National Geographic Traveler
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in October 2005
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Next Great City: Philly, Really

Striding down Market Street, we pass the old Wanamaker's department store, now a Lord & Taylor's, where shoppers of the mid-20th century might have bought the Stetson hats, Philco TVs, and Flexible Flyer sleds made in local factories. Philly was called the "Workshop of the World," Farley says. But by the 1970s, the world had lost interest in products built here. One by one, many of Philly's factories closed. Neighborhoods collapsed. The city's population, which peaked in 1950 at 2.1 million, dropped to 1.4 million by 2003.

But, Farley explains as we traverse Washington Square, Philadelphia had a saving grace. "The grid laid out by founder William Penn in 1682, two miles long and one mile wide, is still here, making Center City the most walkable district of America's big cities. Everything you'd want is within a short distance." That convenience is drawing many businesses—particularly retailers—back. 

Another gift from the past, Farley goes on, is Philadelphia's humongous stock of stately old buildings, mostly from the 19th century. To illustrate the point, he leads me into a popular clothing boutique occupying the former Van Rensselaer mansion, built in 1898 by a wealthy family. I wonder how they would react to having lingerie for sale in their living room.

"Recycling buildings is called adaptive reuse," Farley says, "and in Philadelphia there's a huge amount of it to reuse, not just gorgeous Victorian neighborhoods on tree-lined streets but also factories, breweries, old banks—these can be turned into all sorts of things."

The structures' quirks are part of their charm. Tony Goldman, who's redeveloping a Broad Street neighborhood he calls B3, tells me later: "Grit is good. Fabulous, funky, ugly, or crazy—grit provides color and makes life exciting."

I'M HANGING WITH CHEF Martin Hamann of the Four Seasons Fountain restaurant. We're strolling Reading Terminal Market—open since 1892 and housed beneath the terminus of a railroad made famous by the Monopoly game. The market, which wilted like week-old lettuce back in the 1970s, has made a remarkable rebound. The train shed above has morphed into the grand hall of Philadelphia's enormous convention center. The market below is now a gourmet free-for-all filled with hubbubbing shoppers and stalls bulging with everything from caviar to Amish donuts. "Now, great food is available here on a daily basis again," Hamann says.

"Move it, big guy," a vendor wheeling crates of oranges yells at me good-naturedly. I jump back. The bustle around here is exhilarating.

So is Center City's delightful variety of dinner restaurants, whose numbers have more than tripled since 1992, to 201, many of them occupying recycled buildings. Restaurateur Stephen Starr's 12 Philly eateries, for example, with names like Striped Bass, Tangerine, and Buddakan, inhabit such structures as a former ad agency and a bank.

Lifelong residents can't believe their luck. "When I grew up, there were three kinds of restaurants in Philadelphia—steak, steak, and fish," gallery owner Rick Snyderman told me earlier. "Now the city's wide open when it comes to food."

When chef Hamann and I return from the market, he serves me his reinvention of the Philly cheesesteak. He's reimagined the local icon as a spring roll, with the standard chopped steak and American cheese wrapped like a Chinese treat instead of stuffed into a sandwich. As Philadelphians know, you eat your cheesesteaks—even this newfangled variety—leaning over, so nothing falls onto your shoes. It isn't decorous. But it is delicious. I have two.

The renaissance of Philadelphia restaurants goes hand in hand with the revitalization of its neighborhoods, John Mariani tells me later. "Restaurants throw light on streets," says the Esquire food critic and co-author of the Italian-American Cookbook. "Sometimes a single restaurant can revitalize a whole section."  Enterprising restaurateurs like Susanna Foo and her Walnut Street eatery, Georges Perrier and his Le Bec-Fin and, of course, Stephen Starr, are bringing the City Center—and Philly cuisine—back to eminence. "It's back, big time," Mariani says. 

ON THE FIRST FRIDAY of every month, the art galleries of the Old City—a dense cluster of 19th-century buildings near the Delaware River—throw open their doors to all comers. This has created an effervescent social scene, helping to jumpstart the revival of the Old City. Now, arguably, it's the liveliest urban neighborhood between SoHo in New York and SoBe in Miami. The area, with its 84 colleges, has more students—some 290,000—than Boston, making Philadelphia a bona fide playground for the young.

My guide tonight is Brandon Joyce, the 27-year-old self-described "mayor" of the South Philadelphia Athenaeum, a group of 30 twentysomethings working and playing in a 13,000-square-foot warehouse. "We're the real 'Real World,''' he says of the group thriving on Philadelphia's cheap digs and creative juices.

We join the streams of gallery-hoppers on the sidewalks. Unlike New York's, the Philly art scene is less air-kiss glamour and more come-as-you-are open house. Kids piggyback on fathers' backs, grandmothers converse with tattooed sculptors, and the galleries' old floorboards groan beneath the crush of people.

Joyce is eager to find a concert he's heard about, and we head into nearby Chinatown to find it. As we wander the back streets, where posters advertise $12 bus rides to Manhattan, Joyce talks about Philly's allure.

 "I love the excitement in the air here—and the smell," says the philosophy grad. "There's a palpable smell from peoples' collective moods."

I'll grant him that, though I smell only egg rolls and beer. Then, suddenly, we're at the concert—and within eyeshot of City Hall, bathed in white light. Atop its crown is William Penn, all 27 bronze tons of him, peering out above the knot of young people. We enter and climb four flights to the performance space. The warm-up act is local painter Shawn Thornton and his homemade electric zither bass. Thornton is a proponent of Noise, a new rock genre that sounds like plain racket to me, though my Gen-X host can't get enough. I escape into an adjoining gallery and glance out the window once more at Philadelphia's founding father. From this angle, Penn looks bemused, like a host whose party didn't quite turn out as planned but is fun nonetheless.

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