Features: The Next Great American City

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

Wi-fi and the gay campaign point the way forward for Philadelphia — not in the sense that our future is linked to laptop-toting homosexuals, but in the boldness and creativity of the ideas, and how they generate the sense that Philadelphia is, once again, a city of vision.

One recent Friday night, I come to a place where you might expect more of those bold notions to be born: Northern Liberties. If there’s a spot that feels like the future of the city, it’s this former industrial neighborhood sandwiched between Spring Garden and Girard, 95 and 5th Street. All over, there are signs of transformation — warehouses being reimagined, new condos being built (many by developer Bart Blatstein). But even more telling are the people who’ve migrated here: designers and musicians and gallery owners and marketing people and other young entrepreneurs. They are the much buzzed-about creative class, and they give the rubble a sense of optimism.

“I’m going to put up curtains,” Laura Vernola says. We are inside Deuce, the bright, friendly restaurant Vernola opened earlier this year at Liberty Walk, a Blatstein-built complex of apartments, shops and galleries on an otherwise bleak block along 2nd Street. Vernola, a 31-year-old with reddish-brown hair and hipster glasses, is telling me how Deuce is still a work-in-progress, despite the buzzing mix of neighborhood locals and others who fill the restaurant tonight.

Like many residents of Northern Liberties, Vernola isn’t from Philadelphia. She’s originally from New York, and spent time in New Mexico before landing here in the late ’90s. (In addition to running Deuce, she handles marketing for Blatstein’s company Tower Investments.) What drew her is what draws many of those who’ve come from elsewhere: the affordability of life in Philadelphia, and the refreshing realness of the neighborhood.

And yet, going forward, the trick for the city is not just to attract more members of the creative class, but for all of us to see ourselves as part of it — as people who imagine what’s possible and set out to make it happen. In his current best-seller The World Is Flat, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman chronicles how the Internet and other technologies are leveling the playing field around the globe and making geography irrelevant — allowing countries like India and China to go head-to-head with the United States in both jobs and innovation. The phenomenon applies to American cities, too. In the future, the dominance of urban superpowers like New York and Los Angeles is no longer assured, if only because you’ll no longer have to live there to do business there (if, in fact, that’s where business is being done). Instead, the cities that prosper will be those that attract the brightest people and come up with the most imaginative ideas. Creativity is the new geography.

Which is why Philadelphia needs to brand itself — start thinking of itself — as the city where bold ideas are born. It’s why we need to urge our universities and biotech companies to keep doing more research; why we should encourage places like the National Constitution Center to find ways to fix what’s wrong with democracy; why we have to come up with ways to attract more young entrepreneurs. Here’s one: A 10-year tax abatement worked with real estate. How about one for brand-new companies that locate here?

Will other cities do similar things? Sure. They already are. Our advantage is the momentum we’ve built up, and our heritage — the fact that we were the home of America’s original creative class 230 years ago.

Is it a stretch to see a connection between Thomas Jefferson saying all men are created equal and Dianah Neff saying all people deserve Internet access, and even Neil Stein saying all people deserve alfresco dining? Maybe not. They are all bold and new and creative ideas that made a difference. And there’s no telling how hot a city can get if it encourages its people to keep dreaming those up.