Philadelphia renaissance doesn't stop urban exodus

When she first came to the Philadelphia in 1990, Lorraine Farquhar was dazzled by the idea of living downtown.

"Then I looked at what it would cost me in real estate tax, city wage [taxes], and auto insurance, and I watched the price of a house I could afford go down and down and down," says Ms. Farquhar, an education executive. "I realized I could get much more for my money in the suburbs."

It's a realization shared by about 150,000 of her compatriots. During the 1990s, Philadelphia lost 9.4 percent of its population - more than any other county in the United States- many of them to surrounding counties, a Census report released this month found.

While tales of Americans fleeing the cities for the suburbs date back to the 1950s, the loss is striking both for the volume and because it comes at a time when a number of US cities, Philadelphia included, are experiencing a cultural and economic renewal.

"They're much more attractive today as places to live and work than they were even 10 years ago," says Daniel Lichter, director of the Population Research Institute at Penn State University. "I think that trend [of urban revival] is going to accelerate over the next decade.

Change is slow, but steady

But, Professor Lichter adds, the renaissance will "take a long time, because it's taken a long time to reach the state we're in right now."

When Ed Rendell began his term as Philadelphia mayor at the beginning of the decade, the city was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.

Mayor Rendell, who disputes the Census report, began to transform the city, revitalizing the downtown area with a new convention center (which will host the 2000 Republican convention) and an Avenue of the Arts. The Walt Disney Co. is building an entertainment complex, which is scheduled to open early next century.

In addition, a host of new hotels have sprung up, the airport has undergone a renovation, and the mayor has appointed a strong, no-nonsense chief of police. All this has made for a thriving after-dark urban center.

"Philadelphia has become a cultural center," says Susan, an executive in her 40s, who owns property in the city and asked that her last name not be used. "In addition to the cultural richness, the city's undergone a restaurant renaissance, so there's incredible cuisine available."

These improvements - most of which have occurred in the past five years - have gone a long way toward turning around the vital center of the city, but in surrounding neighborhoods, long-standing problems still hold.

Crime, taxes send people out the door

Heading the list of reasons for the exodus, say surburbanites interviewed for the piece, is the city's tax structure. There's a 4.6 percent city wage tax for anyone either living or working in the city (although that's lower than in previous years). In addition, the 7 percent sales tax is higher than in adjacent counties.

Crime is also a major concern. "I keep a gun in my home, because I've been broken into a couple of times, including once when I was in the house," says Susan. "But ... it's hard to get the attention of police. You've gotta be raped or killed before they're going to investigate it."

The loss of people is particularly troubling if Philadelphia wants to continue its reforms.

"If you're concerned about the future of Philadelphia," says Eugene Ericksen, a professor of sociology and statistics at Temple University here, "you should be concerned about these numbers."

For Reynolds Faley, vice president of the Russell Sage Foundation, a research group in New York, employment is the key to population growth. "If employment grows rapidly for a period, there will likely be a shortage of workers and a rise in wages," Mr. Faley says. "This, in turn, will attract migrants to the location."

Philadelphia, Faley says, "seems to lack some of the economic benefits that characterize other large metropolitan areas - the growth of the financial services industry in New York and Chicago..." as well as "the boom in the automobile industry that has raised wages and created something of a labor shortage in metropolitan Detroit."

Sam Katz, a Republican candidate for mayor in Philadelphia's next election, says that attention to the census figures is "absolutely critical. Ten years ago, we had a city that was on the verge of financial collapse. We were bleeding red ink then; now we're bleeding people," Mr. Katz says. "Every time we lose a person, we lose power and then lose the ability to impact change. We lose the people who provide the glue that keeps neighborhoods together."

Saturating the suburbs?

But at some not-too-distant point, the suburbs are going to reach a saturation level and start sending people back to the city.

"In many cases, the growing suburbs are faced with some of the same issues that plagued the cities 30 or 40 years ago," Lichter of Penn State says. "There's some concern among urban planners that what happened in urban America will happen in suburban areas in the next 10 to 20 years."

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