8 Trends That Prove Philly Is Changing for the Better

New people. New attitudes. New ideas. New neighborhoods. Philly is transforming faster than it has in half a century. And thanks to these trends, it’s only just begun.

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:

>> The Manifest Destiny of Eds & Meds

1. The Manifest Destiny of Eds & Meds

“What is Philadelphia’s distinct advantage?” asks University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann. It’s a rhet­orical question, because the answer is obvious: Philly’s advantage is Penn.

Well, not just Penn. There’s also Drexel, CHOP, Temple, St. Joe’s, Jefferson … the list goes on. Philadelphia’s universities and hospitals are the city’s greatest economic asset, and one of its few real competitive advantages. In 2010, Penn and its health system generated 57,200 jobs, and that’s just within the city limits. The university estimates that its total economic impact on Philadelphia was $9.5 billion in 2010 alone. And that figure is 45 percent higher than just five years earlier.

The benevolent behemoth’s dominion over the city’s geography is growing just as quickly. By now, Penn’s transformative effect on West Philadelphia is old news. But the university is still in the early stages of the eastward expansion that began with verdant 24-acre Penn Park, which opened in 2011 and literally revealed an entirely new, and spectacular, view of Center City’s skyline.

A bit south of Penn’s campus core, the university’s medical system and CHOP are putting the finishing touches on a mini-skyline all their own. Now just about out of room, both institutions are crossing the river, snapping up underdeveloped parcels on the western fringe of Center City. Over the next 15 to 20 years, CHOP will convert a few blocks known as the Devil’s Pocket into a full-fledged research campus. Penn likewise plans a technology center on the site of the old DuPont lab on Grays Ferry Avenue.

Across the river and a bit further north, there’s Drexel, which under new university president John Fry has released a master plan with clutches of towers so tall and dense they look like something out of Sim City. The odds against it all getting built are astronomical, but Drexel is clearly expanding in big ways, acquiring large parcels on the bleak blocks of Market Street west of 30th Street Station.

All of it is designed to knit West Philadelphia into the fabric of downtown, putting back together two halves of a city cleaved not by the river (does the Seine hack up Paris?), but rather by a four-lane highway and a massive rail corridor.

Even more dramatic is Temple’s rebuilding of central North Philadelphia, including a $216 million, 27-story student housing project. That massive building is university-managed, as are plenty of others, but much of the rebuilding around Temple has been driven by private developers who have rushed to create housing for students who actually want to live in the neighborhoods where they study. As long as that’s the case, universities will continue their terraforming of Philadelphia. “The city already is a draw for students,” says Gutmann. “But we can make it a better draw.”

>> Sao Paulo on the Schuylkill

2. Sao Paulo on the Schuylkill

In 1960, 30 percent of working Philadelphians had jobs in manufacturing. By 2010, that number had dwindled to five percent. Today, more than three times as many Philadelphians work in education and medicine as in manufacturing. But Philadelphia still likes to think of itself as the quintessential lunch-pail metropolis, a haven for the working class in a way that New York and Washington, D.C., never were.

That’s a fantasy.

Of the 25 most populous counties in the nation, Philadelphia—a supposed union stronghold and the rowhome capital of Am­erica—remarkably now ranks fourth in income inequality, behind only Manhattan, Miami and Brooklyn. Joe Sixpack might come to the city to catch a Phillies game, but he doesn’t live here anymore.

In January, in his inaugural address, Mayor Nutter warned of the risk of a Philadelphia “divided into the rich and the poor, the affluent and the oppressed, the educated and the enslaved. We are not two cities. We must not become two cities.”

Too late, Mr. Mayor. Philadelphia is already largely split in two, and the halves are moving in dramatically different directions. There is the increasingly prosperous and predominantly white Center City (and its satellites, like University City), where the population is growing and the economy is relatively robust. And then there are miles upon miles of badly struggling minority neighborhoods—battered by the exodus of about 15,000 middle-class African-American households in the past decade or so—where jobs are increasingly scarce, educational achievement is low, and dependence on government services is intense.

