How Paul Levy Created Center City

Philadelphia’s vibrant downtown is due, in large part, to the vision of one man. So why is Center City District’s Paul Levy still not satisfied?

Photo-illustration by Nicolas Del Pesco.

Photo-illustration by Nicolas Del Pesco.

The smell. what could he do about the smell?

It was 1989, and Ron Rubin, the developer and quintessential Philadelphia power player, was lobbying Tiffany & Co. to open a shop in his newly renovated Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. A lot was riding on the Bellevue’s success—not just for Rubin, but for the whole of Center City. Rubin had snapped up the storied hotel on the cheap in 1978, just two years after the Legionnaire’s disease outbreak killed 34 guests. And he’d spent the past decade pouring cash into the old grande dame of Broad Street, with little to show for it. His company had missed loan payments. Too many rooms were vacant. Doubters said the building could never again make it as a hotel.

But Rubin was all in, to the tune of $100 million. He had converted 55,000 square feet into new retail space. And he wanted Tiffany & Co. as his anchor tenant, as proof that Center City could still attract an elite retailer.

But what to do about the stench?

Center City was awash in garbage: bulging Hefty bags, swirling pretzel wrappers, fetid dumpsters lurking in every alleyway. How could Rubin ferry the Tiffany executives from 30th Street Station to Broad and Walnut without revealing just how filthy Philadelphia had become? Rubin put a call in to Mayor Goode, and a route was arranged. For those few blocks, for a day or two, the mayor promised, the streets would be clean.

The farce worked. Tiffany signed on. More important, the episode convinced Rubin that Center City would have to save itself. If it took an act of mayoral intervention just to clean a few blocks, what hope was there that City Hall could get a handle on downtown’s other burgeoning problems? So in the months that followed, Rubin got on board with a plan that had been kicking around to create a special services district, and he shamed his fellow elites into joining the effort. To manage the organization, which would be funded by mandatory assessments on downtown commercial property, Rubin picked a guy he’d just met—Paul Levy, a candidate with a slightly peculiar résumé. His job: to accomplish what City Hall could not, and make downtown viable once more.

“It was sort of a Potemkin village situation,” Levy says, nearly a quarter-century later, from the Center City District’s offices on Chestnut Street, just west of Independence Hall. Rubin’s ruse was to paper over the “traumatic” reality, Levy says, of “litter everywhere, graffiti everywhere, crime that was out of control, the city in a fiscal crisis.”

Suddenly it was up to Levy—a virtual unknown on the public stage at the time—to soothe Center City’s grievous wounds.

First, Levy made Center City clean. Then he made Center City safe. From there, he remade Center City itself. With apologies to Ed Rendell, no Philadelphian is more responsible than Levy for transforming downtown from the hellhole of the 1980s to the archetype of intimate, walkable urbanity it’s become.

Look around and you’ll see Levy’s fingerprints all over downtown. The Avenue of the Arts. The restaurant culture. The condo boom. Even the streetscape has been remade to Levy’s liking. He’s under your feet, cleaning Center City’s concourses, and above your head, organizing the construction of the Reading Viaduct park. He has helped to unlock the vast potential of the Ben Franklin Parkway. And he has the audacity and clout to literally rebuild the front door to City Hall, with the $55 million reinvention of Dilworth Plaza (set for completion in 2014).

And that’s only half his portfolio. Levy’s Center City District also operates as a full-fledged Philadelphia think tank, publishing meticulously researched analyses that seep into countless policy debates and news articles. His organization is an often-copied template for similar entities around the nation. Levy himself has evolved into downtown’s general-purpose emissary, and probably the most effective advocate the city’s fractured business community has.

Put it all together—his SimCity-esque reshaping of downtown, his provision of basic public services, his command of the bully pulpit—and you see why many consider Levy the unelected, de facto mayor of Center City, or perhaps Philly’s version of Robert Moses, the legendary New York power broker who never held elected office but remade the metropolis in ways most mayors can only dream about.

“Almost everything we do, you can see on the ground,” Levy says. “Our work—it’s right there in front of you, and that’s a great feeling.”

At the same time, he is acutely aware that Center City isn’t all it can or should be. He knows better than most that our downtown still lags behind those in more prosperous cities. And his frustration over this fact is mounting, because his ability to close the gap is most likely diminishing. His priorities now are to change the fundamental city policies—principally the tax structure—that he considers to be the biggest hindrances to the continued growth and revitalization of the entire city.

