Features: The Next Great American City

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

There are virtuous cycles, and then there’s magic.

In retrospect, any freshman urban-studies major probably could have predicted that tourism, restaurants and property-tax relief would reinvigorate the city; similar factors have helped major downtowns all across America make comebacks. But what no one could have foreseen was the mystical niche Philadelphia now seems on the brink of occupying in the culture — City of the Moment, Place to Be. So how do you explain that?

Part of it might be due to the fact that the city has been validated by some other hot brands in the past few years. Southwest Airlines started service here in the spring of 2004, proving that not even a corrupt, crappy airport can keep a good city down. Around the same time, MTV began shooting The Real World in Old City, putting the name “Philadelphia” on the pierced tongues of cool teenagers everywhere.

Still, the lion’s share of the credit for our current magic undoubtedly rests with two homegrown notions that somehow achieved that mythic, much-sought-after status of being the Right Idea at the Right Time. The first was the decision by the region’s tourism outfit, GPTMC, to launch an ad campaign in the fall of 2003 aimed specifically and explicitly at gays. Risky? Undoubtedly. No other city had ever done such a campaign, and proof of its boldness could be seen in all the media attention it received — so much that ­GPTMC didn’t even need to run the actual campaign until three months after announcing it. But in the era of Will & Grace and Queer Eye, the campaign’s real power came not in stunt value, but in what it said about the city. It didn’t just invite gay people to come to Philly; it branded the city as open, enlightened, and very, very now, not to mention fun, fabulous, and very, very neat. “It’s one of those indicators that make people say, ‘If gay and lesbian people like it, it must be good for me,’” says GPTMC’s Jeff Guaracino. “‘There really is a nightlife there; there really is arts and culture.’”

Buzz-building as the gay campaign was, however, it’s proven to be just a warm-up for the mother of all hip ideas: the Street administration’s plan to turn Philadelphia into one ­giant wi-fi hot spot. The idea was masterminded by the city’s chief information officer, Silicon Valley transplant Dianah Neff, who was no stranger to new ideas: In 1994, she made Palo Alto the first city in America to have its own website. Here in Philadelphia, she says, she had initially imagined a wi-fi system that would only serve government, but then realized that a system open to everyone would dovetail with the Mayor’s vision of improving life in the neighborhoods.

Talking with Neff one day in her office, I mention that I’m surprised by the enormous attention the idea has received. “It’s amazed me!” she bursts. “I’ve been involved in new things before. But the world attention is what totally surprised me.”

The power of the idea seems to lie in the fact that it’s both aggressively idealistic and supremely practical, a combination that just happened to be original Philly genius Ben Franklin’s calling card. On the idealism side, wi-fi bridges the so-called digital divide — the fact that a preponderance of poor people don’t have computers or Internet access — as well as having the potential to transform everything from communication to health care to crime-fighting. On the practical side: It doesn’t take long to build, and it’s relatively cheap. Our system will cost $15 million, funded entirely by the private company EarthLink; smaller cities can build systems for as little as a few hundred thousand dollars.

Little wonder Neff has been inundated with phone calls from reporters and public officials who want to know if public wi-fi could work in their cities. “I’ve talked to reporters from all over world, sometimes three or four a day — Austria, New Zealand, Australia, India, China,” she says. “I’ve talked to over 15 different countries’ newspapers, as well as city and government officials, even our Indian tribes about what they’re trying to do with wireless. I’ve talked to more than 75 cities in the U.S.”

That Philadelphia — and not Seattle or Austin or Palo Alto — came up with the idea may also be driving the reaction. When someone uncool does something cool, it somehow seems cooler. “We laugh that the last major I.T. thing created here in Philadelphia was the ENIAC at Penn” — the world’s first computer — “back in the 1940s,” says Neff. “This was a huge step, to have Philadelphia leading this.”