This is a combustible combination, as we saw with last year’s flash mobs—and all the more so now that Center City’s relentless expansion is reaching long-established minority neighborhoods, stoking gentrification battles in Point Breeze, North Philadelphia, even Mantua. Buckle up.

>> DIY Government

3. DIY Government

Ostentatious, imposing, and at the center of everything: City Hall—the building itself—is the perfect symbol of the all-powerful role municipal government has played in this town.

Scrubbed clean on the outside, its edifice is as grand as ever. Dilworth Plaza, at City Hall’s western edge, is undergoing a $50 million conversion from an inhospitable sunken concrete pit into an open, green public square, with groves of trees, a cafe and, in winter months, an ice-skating rink. It’s as high-profile as a public-works project gets in this town. But here’s the twist: City Hall actually has had very little to do with Dilworth’s makeover.

The entire project is the brainchild of Paul Levy and the Center City District, the mighty organization that provides an array of public services that City Hall seemingly can’t afford or execute on its own: streetlight installation, sidewalk cleaning and pedestrian signage, the sprucing of the Parkway, and so on. Levy—whom many consider the de facto mayor of Center City—has blazed a trail that organizations across Philadelphia are now following, in effect taking custody of public space as City Hall retrenches. “If you want something done, the city is often now telling us we’ve got to step up and do it ourselves,” says Andrew Dalzell, programs coordinator for the South of South Neighborhood Association (SOSNA).

In sections of the city with the right resources—a­ffluence, say, or an unusually competent community group—this emerging arrangement is proving empowering. Dalzell’s neighborhood—Southwest Center City, where property values have risen a staggering 500-plus percent over the past 12 years—is an example. When word got out that the city was planning on selling a bedraggled lot at 22nd and Catharine to a developer, residents rallied to stop the transaction, deciding they wanted the lot to be public space. SOSNA ponied up $15,000, PECO gave a grant, and neighbors raised nearly $25,000 amongst themselves. This fall, Catharine Park opened, with the city’s blessing, if not its financial support.

For communities with the capacity to manage these sorts of projects, City Hall’s decline as Philadelphia’s dominant power is no tragedy. But what about the sections of the city with fewer landscape architects and fewer residents who can write $200 checks? The answer is simple: Those communities fall even further behind.

>> Fragmented Media

4. Fragmented Media

For the informed of a decade ago, keeping tabs on Philadelphia’s media was eminently doable. There were the dailies, TV news, this magazine, the alt-weeklies and WHYY. And that was about all that really mattered.

Staying truly current with the output of today’s local media might be a physical impossibility. The last survey that tried even to count the outlets found 260 Philadelphia-focused blogs and online niche publications, including about 60 with “some journalistic DNA.” And that was back in 2010, or roughly an eternity ago in Internet time. It’s a state of affairs that makes journalism traditionalists weep, and the new guard exult. But will it actually change how Philadelphia works? Almost assuredly.

For starters, fragmented media leads to atomized audiences. Readers who care passionately about the schools can rely on the online Philadelphia Public School Notebook for comprehensive K-12 coverage. Political junkies get their fix from the Daily News’s PhillyClout blog. Urbanists turn to PlanPhilly or Next American City. The foodies are on Foobooz; the crime obsessives are constantly hitting reload on PhillyRapSheet.com.

If Philadelphians are indeed losing that sense of a shared identity—and I think they are—surely this is part of the reason why.

And yet even as the city’s indie media accelerates that splintering, many of these outlets (some of which I’ve written for) are doing much to create new communities. And unlike the fading mainstream outlets, the city’s new media ventures tend to see themselves not just as chroniclers of those communities, but as vital participants.

Technically Philly might be the clearest example of this model. Formed a little more than three years ago by a trio of Temple alums, the site closely covers the ups and downs of Philadelphia’s nascent tech scene. But Technically Philly also does its level best to nurture that community, unabashedly hosting events designed to bolster entrepreneurialism and cheerleading the city’s increasing willingness to give residents access to public data. “The news organizations that survive,” writes Technically Philly co-founder Christopher Wink, “will be stakeholders on the important issues.”

