20-Something Invasion

The Center City civic leaders and business elite who talk apocalyptically about Philadelphia's brain drain might feel differently about the matter had they left their offices this summer. In one typical week, a blazer-heavy under-35 happy hour at the Union League approached fraternity-party density, with bar-band classics blasting from the corner. The Mayor had just been forced, in the middle of budget negotiations, to respond to a motley coalition of skateboarders and their professional contemporaries at an exhaustively covered press conference

in which the suit-wearing 53-year-old city controller bounced over to the goateed CEO of a skateboard manufacturer and bear-hugged him, saying, “I love you, man!” First-time home-buyers were traipsing through $400,000 rowhouses south of Graduate Hospital and $800,000 lofts in abandoned factory buildings north of the Vine Street Expressway. The previous weekend, hundreds of hipsters, many in retro lifestyle sneakers, had streamed into a Ukrainian social club in Northern Liberties to hear a local DJ duo that a New York Times critic credits with 2003's “best party album.” A wide-eyed entrepreneur — okay, restaurateur Stephen Starr — was building an open-air rooftop lounge, on the site of a former Casual Corner store on Chestnut Street. This was not the turn-of-the-century Philadelphia that historian John Lukacs described in the early 1980s as “a town of families, where even the arrivistes were families, not individuals — a remarkable condition during what was otherwise called the Age of Individualism and of Enterprise.”

Philadelphia's downtown is now one of the country's youngest, but with few children. It's basically a neighborhood of single young professionals; older, childless couples; and not a whole lot of real adults. While the city at large continues to lose population and grow older, less educated, less economically mobile, and blacker, Center City is heading in the opposite direction. Nearly one-third of Center City residents are between 25 and 34, a percentage that's doubled since 1970 — and twice the percentage in the rest of Philadelphia. Households with children have fallen to seven percent of Center City's total. Delayed marriage and child-rearing has invented 20-somethingness — not just a decade, but a stage of life between youth and familyhood, a prolonged adolescence with buying power.

What's happening in Center City defies the diagnosis of region-wide “brain drain.” This fear has endured for a half century: that the area's skilled workforce is shrinking, as brainy Philadelphia natives and entrepreneurial Whartonites all choose to settle in job-and-nightlife utopias like San Francisco and Boston. In that time, “brain drain” has become an all-purpose bugaboo, used as an explanation for Philadelphia's shriveling tax rolls and its cultural standing as the Cleveland of the East. But in the mid-1990s, two major trends set Philadelphia's downtown on an opposite course from the region. Center City became a more desirable place to live (clean, safe, serving high-concept cocktails), and University City did not. Even while Center City experienced little economic expansion, its population grew, largely with young professionals, some of them reverse-commuting to suburban jobs. At the same time, Penn graduate students — spooked by high-profile University City crime — chose increasingly to live west of Rittenhouse Square, and cross the Schuylkill to class.

Center City's young people represent a dream demographic, according to census data analyzed by the Center City District: exceedingly well-educated (79 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds have undergraduate degrees or more, three times the citywide number) and loaded (average salary is $58,250). Center City is being rebuilt in their image, and starting to feel in places more and more like Brooklyn's Williamsburg or Miami's South Beach or a college town like Cambridge, and less and less like Philadelphia. It is no use any longer to do as Lukacs did, and try to understand Philadelphia through its families. Center City is cocky, rambunctious, fresh-faced — a neighborhood at the door to the future, ready to pay its cover and be carded.

A half-generation ago, Center City would likely not have claimed Peter Martelli, a 26-year-old New Yorker who has stayed in town since graduating from Penn nearly four years ago. “All you have to say is 'I love Philadelphia' and you're a Philadelphian,” says Martelli, a new-economy vagabond who found himself quickly at home. He works as a research coordinator at the American College of Physicians, lives in an apartment building just off Broad Street, and serves as a Democratic committeeman. He flits between drinking sessions at dives such as the Locust Bar and more august institutions like the Union League and the Philadelphia Racquet Club, known among Martelli's peers for legends of late-night skinny-dipping and a round-the-clock self-service beer tap. “It's a little bit of Gatsbyism,” Martelli says of the social scene. “There's a bit of romanticism in this world of polished marble and blue blazers.”

This fall, Real World: Philadelphia has appeared on MTV. In other places where MTV has set up camp — Las Vegas, Paris, San Francisco — the show about seven strangers forced to live together is little more than a quaint, if brash, picaresque about being young in a big city. But in Philadelphia, Real World's conceit unintentionally tells the story of the real world around it, with policy ramifications never brought to bear when the city became the setting for thirtysomething, the chronicle of '80s yuppiedom. Real World crisply defines Center City's surprising predicament: What happens when you take a bunch of 20-somethings, pack them into a dense environment, remove adult supervision, give them pocket money, and let them make the rules? “I always open places for people my age,” says Avram Hornik, 31, whose entrepreneurial trail includes a coffeehouse, the laid-back bar/lounge Lucy's Hat Shop, the subterranean dance club SoMa, and the reactionary Drinker's Tavern. Two years ago, the only thing Hornik's places had in common was their location in Old City — and then he moved to Rittenhouse Square to open the brasserie-bar Loie on 19th Street. “South Street was hot, Manayunk was hot, Old City was hot,” he says. “Now Old City's oversaturated.” The city's newest nightlife zone is Rittenhouse Square.

