Philadelphians work hard to turn their maligned city's image around

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

W. C. Fields couldn't call it "nowheresville" anymore. This sprawling city still finds itself the butt of jokes. "Where's that?" comedians in the night clubs of bigger and more glamorous New York like to crack. (Philadelphia is only 90 miles away.) And then there's the one about the first prize for winning a contest being a week's vacation in Philadelphia . . . and second prize being two weeks.

But today Philadelphians -- from business people to government officials to neighborhood activists -- are spending less of their time defending this city from the jests of critics and more time trying to help it realize its full potential. Even tourists are finding new reasons to discover the charms of the City of Brotherly Love.

There are numerous signs that Philadelphia is fighting back from some admittedly desolate years:

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* Employment. The city has long been a leader in the oil-refining, chemical, shipping, and transportation industries.But from 1972 to 1978, the number of jobs here declined by 10 percent -- to 802,000. Today, in large measure because the economy is relying more on service-sector jobs and less on manufacturing, the job picture has stabilized at a time when New York and other major cities are still seeing some job losses. In 1969 the annual average of service-sector jobs was 176,900; as of last September the total was 204,600. The increase was mainly in the banking, insurance, and retail sectors, according to the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation.

* Office construction. Four new office buildings are going up in the downtown area, each with 500,000 square feet or more of space. Four others are in the active planning stages.

"Even with a recessionary period facing us, there's a surprising amount of construction," says Walter d'Alessio, who heads the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation.

* Hotel construction. With only 7,800 hotel rooms (in a city of about 2 million people), "Philly had been hotel-poor," one developer says. But three new hotels are being built and construction on a fourth is scheduled to get under way this year. Joint government and private efforts are expected to boost this total by another 5,000 rooms over the next several years.

* Tourism. Thanks in part to an aggresive $1 million-a-year campaign by the city's convention and visitors bureau called "Surprising Philadelphia," tourism increased from 1.9 million people in 1977 to nearly twice that in 1979. This year's projections go even higher. Traditionally, tourists have come to see the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross House, and Independence Hall. But the city's "walkability," its cultural attractions, restaurants, and chic shopping areas, such as the two-year-old Gallery I complex opposite City Hall, also are proving popular. New Mayor William J. Green has promised to take stronger steps to mine this source of revenue and jobs.

* Neighborhood revitalization. Spurred by the higher price of gasoline, there is growing evidence of once-proud neighborhoods, like Germantown, starting to bounce back. One- time factories, and even a former brewery, are being turned into apartment units. Old town houses are being renovated and new ones built. And, despite its reputation for racial tension, Philadelphia has countless examples of people of various ethnic backgrounds living and working together constructively, says Robert Sorrell, president of the local Urban League.

"Many middle-class blacks are buying town houses," notes Jim Petkovits of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation.

Nevertheless, unemployment among blacks -- who make up almost exactly half of the population here -- is the highest in the nation among 30 major cities, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

"We found that blacks in the eight-county area of Philadelphia [three of them in neighboring New Jersey] had an unemployment rate of 19.5 percent," local BLS spokesman Al Paisner points out. This compares to only 10.9 percent for New York and 14.9 percent for Chicago.

No one seems to know exactly why black unemployment is so much higher here. But one of the theories most often heard is that blacks have long been neglected by city fathers. The administration of former mayor Frank Rizzo was repeatedly criticized for keeping blacks from key city government jobs.

The new mayor already has appointed a black man, W. Wilson Goode, as managing director of the fire, police, and other front-line departments. Mr. Goode, in turn, has pledged to open the departments he is responsible for to more black workers.

Another reason for the higher black unemployment rate here, some say, is the much- maligned public school system, which did not enjoy strong support during the Rizzo administration.Mayor Green has pledged to make the schools better, and , if possible, increase the school budget dramatically.

One of W. C. Field's greatest complaints was that Philadelphia lacked exciting entertainment. That, too, is changing.

The city now has a number of new legitimate theaters. Its symphony orchestra is world-renowned.

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