It would be a mistake to underestimate Levy and his powerful allies in their campaign, but this isn’t a matter of remaking boulevards or designing gracious public spaces. Tax policy is, after all, a political matter. And Levy is, emphatically, not a politician. Winning this fight would arguably be the biggest victory of his career. Losing it? Well, it could mean that we have already seen Paul Levy’s peak.

A Center City District worker

A Center City District worker

I had imagined that Levy, when walking about town, mentally superimposed a series of carefully photoshopped renderings over those patches of the urban landscape not yet up to his standards, with parks and young professionals and happy families and teal-jacketed Center City District officers everywhere.

And perhaps sometimes he does. But on this late-October afternoon, with the wind blowing ginkgo leaves around his feet, Levy seems to see only ghosts.

Levy is a good talker. Actually, he’s an exceptional talker. But he doesn’t easily open up about himself. So I’ve asked him to walk around a familiar stretch of the city with me, hoping it will shake loose some self-reflection. Levy takes me through the greenways of Society Hill, those lovely but little-used passages that were created by the wrecking ball of Ed Bacon—another molder of cities with a complicated legacy (and a complicated relationship with Levy). We pass the block where Levy lives today, in a gracious 1824 rowhome with his wife, Carrie Rickey, the former Inquirer movie critic, and the younger of his two daughters, whom Levy is now assisting in her college search.

He guides me to 4th Street and recalls the trolleys that used to rattle past the centuries-old rowhomes, a scene he found so picturesque when visiting Philadelphia in 1976 that it helped convince him to move to the city. He made the leap with no job and no prospects. “You could do those kind of things back then,” Levy says. The morning of our stroll, he had bicycled through some of the city’s less photogenic sections, beneath the Walt Whitman bridge, and over to the stadiums—one of his usual routes. At 66, Levy is fit and a bit frumpy, prone to wearing scuffed shoes and worn suits, which contributes to a vibe that’s more professorial than professional.

We walk further south, to the 200 block of Queen Street, outside Levy’s first home in Philadelphia. There, he tells me about the Indonesian sailors who used to walk up from the port to buy surplus blue jeans at a nearby warehouse. He points to a property across the street—now a parking lot for adjacent condos—and says it once held stacks of cemetery headstones, and before that, the dead bodies that couldn’t fit in the morgue during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Next door is St. Philip Neri Church, epicenter of the anti-Irish nativist riots of 1844, which killed more than a dozen people. “It happened right here,” he says. I ask Levy: How the hell do you know all this? “Part and parcel of me is looking at a place not only in its contemporary setting, but where did it come from? What did it used to be?” he says.

This preoccupation with the past is perhaps a bit surprising in a figure as famously foresighted as Levy. But the man is a historian by both training and temperament. He attended Lafayette College, then did graduate work at Columbia University, where he studied Albert Camus and Heinrich Heine, the radical 19th-century German poet, empathizing with how both men struggled to balance the life of the mind with an urgent calling to engage in the public sphere. “I felt an absolute sense of responsibility to be engaged,” he says.

Like a lot of people who came of age in the Northeast during the 1960s and 1970s, Levy had witnessed the devolution of big-city America. The speed of the decay both troubled and fascinated him. He was born in Newark, and lived there until his family joined the early wave of suburbanizers in 1955, when his “very authoritarian” dad—an attorney and a former infantry commander—bought a home in Mountainside, New Jersey, with a VA mortgage. Levy saw the impact of the Newark riots while working a maintenance job in nearby Hillside the summer of ’67, and witnessed New York’s descent in the 1970s firsthand while at Columbia and teaching at a pair of rough public schools. “I grew up watching cities go down,” he says.

For a time, the urban degradation proved too much for Levy. He must have mentioned how filthy the subway windows were to me three times in different conversations. In 1972, he bolted for an idyllic hamlet in the Catskills and idled away four years working on his dissertation and running a house-painting business. Eventually, though, Levy felt the city calling him back.

He tells me that as a kid, he used to study old photographs of places he knew, like Newark or New York in the 1800s. “In a weird way, I found it kind of liberating,” he says. He would look at the photos and think: What is today, wasn’t always. It only follows, Levy figured, that “what is today doesn’t always have to be.” Long before the millennials, the bike lanes and the brewpubs, Levy felt in his bones that cities could change not just for the worse, but for the better.

