For too long, Philadelphia was a city besotted with its past, disinterested in its future, and stagnating in the present. Innovation was for other cities. San Francisco would corner technology. New York would figure out how to cut crime and scrub blight. Chicago would take the lead on gentrification and redevelopment. Philadelphia? We had Rocky. And Tastykake. And the memory of relevance.
But that’s changed. Somewhere in Philadelphia’s long escape from the urban Dark Ages of the ’70s and ’80s, the city began to craft a character that was a bit more in step with the times. We saw the emergence of higher education and medicine as the indisputable new economic anchors. Center City was recognized for the ideally sized and eminently walkable gem of a downtown it is.
Now, at last, there’s an unmistakable momentum to the city’s reinvention, an almost palpable dynamism that you used to have to travel to New York or Boston or Washington, D.C., to feel.
Finally, Philadelphia is doing what cities are supposed to do: evolving. But into what?
That question will be answered in large part by the new Philadelphians: that big and growing class of immigrants, students and young professionals, the ones filling Center City to capacity and spilling out into the neighborhoods beyond. Just as consequential is the continued flight of Philadelphia’s working class, not just from the white ethnic rowhome neighborhoods that have been emptying out for decades, but from once-stable black communities as well. This population churn—a massive exchange of very different classes of people—is already having profound effects on the city.
A new appreciation for the critical role of public space is taking hold. Universities are exerting an ever larger sway. And the influence of the new Philadelphians can be felt everywhere. They are ditching cars, clamoring for school reform, and launching the start-ups that could one day reshape our economy. And that’s to name just a few of the innovations that are changing the character of a very old city, and will very likely continue to do so in years to come.
There are downsides, of course. Income inequality is on the rise, and so are gentrification tensions. The trends that are working so well for Center City are having far more limited effects in poorer neighborhoods. And there’s a sense that Philadelphians are losing their common history; they seem not to understand one another quite as well as in the past.
We can lament what’s been lost, but this is what urban progress tends to look like in America. Better to face it than to continue stewing in Philadelphia’s special blend of cultural stasis and economic decay. So. Let’s talk about what’s next: