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Next Great City: Philly, Really
Text by Andrew Nelson    Photograph by Raymond Patrick
Next Great City: Philly, Really
Geno's Steaks on Ninth Street sells cheesesteaks, Philly's guiltiest pleasure.

After decades of relative obscurity, Philadelphia, a classic American city, is ready to step back into the national limelight.


You don't usually don white tie and tails for a birthday party, but then, how often do you celebrate the birthday of a hotel? Yet, here we are—me, Walter Cronkite, and 1,854 other guests assembled to help blow out the candles for the hundredth anniversary of the opening of Philadelphia's Park Hyatt at the Bellevue, "the grand dame of Broad Street."  As the crush in the lobby grows, I seek refuge from Philadelphia's elite on a spiral, marble staircase from which I can survey the scene.  F. Scott Fitzgerald got it wrong, I think. There are second acts in American life—for hotels, certainly, and, yes, for entire cities.

When the (then) Bellevue-Stratford debuted in 1904, the elegant, 1,170-room French-Renaissance wedding cake embodied Philadelphia's status as one of America's premier metropolises. But as the decades passed, the Bellevue, and Philadelphia itself, lost their sheen. In 1976, Legionnaires' disease killed 29 of the Bellevue's guests, and the hotel closed for over a decade. That same year, Sylvester Stallone's Rocky brought worldwide exposure to the City of Brotherly Love—but as a synonym for gritty urban decay. Indeed, residents were fleeing the city's core just as more vibrant urban areas were coming into their own.

My theory is that, like dogs, each city has its day. In the 1960s, people flocked to San Francisco; in the '70s, Dallas and Houston got hot; during the '80s, it was Miami, full of vice and sockless loafers; in the '90s, grungy Seattle became Nirvana. Now, in the new century, the Bellevue is back, and it's Philly's turn for the limelight.

"I've long thought of Philadelphia as the Next Great American City," says Tony Goldman, a real-estate developer who invests in nascent urban neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan, Miami Beach, and, more recently, here in Philly. "But it's just now being recognized and celebrated for it."

Moreover, says urban planner Richard Florida, who wrote The Rise of the Creative Class, Philadelphia is showing itself to be an "open city," a term that separates America's urban dynamos like San Francisco and Miami from struggling cities like Cleveland and St. Louis. "Open cities welcome people—singles, gays, artists and individuals," he says. "They have excitement and a sense of creative energy."

For years, I've been hearing great things about this city of 1.4 million on the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. Newspaper articles speak of innovative development projects. Friends return from visits amazed that the nightlife is actually lively. "It's no longer D.C. on a bad hair day," as one jokes.

Philadelphia, I discover, comprises 152 distinct neighborhoods, ranging from working-class South Philly to yuppified Manayunk to ivied University City to up-and-coming Northern Liberties and Fishtown. But it is the Center City, the heart of downtown, that's energizing the rebirth. Trendy restaurants and condominiums abound. A soon-to-be-completed Cesar Pelli skyscraper, the Cira Centre, just across the Schuylkill River, forms a daring twist in the cityscape. The striking Kimmel Center, with its digital-age design, is the new home of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Philly, the only U.S. venue chosen for Live 8, last summer's multinational rock concert, is clearly on a roll. The city's official promoters have been aggressively marketing it to everyone from Canadians to gays to MTV execs. There's more to Philly, you'll hear, than Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Like public art? Philly has some 2,400 murals. Razzle-dazzle? At the National Constitution Center museum, the nation's most hallowed document is celebrated with Vegas-style glitz. Street parties? Odunde, an annual Nigerian-inspired summer festival, attracts over 300,000 revelers. Enough visitors heed Philly's call that Southwest and Frontier airlines started service here last year, and the cruise terminal on the Delaware now offers 32 annual sailings.

A few months after the Bellevue bash, I step into the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to see an 1822 self-portrait by Charles Willson Peale. The artist depicts himself raising a curtain, beckoning visitors into his Philadelphia museum. Inspired, I've enlisted modern Philadelphians to lift the curtain on their city for me.


I MEET KYLE FARLEY IN A coffee shop, appropriately enough, in the Bellevue's lobby. He looks more urban hipster than history scholar. Farley runs Poor Richard's Walking Tours, devoted to bringing Philly's past to life. I'm game. 

  

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