A rendering of the new Dilworth Plaza

A rendering of the new Dilworth Plaza

It was 1991 when Levy and the Center City District began proving that point to a dubious Philadelphia public. Back then, few people had heard of such a thing as a business improvement district. The concept had been tried on a small scale in New York, Toronto and some other cities, but the notion of creating an unelected quasi-governmental entity with what amounted to taxing power wasn’t an easy sell to anyone.

But Center City was getting desperate. The suburban malls were paradise compared to Walnut Street in the 1980s—not just for shoppers, but for retailers as well. They were safe. They were clean. And they were run by a single management agency. Center City’s shopping district, meanwhile, was balkanized amongst dozens of property owners, while the public spaces were the responsibility of a confusing array of often inept and perpetually underfunded city departments and agencies. “People were afraid they were really going to lose the downtown, à la Detroit,” Levy says. “One of my mantras is, ‘Philadelphia will continue with business as usual unless we are terrified of something awful.’ And we had the fear then.”

By that time, Levy had acquired an unusual array of skills that prepared him remarkably well for the unusual job of running a quasi-public operation like the CCD. Upon first arriving in Philadelphia, he worked as an activist with Ed Schwartz, a progressive lion and community organizer. From there Levy went into city government with Mayor Green’s administration, working in the Office of Housing and Community Development. His first year in, President Reagan took office, and the department’s budget was whacked 13 percent, giving Levy an early lesson in the limitations of government. For a fleeting moment, he was named head of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, back when it only ran parking garages and had no enforcement function. From there, he bounced to the University of Pennsylvania, assisting in the redevelopment of Walnut Street, and then to the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation, an old nonprofit research and planning outfit that served as the incubator for the Center City District.

Levy knew he couldn’t create jobs or reverse deindustrialization. He wasn’t going to open a restaurant or lower the tax rates. But he could dress the city up a bit, make part of it clean, make people feel a bit more welcome and a bit more safe. “I developed this very simple-headed theory back then that all this stuff about Philadelphia’s inferiority complex didn’t have anything to do with Quakers,” he says. “It was about the squalor. If you walk outside every day and everything is filthy, you internalize it: Nobody cares about this place, it’s worthless, it’s in decline.”

On March 21, 1991, Levy unleashed upon Center City a 100-strong teal-clad army of street cleaners and “community service representatives.” The effect was instant, and profound. Almost overnight, Center City’s sidewalks were scrubbed into something resembling cleanliness. Within weeks, most remaining opposition to the district melted away. Within months, the initiative was a national story, generating coverage in Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, even Paris.

And everybody knew exactly who was responsible: those guys in the teal jackets and their boss, Paul Levy. “When I’m speaking to districts in other cities, I always say: 50 percent of it is doing the job, the other 50 percent is being seen doing the job,” Levy says.

Twenty-three years on, the district’s mopping and walkie-talkie work seem dull compared to the grand projects it’s tackled, such as Sister Cities Park in Logan Square or the Dilworth Plaza overhaul. Philadelphians today take it for granted that Center City is (mostly) clean and (mostly) safe. But these basics are, even now, the foundation of Levy’s influence. There are a lot of experts out there with ideas for remaking public spaces or tweaking tax policy. Levy gets listened to partly because he’s got good ideas, but mostly because he’s seen as a guy who gets things done.

What makes Levy and his Center City District so capable? Ask around, and you hear that he’s an able manager, with a relentlessness and impatience that are rare in Philadelphia’s go-slow public life. You hear that he’s a shrewd political animal, adept at sharing credit while simultaneously ensuring that the Center City District gets its due. Others will tell you he’s effective largely because he lacks the parochialism of so many Philadelphia leaders. He travels constantly, and benchmarks Center City against dynamic downtowns around the world. Just as critically, with nearly three decades on the job, Levy brings continuity and a prodigious institutional memory to the tables where decisions are made.

All of that seems true and important, but incomplete.

Any accounting of Levy’s abilities has to include his mastery of PowerPoint—and yes, I realize just how ridiculous that sounds. PowerPoint is a punch line, a piece of bloated code sucking the life out of corporate America and putting audiences everywhere to sleep. But not when Levy has the clicker.

Each of his briefings resembles a mini TED talk, weaving together research, macro-trends, local history, anecdote, and an infectious pitch for whatever Center City District’s cause is that week. One September morning last year, I attended one of Levy’s periodic press briefings, this one on the jobs landscape in Philadelphia. It was riveting.

That night, I transcribed the hour-long session—all 9,101 words of it—not for any particular story or deadline, but just to keep it on file as a masterful analysis of the economic opportunities and challenges facing the city. My reaction isn’t all that unusual.