>> The Public-Space Revolution

5. The Public-Space Revolution

At 1.75 acres, Philadelphia’s new Sister Cities Park seems far too small to so perfectly represent some of the biggest new ideas in the use of public space. But does it ever.

On paper, it doesn’t sound like anything revolutionary: a pond for toddlers and their toy boats, a fountain, a cafe, and some rocks for nature-deprived city kids to clamber over. Put these things together, though, and design it all elegantly, and you have an utterly irresistible attraction that somehow manages to ever so slightly restore your faith in urban living. Seriously. Just try it. You’ll see schoolkids in uniform assembling armadas of red-sailed schooners; lawyers in suits taking alfresco lunch breaks; children shrieking in glee as they race across the fountain jets; delighted foodies foraging for blueberries. The panorama looks like a scene that’s been staged for a tourism brochure, and it’s like that all the time.

The park is the best proof yet of two relatively recent revelations that are changing the way urban planners think about public space. The first is that people flock to spaces that give them something to do. An open public plaza is nice, but if you stick a carousel and burger stand in it, à la Franklin Square, you’ve got a major attraction.

The second is that projects need not be huge or astronomically expensive to have a big impact on quality of life. On the extreme low end, West Philadelphia’s University City District has a few $10,000 mobile “parklets”—essentially some decking, railings and a few planters—that can be plopped onto the side of the street, providing an instant venue for outdoor socializing in exchange for a couple parking spots.

More ambitious is UCD’s work outside 30th Street Station, where the organization has partly beaten back the ugly asphalt jungle that greets train commuters with “The Porch,” a $400,000 collection of outdoor tables, plantings and new concrete, enlivened by an active programming schedule that includes a farmers’ market, yoga lessons and circus performances. It’s a relatively modest improvement, but that’s actually okay. UCD’s model is to make “small, iterative and experimental” investments in public space, instead of waiting for huge capital funds to appear out of the air.

At $5.2 million, Sister Cities represented a bigger gambit. But it’s still a relatively paltry sum by the standards of municipal capital spending. And the return on investment is staggering. “One of our core assumptions now is that quality public spaces attract and retain workers and residents,” says the Center City District’s Levy. (Surprise: CCD was behind the Sister Cities makeover as well.)

And Sister Cities is hardly the only fresh evidence that Levy is right. There’s the still-expanding Schuylkill Banks, and the Dock Street pier and its tantalizing preview of a remade Delaware Waterfront, and Hawthorne Park, built atop land where foreboding public-housing towers once stood. All have opened to rave reviews, and all have helped to awaken Philadelphians to the uncanny power of well-planned public space to improve quality of life. Reading Viaduct, anyone?

>> Last Rites for Truly Public Schools

6. Last Rites for Truly Public Schools?

It’s difficult to overstate just how completely Philadelphia’s power crowd has changed its thinking on public education this year. Mayor Nutter won office in 2007 partly on the strength of a campaign ad featuring his charming daughter boasting that “my dad is the only Democrat for mayor with a child in the public schools.” As recently as 2011, Nutter opposed vouchers.

But by this summer—just a few months after the school district announced a radical reorganization plan heavy on public-school closings and charter-school growth—Nutter was publicly dismissing the controversy over private, public and charter education as “esoteric debates that ultimately don’t mean anything to these young people.” Apparently three years of Arlene Ackerman is enough to shake even the most stalwart Democrat’s faith in the value of a classic public education.

And Nutter is hardly alone. His view is increasingly backed by the city’s liberal elites, including large numbers of young white professionals who would very much like to stay in Philadelphia but don’t dare enroll their children at the neighborhood public school. Two of the leading 2015 mayoral contenders—at-large City Councilman Bill Green and State Senator Anthony Williams—are also big backers of school choice.

If either wins, Philadelphia could pretty quickly look like New Orleans—a city where 70 percent of schoolkids attend charter schools. “This is a national trend, and they’re all getting on board with it,” says schools activist Helen Gym. If it sticks, look for the neighborhood public school to fade away as a meaningful Philadelphia institution.

