Philadelphia Regains Faith in Itself

Talk about unrequited brotherly love.

Philadelphia is the storied city of cobblestones and Quakers where, once upon a Colonial time, the yeoman's work of American democracy was done. It is where Benjamin Franklin lived and legislated and Thomas Jefferson invented the Republic.

For all this, thankless outsiders have returned the favor with little but wisecracking slights. "I spent a week in Philly last Sunday," goes one Victorian-era quip. At times, even natives have found it's a tough city to love. "Philadelphia," read a plaintive billboard of the 1970s, "is not as bad as Philadelphians say it is."

Actually, retorted the naysayers, it was worse. As recently as 1991, the city's blighted urban wards, moribund manufacturing industry, and $230 million deficit led one magazine to pronounce it "the city that sets the standard for municipal distress in the '90s."

But today, six years and as many budget surpluses later, there is a new Philadelphia Story in the making. Bolstered by the runaway success of downtown's four-year-old Convention Center, city leaders are busy pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a cultural, educational, and financial revival that longtime loyalists say is the best thing to happen since cheesesteak.

But more than money, there is evidence of a new optimism - of a growing citywide confidence not seen since Philadelphia's earliest days - that is propelling residents to tackle the city's toughest problems with new vigor.

"It's magic," says Ellen Savitz, principal of the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, a colossal, colonnaded edifice that just finished a $30.9 million renovation. "You put a critical mass of oozing hearts and minds together and something happens."

The rehab effort transformed a former library, which had stood vacant for 30 years, abandoned to graffiti, rats, and vandals, into a Center City parthenon of marble mezzanines and mahogany eaves.

It is but one installment in a $336 million facelift of the "Avenue of the Arts" - a street that's soon to see, among other things, a new $147 million Regional Performing Arts Center and newly refurbished quarters for the Cleft Club, a favored jazz haunt.

To be sure, there is nothing new or radical about civic leaders enlisting a city's cultural crown jewels to burnish its image. "We're not inventing the wheel here," concedes Ellen Solms, executive director of The Avenue of the Arts Inc., a nonprofit group.

But what is new, Ms. Solms and others insist, is that after years of false starts - or no starts - this Philadelphia comeback seems to be in earnest. And perhaps more important, the city is regaining a sense of faith in itself.

New attitude, new altitude

Much of the early credit, they say, goes to the Convention Center, a 440,000-square-foot behemoth housed partially in an old train shed once owned by the Reading Railroad. When the railroad moved underground in the 1980s, the area turned into a seedy no man's land just a hoagie's toss from City Hall.

But the Convention Center has reaped $300 million in annual revenues since 1995. It has also created 6,000 jobs.

The roots of Philadelphia's revival, however, can be traced even further back to a donnybrook in the late-1980s over how the city's dignified past would mesh with what many hoped would be a prosperous future. The issue: whether to allow a skyscraper to be built higher than the lofty peak of William Penn's hat atop City Hall. The answer, ultimately, was yes, and Penn's bronze likeness was quickly dwarfed by a burgeoning skyline.

And in a further sign of progress, a fire-scarred office building - which holds a prestigious address across from City Hall - is at last slated to be torn down. The towering One Meridian Plaza, which burned in 1991 and has stood unused ever since, will make room for a yet-to-be-determined new structure.

Philadelphia's revival is creating a ripple effect that's even touching the city's most destitute area, north Philadelphia.

The jobless rate hovers at 40 percent in the 11-square-mile swath of low-income homes, but the Rev. William Moore sees a new "spirit of optimism." The Baptist minister oversees the two-year-old north Philadelphia Empowerment Zone.

Contrast that with the stark mood Mr. Moore found when he arrived 23 years ago.

Just a few years earlier, in 1970, police had battled in the streets with the Black Panthers. Then in 1985, police firebombed the headquarters of MOVE, an African-American activist group, killing 11 and destroying 60 nearby homes. Race relations nosedived and haven't yet fully recovered.

Still, the area is, by most accounts, improving.

North Philadelphia native Stephon Dowling, standing behind the counter at Sam's Sportswear, says of his neighborhood, "It's getting better.

"Don't let the old name fool you," Mr. Dowling says. "People know north Philly the way they know the Bronx. But if you go through the neighborhood relaxed, nothing's going to happen."

Not ready for Ben yet

Such sentiments aside, the evidence suggests it would be premature to invite Ben Franklin back for an inspection tour.

Philadelphia - alone among America's 10 largest cities - has a violent crime rate that's been edging upward for the past five years.

This summer - in an incident that exposed the tense feelings about rising crime - residents saluted a young opera singer who wrested a gun from a mugger and then killed his assailant.

Just a few blocks away from the sports store, along a rutted street strewn with glass shards, George Garfield works with the Committee for a Better North Philadelphia. The Avenue of the Arts project, he says, may be good for the city's image, but it fails to address the concerns of residents - food and housing.

But Solms, the arts project's director, says that misses the real point about the avenue's rehab. "Suddenly," she says, "here was dramatic evidence that Philadelphia could do things right."

More Than Cream Cheese

* Philadelphia is home to 1.6 million people and is the fifth- largest city in the nation.

* The area has 88 four-year colleges - second in number only to New York City.

* Philadelphia's largest industry, construction and mining, employs 730,000 people.

* The city has the world's largest collection of Impressionist art outside of Paris. It is housed mostly at the Barnes Foundation and the city's museum.

* The Philadelphia zoo was America's first. It was chartered in 1859 and opened in 1874.

Source: Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.