For a select but highly influential audience, Levy has become Philadelphia’s master narrator, telling the city’s big-picture stories—economics, history, growth, place—in a way that inspires, frightens and, above all, motivates. “This isn’t a formal proposal,” he tells me one day in the CCD’s conference room, loading up the latest slides, which are gauzy renderings of the concrete dead zones that surround Dilworth Plaza. “I have no money to pay for this, mind you, I’m just advancing a set of ideas.”

And it works. When Levy weaves his tale about Philadelphia’s promise and pitfalls and segues into his pitch on how this project or that project can advance the ball, pocketbooks open, bureaucratic barriers fall away, and journalists like myself aid and abet his cause. He’s that good.

What Levy doesn’t do nearly as well is put the clicker down from time to time and listen to what other people have to say. He has little patience for the public at large, and he doesn’t hide frustration well. Put him on a panel and he’ll roll his eyes at what he deems to be a stupid question. “He is of the Robert Moses school—top-down, get it done, and he’s very good at that. But he has left some bodies along the way,” says Harris Steinberg, executive director of PennPraxis, the applied-research arm of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. (Full disclosure: I also write for PlanPhilly, which is affiliated with PennPraxis.)

The Praxis approach to urban design is almost diametrically opposed to Levy’s. Praxis considers process paramount, and contends that community engagement is essential to create “a constituency for change.” The best example of this is the Praxis-led, community-forged plan for the Delaware waterfront, widely hailed as a fantastic template but one that so far hasn’t yielded a lot of actual work on the ground. “PennPraxis has no mission in actually getting things done,” says Levy. “They are fulfilling their core mission, which is civic engagement, participation, and I have enormous respect for that. I’m in a somewhat different business. I’m in the business of getting things done.”

Consider the Reading Viaduct on the northern edge of Center City. Forward-thinking activists have spent a decade advocating for a park atop the abandoned elevated rail line. In 2004, PennPraxis hosted a design competition to generate ideas and interest in the park. But the project went nowhere—until Paul Levy saw High Line Park in New York, and wanted to build something similar for Philadelphia. “Advocacy is one thing. Getting the nuts and bolts together is a different thing. Paul, he knew exactly where the levers were,” says John Struble, a founding member of the Reading Viaduct Project.

Only one lever didn’t work quite as expected. Since most of the viaduct lies outside the Center City District’s boundaries, Levy proposed a new neighborhood improvement district, to raise funds and manage the park. But the residents rebelled. Levy—who has never been trusted in Chinatown, given his support for a downtown ballpark in the early 2000s—hadn’t created a constituency for change. The NID was voted down.

Levy didn’t walk away. He had started to think of the viaduct not just as a potential park, but as a blighting tourniquet cutting off Center City’s northern growth. “You look at a map, and Center City is racing south, up the Parkway, off to Northern Liberties, but there’s this huge hole in the doughnut,” he says. “You’ve got these great old empty buildings—if they were in Old City, they would have been lofts and condos 20 years ago.”

After the NID was defeated, retiring City Councilman Frank DiCicco threw some money at the project, while Levy began shaking loose cash from foundations and other donors. He needs to raise $8.5 million by July 1st in order to get construction started next year, NID or no NID.

The charge of elitism, of bulldozing public opinion, is a recurring one for Levy. Business improvement districts like his are often attacked for deepening the divide between urban haves and have-nots. Those neighborhoods with the means to pay a bit extra to get sidewalk cleaning, lighting, lovely parks and constant programming. Those that can’t afford it get only the ever-diminishing services provided by City Hall.

Levy has no patience for this line of criticism. “So if all the houses on the block look like crap, should I not paint my house and fix it up?” he asks. That’s more than a little flip, but there’s no doubt Center City’s growth and prosperity work to the benefit of the entire city, juicing the tax base and creating a more inviting environment for employers.

In Levy’s mind, Center City shouldn’t be compared with Roxborough or Mayfair, but with downtown Boston, Manhattan and D.C. And by those yardsticks—and others—Philadelphia is still well behind.

One way to understand much of Levy’s work over the past 10 years—and his plans for the future—is to think of it as an ongoing correction of Edmund Bacon’s mistakes. For all that the titanic architect and urban planner accomplished, time has pretty clearly proven that many of his works were badly misguided, tearing huge holes in the fabric of Philadelphia’s core.

