Features: The Next Great American City

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

All of which is fairly remarkable for a place that less than 15 years ago was being likened to a gunshot victim who also had terminal cancer. And not by our critics — by our own mayor. The most optimistic one we ever had.

“When our art director heard we were doing a story on Philadelphia, he groaned, because he used to live there,” says Keith Bellows, editor of National Geographic Traveler. How long ago? “Oh, I think about 12 years ago. But when he saw the city again, he was amazed at how much was going on.”

How has the patient been revived? Credit a combination of bold ideas, a little bit of magic — and just happening to be the right city at the right time. In an age of spin, hype and phoniness, the fact that we have never tried to be something we’re not is refreshingly appealing. We’re the Pabst Blue Ribbon of cities — solid, crisp, affordable, unpretentious, a brand that’s been around as long as you can remember. “Philadelphia is what it is,” says Bellows. “And the world is ready for a city that is what it is.”

The bigger, more thrilling question is what we might become. For the world is changing in ways that suddenly make Philadelphia, the great U.S. city of the 18th century, a contender for similar status in the 21st century. Put another way, the city that is what it is has a chance to be what it was.

Which is not something, I’d just like to point out, that anyone in Phoenix is yammering about.