A new Philadelphia story

Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his role in the 1993 film "Philadelphia." So did Bruce Springsteen for his song by the same name.

But the streets of Philadelphia The Boss sang about aren't all as desolate as depicted in the song and film. In fact, Philadelphia is a vibrant town with a cosmopolitan cultural scene (not to mention logically laid out, walkable streets). And it's certainly living up to its label as "a comeback city of the '90s," after years of economic distress and civil strife.

Like many cities, Philadelphia has been reinventing itself by both preserving the old and welcoming the new. Here in "the birthplace of America," they know about old. "New" includes the glistening Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts - a $265 million architectural marvel with a 150-foot-tall, accordion-like arched glass roof - that will become home to the Philadelphia Orchestra when it opens Dec. 14.

"There has definitely been a positive vibe or buzz in Philadelphia," says Leslie Ann Miller, interim president of the Kimmel. "It's a combination of basic urban renewal, which includes lots of new restaurants, and an increase in the cultural opportunities.... Our hope is that the Kimmel will elevate the city's cultural status [to new levels]."

Ms. Miller says the Kimmel is part of a revitalization that also includes the Pennsylvania Convention Center (opened in 1993, it contains a must-see contemporary art collection) and the $185 million National Constitution Center, opening July 4, 2003.

The Kimmel is the biggest attention grabber right now, partly because of its knockout inaugural season schedule (see "Cultural Events" at left).

But visual-arts fans are just as eager to score what Newsweek calls the "hottest art ticket" of the season - to the Philadelphia Museum of Art's splashy 125th anniversary exhibition "Thomas Eakins: American Realist" (see review, facing page).

The Kimmel and the national landmark Pennsylvania Academy of Music, a block away, will form Philly's Regional Performing Arts Center, home to seven other companies, including Peter Nero and the Philly Pops, Pennsylvania Ballet, the Opera Company of Philadelphia, and American Theater Arts for Youth.

Philadelphians say the elegant academy is the oldest opera house still functioning as such, on what they call America's longest, straightest urban thoroughfare. (Locals love to tout every "oldest," "first," and "biggest" attribute of their town.)

Elaine Siegel, a former New Yorker who lives in the Philadelphia suburb of Doylestown, in Bucks County, says she enjoys visiting the city for cultural events.

"I do take advantage of it, truly," Ms. Siegel says. "And what has happened is that I do much less in New York, because I'm satisfied with what's here....

"I'm very, very happy with regional theater [in Philadelphia]. The quality is good, the actors are pretty fine, and it costs $20 for a ticket when you [buy] a series, instead of $65."

That's music to the ears of Meryl Levitz, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Group, whose job is to tout the city's myriad attractions and draw more leisure travelers, including suburbanites.

She's got some powerful lures, one of which is the large Broad Street area, redubbed Avenue of the Arts. It's a lively boulevard lined with theaters, galleries, arts-education centers, clubs, restaurants, and even the Philadelphia Arts Bank, all anchored by the new Kimmel. The avenue stretches north to Lehigh Avenue and south to Washington Avenue, but most of the action is south of Philly's majestic City Hall, itself undergoing a $130-million renovation.

The avenue has become a peacock feather in the city's revitalization effort, drawing hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton, formerly a few blocks away, to relocate there. Art and retail establishments are coming as well (Tower Records moved its flagship store to the avenue).

"It's really changed our downtown area. It's a focal point," says Karen Lewis, Avenue of the Arts executive director. "The city has become a magnet for arts and culture. There's now a clear central focus for tourists."

The tourism group launched a major marketing campaign after surveys showed that tourists did not regard Philadelphia as a priority destination because it's "always been there" and, presumably, wasn't leaving. And the fact that many of the city's attractions are free wasn't a selling point during strong economic times.

"That's why our cultural events are so important," Ms. Levitz says. "They give a reason for the visit right now, because [the events] won't be here after a while."

The Eakins retrospective is a prime example. Other incentives are provided by the Wilma, Merriam, and Prince Music Theaters, which stage traveling and Broadway-bound productions along with often-groundbreaking local works. The Prince, a former movie house, also shows edgy art films.

Zanzibar Blue, an intimate, upscale jazz club with a classy décor and world-class menu, also brings top-notch talent to the avenue. It sits beneath the historic, ornate Bellevue (nee Bellevue-Stratford) Hotel, "the Grand Dame of Broad Street," which also houses offices and posh shops. Other avenue highlights include the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Freedom Theater, one of the country's oldest African-American theaters.

"People like to go where all the dots [points of interest] are on the map. And the Avenue of the Arts has a cluster of dots," Ms. Levitz says. "You always have this wonderful, energetic mix of age ranges and interests ... it is a personification of a cultural scene."

The avenue is just one part in a city packed with culture: What's known as Old City Arts is another collection of arts attractions, eateries, and shops in Philadelphia's Old City area northeast of City Hall. Hip fun-seekers congregate on South Street or at Old City Arts' monthly "First Friday" open-house nights.

"There's a spirit of cooperation" on the avenue and throughout the city's cultural community, the Kimmel's Miller notes.

Philadelphians have even learned to appreciate sculptor Claes Oldenburg's "Clothespin," and have adopted another icon, Robert Indiana's famed "Love" sculpture, as an official symbol of "The Place That Loves You Back."

Cultural events in Philly

Philadelphia could call itself "the city of culture vultures." Its smorgasbord of events and destinations ought to appeal to any arts fan.

The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts - The gala inaugural weekend, Dec. 14-16, will include Philadelphia Orchestra performances with guest soloists such as Elton John, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, Andre Watts, and Wynton Marsalis (all performing Dec. 15). For a full performance schedule, call 215-790-5800 or visit www.rpac.org.

Thomas Eakins: American Realist - First major Eakins retrospective in 19 years. Part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's 125th anniversary celebration. Through Jan. 6 215-763-8100 www.philamuseum.org

Me and Mrs. Jones - World première musical, starring Lou Rawls, follows the lives of those who created the "Philly Sound" of the 1970s. Prince Music Theater. Nov. 3 to Dec. 9 215-972-1000 www.princemusictheater.org

See You On the Street Holiday Festival - Philadelphia's famed Mummers begin a new tradition of holiday-season performances, beginning with the annual City Hall tree lighting Nov. 28 and culminating in the 101st annual Mummers New Year's Day Parade. Jan. 1 215-636-1666 www.mummers.com

Zanzibar Blue Jazz Club and Restaurant 200 S. Broad Street at the Bellevue 215-732-4500

www.zanzibarblue.com

Zanzibar's sister club, Warmdaddy's, at Front and Market Streets, features blues artists. 215-627-2500 www.warmdaddys.com

For more information about shows, exhibitions, nightlife, and festivals, call 877-GO-PHILA, visit www.gophila.com, or contact individual venues.

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