Levy was schooled in Bacon’s immense impact almost immediately after he arrived in Philadelphia. One of Levy’s projects in those days was an oral history of Queen Village, whose residents were reeling from the Bacon-backed construction of Interstate 95 along the waterfront. “He was godlike,” the residents told Levy. “He patted us on the head as if to say, ‘Yes, my children’—then sent us on our way, and proceeded with the demolition.”

Necessary as it may have been at the time, Bacon’s urban clear-cutting created some of the most stubborn and barren sections of modern Philadelphia, from the waterfront, to Market East, to the lower Ben Franklin Parkway, to Penn Center and the bleak plazas of the municipal complex.

Levy cycles through a few images of these sites—another PowerPoint session, another day—and tells me, “The more density, the more walkability, the more energy, then the more opportunity, the more jobs; that’s my starting point for what a successful city is.” This isn’t revolutionary thinking by any stretch. But Levy’s point is that Philadelphia, with its narrow streets, a commercial downtown crushed up against dense residential neighborhoods, and phenomenal transit infrastructure, is perfectly positioned to thrive in the years to come: “What made us obsolete in the ’60s and ’70s is a huge competitive strength today.”

Another slide: a photo of inhospitable Penn Center Plaza, the Bacon creation between JFK Boulevard and Market. “So if walkability and density is our core strength, then these gaps in the fabric are the problem.”

Fixing those spaces, Levy says, “has been the frame for everything we’ve done for the last 10 years.” The strategy has many prongs. Events and programming lure people to otherwise dead urban spaces. Research and marketing—geared not so much to the public, but to prospective tenants—tout the business opportunities that await retailers brave enough to invest in places like the Market East corridor. Most ambitious is the physical mending of those holes in the urban fabric: the very nearly perfect Sister Cities Park, a softened Dilworth Plaza, the viaduct and more.

Most of this unfolded after Bacon retired. But Bacon seemed to recognize in Levy a threat to his vision for Philadelphia. In 1999, Levy and the Center City District took their first ambitious stab at city planning, calling for the extensive urbanization of the Parkway, with apartment towers, restaurants and dramatically narrowed roadways. Bacon publicly savaged the plan, a moment that Levy recalled six years later, in an op-ed mourning the great planner’s death. “Bacon dared to dream big about cities when cities were in decline,” Levy wrote. “We can quarrel with design details, not with the breadth and success of his vision.”

This was a gracious acknowledgement, and an accurate one. Levy’s work has come at a time when the viability of cities like Philadelphia is growing, not waning. Dreaming big about Philadelphia hasn’t been quite as big a dare for Levy as it was for Bacon.

There is a black-and-white still, shot by some anonymous photographer in February of 1948, that shows up in Levy’s PowerPoints over and over again. The photo depicts Market Street as you look west toward City Hall. Its sidewalks are utterly jammed with pedestrians in heavy overcoats and fedoras. There’s a street clock in the shot; its hands point to 2:20 p.m. This, on Market East on a random February afternoon.

The photo is a touchstone for Levy, a reminder that as far as Center City has come, it’s capable of much, much more. That’s easy to overlook on a lot of blocks on a lot of days in Center City. But look around even a little, and it soon becomes obvious that Center City still badly needs Levy’s care and affection—or, perhaps, something a bit stronger. As Levy says, “My simple way of putting it is that clean and safe is absolutely essential, but it’s not sufficient.”

In Levy’s mind, the Center City District’s evolution has been a natural, almost inevitable progression driven by that premise. First you lay the foundation, clean and safe. Then you market it. Then you make modest improvements to the streetscape: lights, planters, signage and so on. Then you dabble in some small-scale development work, like the cafe on the southeastern tip of the Parkway. Then the projects get bigger: Aviator Park in Logan Square, Dilworth Plaza, the viaduct.

All that helps—a lot. But it doesn’t solve the core problems: a tax structure that makes job growth difficult, a school system that drives middle- and upper-middle-class parents to the ’burbs, a transit infrastructure that’s being starved of funding. “There are clear limits to what an organization like ours can do with its own resources and its own energy,” Levy says.

Except that he doesn’t appear to accept those limits, particularly when it comes to tax policy. A school of powerful business interests, academics and hard-to-classify activists such as Levy has become completely convinced over the years that Philadelphia’s recovery is hobbled and perhaps capped by the city’s tax structure. The problem, they argue, isn’t so much that taxes are too high (though that’s true), but rather that the city is heavily taxing the wrong things, namely business and wages. That spooks employers, which in turn leaves Philadelphia bereft of jobs, which hurts both downtown interests and the tax base.

