Features: The Next Great American City

It just might be us. Philadelphia. What, exactly, is going on?

The first sign that something big was changing — that the car had finally stopped skidding and we all, blessedly, remarkably, were still in one piece — came when Phoenix didn’t kick our asses.

You remember the scenario, perhaps: A demographer at Penn had predicted (in this magazine, no less!) that if decades-long demographic trends held, Phoenix would surpass Philadelphia in population on May 17, 2004. This event would not only knock us out of the top five American cities in terms of size — we had once been first, of course, and not that long ago were third — but would also pretty much confirm the heartbreaking mantra Philadelphia had been muttering under its breath for, oh, a century or so: Good God, we just suck so bad. …

But then it didn’t happen. When the U.S. Census Bureau released new numbers in June, they showed that for the first time in six decades, Philadelphia had more or less stopped losing population. What’s more, Center City had shown a 12 percent gain between 2000 and 2004 — the kind of healthy growth previously reserved for those Sunbelt cities seemingly intent on stealing our bacon. You could almost hear the tone of our muttering change overnight: Hmm, perhaps we sucketh less than we thought. …

As it turned out, the fact that we’ve stopped hemorrhaging residents like a hemophiliac in a street rumble was just the first in a series of feel-good moments Philadelphia has seen lately. Indeed, look around, and it suddenly seems we’re in the midst of some sort of harmonic convergence of good vibes and positive energy. Center City is booming like it hasn’t boomed in decades, with the restaurant scene thriving and new condo towers climbing toward the sky. Neighborhoods beyond Center City — Fishtown, Northern Liberties, Brewerytown — are showing signs of new life after generations of decline. Both the Barnes collection and slot machines are coming to town, and corporate giant Comcast has made clear it’s not leaving. Meanwhile, the Street administration’s plan to turn the entire city into a wi-fi hot spot of low-cost wireless Internet access has generated more positive attention than anything we’ve done here since 1776. Is it any wonder that some folks, including this magazine, are now talking about bringing the Olympics to Philadelphia — and no one dares laugh?

We have become, in short, a city that’s not only vibrant and vital, but red-hot. And others are noticing. This past summer, the New York Times’s influential Sunday Styles section noted that enough young New Yorkers are moving here that we could rightfully be called “the Sixth Borough.” (Uh, we’ll pass, thanks.) This fall, National Geographic Traveler magazine, having dispatched a writer to town, announced that we’re “the next great city,” poised to become to this decade what San Francisco was to the ’60s, Miami was to the ’80s and Seattle was to the ’90s. The City With the Scene. The It Town.