved on, except, it seems, when it comes to Rocky.
Like Archie Bunker’s Queens, Rocky’s Philadelphia is now mostly gone, though not entirely. The spirit of the ’70s occasionally finds traction. In 2006, the same year as Rocky returned to the Parkway, Joey Vento posted a sign at his steak joint on 9th Street: “This is America, when ordering ‘Speak English?’” Vento spoke his mind, as Tom Ferrick put it in a recent Metropolis column: “And what was in that mind? A heavy dose of macho. One primal scream. Several tablespoons of jingoism. A half-cup of xenophobia. A dash of hate.”
When Joey Vento died last month, so did a little bit more of that Philadelphia, Rocky’s Philadelphia. Vento clumsily said what Stallone’s Rocky artfully implied. “Outsiders” were changing the hue and cry of the workplace, schools and streets. Vento, Ferrick points out, targeted Philadelphia’s Mexican immigrants. Rocky’s enemies were African Americans: first Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers, then James “Clubber” Lang, played by Mr. T. Of course, Rocky’s racism was neatly tempered by Hollywood, but it was significant in Rocky’s persona as well as the brand’s success.
The Rocky story is one of personal victory, rather than any kind of civic victory. In the 1970s, Rocky couldn’t begin to turn around a city still steeped in mid-century noir, but he could, bouncing at the top of the Art Museum’s steps at dawn in grey sweats, realize personal success.
Today, Philadelphia offers more. Yet, thousands of folks visit the Rocky statue every year, admire themselves with arms raised in souvenir images again, again and again. There’s a connection here with a 20th-century Philadelphia story that has survived into the 21st, but how meaningful is it now? Isn’t this statue, whether it’s considered a movie prop, a franchise logo, or even art, just an artifact of 20th-century American popular culture, along the lines of Archie Bunker’s chair? Visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History see that artifact behind glass.
Someday, the Rocky statue will be framed by a similar narrative. When that day comes, Philadelphia will have something to offer about what the city is, not what it was. But first, we’ll have to get past the idea that Stallone has done more for Philadelphia’s image than anyone since Ben Franklin, as Commerce Director Dick Doran put it in the 1980s. We’ll still be moved a little (or a lot) by the Rocky story, and the artifact will always be with us. Only, in the future, we’ll think of it as on the shelf, rather than on the pedestal, along with many other compelling stories out of Philadelphia’s past.
The question is, when Rocky steps aside, or is forced aside – and this should happen sooner than later – what will take his place? That we have yet to figure out. But the time is coming for Rocky to become history – and in Philadelphia there’s nothing wrong with that.