They make a compelling argument. But their solution—to shift much of the tax burden off businesses and wage earners and onto property owners in the form of higher real estate taxes—is politically toxic. Levy has been singing loudly from this hymnal for years, and persuasive as he is, he’s found few if any converts in City Council. “I consider Paul Levy a friend. You could arguably say he’s one of the most powerful unelected officials in the City of Philadelphia,” says City Council president Darrell L. Clarke, who could well be the next mayor. But when I run Levy’s tax advocacy past him, Clarke says, “This is America, he can take a position, but when you happen to represent the most affluent section of town like he does, I don’t think his opinion is maybe as balanced as it should be.”

Levy doesn’t wade into political fights readily. He has scrupulously avoided ever donating a dime to any local political candidate. He never endorses one candidate over another, and he largely refrains—though with great difficulty—from critiquing public figures. But on the matter of taxes, Levy’s usual restraint is altogether missing. He goes after the issue with the fervor of a man accustomed to success whose progress is being hindered by policy outside his control. I ask him: What would Center City look like with the tax structure he advocates? “Fifty thousand to 100,000 new jobs. Instead of residential conversions, we’d have office buildings. Instead of vacant lots, we’d have new residential towers. Those Basciano blocks on Market would be built out. We’d have office tenants on the east side of town. Higher-paying jobs. A better tax base.”

In all the ways that matter—swaying the public, creating meaningful political pressure—these arguments have so far utterly failed. Which is worth remembering the next time you hear someone say that Levy should run for mayor.

He would almost surely lose. Badly. And he seems to realize this. Unlike the mayor, Levy presides over a small swath of the city that just happens to feature huge concentrations of the highest-value real estate in Philadelphia. Which means he has considerable resources to work with—$20 million in 2013—and limited ground to cover. “My job is much simpler than the mayor’s,” he says. “I don’t have to allocate insufficient resources against competing needs. I care about crime, but I don’t pay for incarceration. I care about education, but I don’t have to pay for the schools. If you asked us to solve all these problems, we would be looking pretty bad, right?”

Levy isn’t being mentioned all that prominently for the looming 2015 race—at least, not as a mayoral candidate. Allan Domb, the realtor, has been suggesting that Levy would make an ideal managing director—the operational chief of city government—particularly if Ed Rendell opts to run for a third term as mayor.

If Rendell were to run, hypothetically, he would be on board with Levy as a number two. “He’s a very creative guy, and he’s relentless; he doesn’t take no for an answer,” Rendell says. But he doubts Levy would take a city job, if only because of the pay cut. Levy makes $356,000 a year. “I’m not sure government can afford him,” Rendell says.

And government might not be the best choice for someone of Levy’s abilities and temperament. He is too used to being in command, too accustomed to reasonable resources, and too business-oriented to transition easily back to City Hall.

What Levy does best is synthesize. Over the past 28 years, he and the Center City District have attained a remarkable understanding of what it takes to craft a successful city, a brew of security and liveliness and place and economics and a million other factors.

It’s a renaissance approach to city- building that is altogether rare. High-level government bureaucrats and urban academics have enormous expertise, but in a very narrow band. Business leaders can’t see past their own self-interest; politicians focus on their base constituencies and the next election; activists zoom in on whatever urban failings outrage them most.

But Levy has dabbled in all these worlds, and his daily running of the Center City District has been a decades-long study in the urban liberal arts, via a quasi-governmental organization that answers to big business and operates like an entrepreneurial nonprofit.

On top of this, Levy layers the perspective of a historian and an avid student of urban innovation.

At our first interview, when I asked him about the early days of the CCD, he answered with a 2,400-word soliloquy that touched on the myriad iterations of local government from Beijing to Houston, the deterioration of civic business leadership that followed the rise of multinational corporations, Margaret Thatcher, the state of play in City Hall in 1990, and a dozen highly specific demographic statistics.

Curious and maybe a little skeptical about his breezy confidence, I spent two hours fact-checking those statistics, to little avail. Levy was correct—or correct enough—in all his facts, one of which was just how utterly suburbs dominate the cities in the population race, a state of affairs that dates back decades. According to the most recent data, the suburbs still rule, but their edge is eroding. In Philadelphia, for the past decade, migration to the city has sped up, while the exodus to the ’burbs has slowed down. That’s happening for a lot of reasons—changing tastes, energy costs, safer city streets and a million other factors, one of which is Paul Levy.

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