Off the Cuff

I can sense an unspoken question among my staff, most of them far younger than I am: Does Lipson get it? Or am I so stuck on seeing what’s wrong with Philadelphia, and so angry about what’s happened to my city over the last half century, that I can’t see what’s going on now? To me, Philadelphia — as regular readers of this column certainly know — has become a little like a horror movie of the ’50s, where suddenly it not only turns dark at high noon, but life as we enjoyed it is swallowed whole, never to appear again.

Welcome to Philadelphia circa 1975, and ’85, and ’95.

I freely admit that I’ve been in a 30-year funk when it comes to the prospects of this city, and it takes some time to shed that baggage. But something is happening now, and if I can feel how things are changing, there must really be something going on.

In fact, it’s hard to miss. There’s a youth movement in Center City, which is certainly essential to the energized downtown. There are other obvious signs of new life, such as all the condos being built, the continuing restaurant boom, retail beginning to return. This month’s cover story details other factors sparking a revival. Now, before I get carried away, or start getting letters from readers who can’t stomach my turning away from three decades of polishing my curmudgeonly ethos, I’ll make a nod to the obvious: We’ve got a lot of work to do. City Hall is a mess, the taxes are draconian, the schools are a disaster, poverty remains an intractable problem just a few blocks from Center City. (There — I feel better just letting it out.)

But I really do feel differently — even when I list what’s wrong, none of the problems seems completely beyond us. That’s how big a turnaround downtown has made, with some outlying neighborhoods beginning to come back as well. And let’s not forget how bad things were: Fifteen years ago, when I lived on Rittenhouse Square, I would take a cab to dinner on the other side of the Square, because even 18th and Walnut was dangerous at night. Which is why Center City had become a ghost town. I now work in, and freely move about, a different city.

When I walk downtown with my wife at night, there are people out everywhere, most of them young. That connects me to my youth in this city, naturally, but to something else as well: the last great era of Philadelphia a half-century ago, when Richardson Dilworth was mayor. Dilworth, as city history buffs know, was instrumental in what became known as the reform movement, which was a real attempt to clean up city government. (Well, a guy can dream, can’t he?) But I’m not going to sing that song of Things were better back then. Not when what’s happening now is beginning to have a similar feel, a real vitality. A youthful city has a chance of growing even stronger, especially if we believe it’s possible. Cities are a little like the stock market, where the ebb and flow of fortunes depends so crucially on what we think might happen, on how much faith we have, which was Ed Rendell’s best quality as mayor. (Of course, a few corporations deciding to park their headquarters here would give my faith a little boost.)

Whether this new energy, and the differences we all feel, can push us over the hump of solving our long-term problems — no one knows the answer to that. But I feel something about this city that I haven’t for a long, long time. For a curmudgeon like me, it’s a feeling I’m not entirely comfortable with, but here goes: The City of Philadelphia is on the rise.