>> Carless Philadelphia

7. Carless Philadelphia

In Manhattan, the only people who own cars are multimillionaires, taxi drivers and the insane. In 10 years, the same might be said of Center City.

For those living between Girard and Washington avenues, parking and driving a personal automobile is increasingly expensive, inconvenient and, critically, unstylish. Gridlock is commonplace. But parking is probably the bigger problem. Vacant spots can be impossible to find, and are expensive when located.

Meanwhile, the Nutter administration is painting bicycle lanes on every horizontal surface it can find, and the new zoning code goes out of its way to level the urban playing field among pedestrians, bikers and transit riders. If it seems like there’s a conspiracy to get Philadelphians out of their cars, that’s exactly what’s going on.

And it’s working. The city’s goal was to reduce the total miles traveled by car within Philadelphia 10 percent by 2015. Already, total vehicle miles traveled are down 7.4 percent.

The city’s efforts no doubt help, but this falloff probably wouldn’t have been possible without widespread millennial ambivalence about owning a car. Nationwide, car ownership among young adults has plummeted. And the trend seems, if anything, even more pronounced in Philadelphia, a city with some of the nation’s best transit connections, twice as many bicycle commuters per capita as any other urban center, a homegrown car-sharing service and, of course, one of the most compact and walkable downtowns in America.

>> The Coming (Potentially, At Least) Entrepreneurial Boom

8. The Coming (Potentially, At Least) Entrepreneurial Boom

“It is amazing what you can do if you have money,” Michael Nutter says to appreciative laughs. He continues, now only half-joking: “One day, we might actually have some.” And that, really, has been the city’s problem all along. Philadelphia is wretchedly poor—the most impoverished major city in the nation, with the hardly face-saving exception of Detroit.

But today, Nutter is talking to people with money. Not just white-shoe-law-firm m­oney, but serious money. The kind of money that created Silicon Valley. The kind of money that takes risks, that funds innovation and creates jobs. And Nutter is talking to these people on the 4000 block of Locust Street in West Philadelphia, where one of the nation’s most highly regarded start-up investment firms, First Round Capital, has just opened its new headquarters.

The scene at the grand opening looks like something out of Cupertino or Manhattan’s Silicon Alley: The fabulously wealthy friends and business partners of Josh Kopelman, First Round’s founding partner, mingle with schlumpy but big-brained college kids. There’s Skee-Ball, of course, and a pneumatic tube that begins in the lobby and ends just outside Kopelman’s office. “Drop business plan here,” reads a faux-vintage sign affixed to the tube.

There’s been no shortage of brilliant business plans drafted in Philadelphia. Between Penn, Drexel and Temple, Philadelphia is a bit of an entrepreneurial factory, full of students dreaming up novel (and sometimes even profitable) businesses. The problem is that few of those entrepreneurs stay in Philly after getting their diplomas. Most decamp immediately for California, New York, Boston, or other destinations where the venture-capital pockets are deeper and the start-up culture is strong.

But that dynamic could be changing. As the city’s appeal to millennials grows stronger, so does Philadelphia’s tech community. At the same time, City Hall is bending over backward to make the tax structure more inviting to entrepreneurs, giving big breaks to venture-capital firms and phasing in a reformed business tax that’s far more favorable to small businesses.

The best evidence that any of this is making a difference is First Round’s decision to plant its flag a few blocks west of Wharton. “There’s never been a better time to start a company in Philly than today,” Kopelman says at the grand opening. And he seems to really mean it. First Round’s new headquarters has desks for “drop-in” entrepreneurs as well as office space for four First Round-funded start-ups and Technically Philly.

All of this in a renovated warehouse done up in industrial-tech chic, wedged between the newly opened Ramen Bar and a high-performance bicycle shop. Naturally, on the curb directly outside, there’s a parklet.

  • nick

    Pat Kerkstra fled the city to get away from crime, diversity and bad schools.