The Three Guys Who Saved Center City

Twenty years ago, downtown was a desolate hellhole. Enter the Center City District—and the men who turned things around

There are three people who changed my life at work. This has nothing to do with bosses. I work downtown, and have for 20 years. So I’m talking about Paul Levy, Ed Rendell and Neil Stein — the guys who remade Center City.

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I got here at more or less the worst moment, in the summer of 1990, from sunny California. The first night, I stayed with my father-in-law at Society Hill Towers, and the next morning, my Honda down on Locust was missing the driver’s window, which was an accurate hint: Downtown was a mess. There was graffiti and garbage everywhere; roving youths had battered Chestnut Street; office and apartment rents were falling. Philadelphia was headed for bankruptcy. As Levy remembers, “The sense of the city in a downward spiral was palpable.”

Ron Rubin owned the most office property in Center City back then, and he pushed for the creation of the Center City District, funded by property owners — “Clean and Safe” was the early motto. Levy, a community activist, would run it; the CCD opened 20 years ago this month.

Levy was a firebrand from the beginning: Larry Robin, who still owns Robin’s Bookstore on 13th Street, where prostitutes and transvestites once ruled, didn’t call the cops if there was trouble out his window. He called Paul Levy. And simply cleaning up the joint—one positive step forward — was huge.

When Rendell arrived as Mayor in 1992, his headlong message to the world, that everybody should visit this terrific city, required a landing spot that didn’t shut down at 5 p.m. The Mayor started tepidly, declaring that on Wednesday evenings, parking was free, so come on in. And then young restaurateurs began taking a shot: Stephen Starr opened the Continental on 2nd Street in ’95.

Yet Neil Stein was the guy who opened up nightlife downtown. In ’98, he was vacationing on St. Barts when he got word that a state store on Rittenhouse Square was closing — he took the first plane home with an idea. He had already brainstormed the Fish Market and Striped Bass; now he would take a tiny space and put seats out on the sidewalk across from the park, a move as radical for this city as Willard Rouse III busting the City Hall height barrier with Liberty Place. But Stein got Rendell on board to make it happen.

Before Rouge opened, I’d been going to Jimmy’s Milan on 19th, a great old steakhouse, very dark and important. Stein made dining sunny and public. Which, by the way, also helped make downtown safer.

In city transformations, one thing begets another, meaning that the Rendell-inspired Avenue of the Arts, an influx of young people, the 10-year tax abatement that fueled the condo boom, older folks moving downtown — these things, too, spurred the revival. But from where I sit, at 19th and Market, I’ll stick with my three guys: Levy cleaned it up, Rendell invited the world in, and Stein gave me a seat at the table on a summer evening.

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