Across Center City, a fading retail sector is being rejuvenated by the 20-somethings. In the past year alone, the number of gyms and spas has increased by 15 percent, and housewares retailers by 20 percent. On 13th Street, where until quite recently vice ruled, developer Tony Goldman has brought in a housewares shop, chic clothes stores and a gelateria. On Pine Street, the moldy antiques dealers are dwarfed by a papery, an artisanal bakery, and several housewares boutiques. Even Walnut Street is being taken over, by the apparel chains Max Studio, Lucky, Diesel, Zara and Ubiq. Retailers traditionally sought out Center City because of its daytime population of 250,000, including office workers, tourists and conventioneers. Now they're coming for the full-time population. Benetton, on Walnut Street, just recently saw its weekend sales surpass weekdays.

Where Walnut was once geared to out-of-town adults, Chestnut was for the office-working hoi polloi, with off-price retailers such as Filene's Basement, Parade of Shoes and Dress Barn. But that's where Hornik is now opening his latest projects: kosher Italian and Argentine steak restaurants. Like their new neighbors — Starr's Continental Midtown, a Di Bruno's gourmet market, the national gay-themed chain Hamburger Mary's — the establishments are being built for residents.

When it comes to decisions about where to locate stores, national chains are relying on a market analysis known as “clustering,” which uses demographic and consumer data to define neighborhoods by lifestyle. Perhaps the most popular system, from Claritas, considers dozens of different profiles of American consumer: Center City is heavy on Banana Republic-shopping “Urban Achievers” and mountain-biking “American Dreams.” It's now a combination of Urban Uptown (“nation's wealthiest urban consumers … tend to frequent the arts, shop at exclusive retailers, drive luxury imports, travel abroad and spend heavily on computer and wireless technology”) and Midtown Mix (“childless consumers who pursue active social lives — frequenting bars, health clubs and restaurants at high rates — listen to progressive music, drive small imports and acquire the latest consumer electronics”).

Because of the population changes, many chains are developing an all-retail-is-local strategy when looking at Center City. Instead of the five-mile population radius that would have concerned the Fox & Hound in suburban locations, real estate broker David Orkin says, the sports-bar chain examined the neighborhood block by block. “One of the things they're looking for is a large density of rental apartment units close by,” says Orkin. “They try to become an extension of someone's living room.” The Fox & Hound settled on 15th Street, just down from the Irish-themed FadÛ. One block north — in the old Bookbinder's — sits the future home of an Applebee's, one that will have a distinctively “urban” concept first used in Midtown Manhattan. “If I tried to do that same thing five years ago, I wouldn't have been able to,” retail consultant Midge McCauley of Downtown Works, a division of Dranoff Properties, says of the Fox & Hound deal.

“What they say about fund-raising is that it's about who's asking you to write the check,” says Frances Fattah, a cheery 29-year-old litigator at Schnader who has become a doyenne of the city's Democratic young-professional fund-raising network on behalf of John Street, Ed Rendell and others. “When I came along, the young people like myself were not involved in raising large sums of money,” says her father, Congressman Chaka Fattah. “A lot of us were coming out of the community-activist role. Young professionals are not pushing this at that level of activism. They have a more sophisticated appreciation for how politics works.”

Center City is only a tiny piece of Philadelphia's political real estate, but the city's politicians have begun to spend a lot of time casing the joint. “Center City folks and young professionals are swing votes,” says Bob Henon, a political aide to electricians leader and likely mayoral candidate John Dougherty. “A year and a half ago, at the beginning of the mayoral campaign, Johnny said there's a whole other constituency that people don't pay attention to. So he's interested in young professionals. That's why he gave Andrew Hohns a shot.”

Hohns, co-founder of Young Involved Philadelphia, is a 26-year-old investment banker who mixes, sometimes uncomfortably, an earnest idealism with impatient ambition. Hohns entered Penn in 1996, when Rendell's boosterism of Philadelphia and Judith Rodin's of University City coincided to turn a core of active students toward local issues. Upon graduating, the group didn't have a natural home in city politics, and founded YIP. Mark Kahn, a Hohns classmate who went to work as a municipal-finance consultant, described the wonky and reform-minded group as “hippies in suits.” They have resonated by weighing in on self-consciously youth-oriented issues, particularly skateboarding in LOVE Park and the Real World labor standoff. “We're not rooted here by the generations,” Kahn says. “They want Philadelphia to be like Philadelphia was when they were growing up. And we want Philly to be like Tokyo.”

Hohns became the group's figurehead and in 2002 ran against State Representative Babette Josephs, receiving 42 percent of the vote without much institutional support. He quickly set out to run again and reached out to citywide figures looking for a beachhead in Center City. This spring, Dougherty gave Hohns assistance approaching $50,000 in value and assigned 200 electricians to man the polls. Controller Jonathan Saidel, another likely mayoral candidate, volunteered to appear in the only ad Hohns aired. “When I worked on Ed Rendell's campaign in 1991 as a volunteer, you never heard of the young-professional fund-raiser, and now it's a staple of Philadelphia politics,” says John Hawkins, 32, an aide to State Senator Vince Fumo. The events, however popular, don't — at $50 or $100 a head in a city where access is bought in five-figure sums — take in much money. “Candidates want to mine them for volunteers, for campaign staff — and some just want to hang out with hot chicks,” Hawkins says.

Cultural and charity groups have similarly created a circuit of “Young Friends of” society event offshoots. “Every nonprofit, whether they need it or not, says, 'We need to do something with young people. Can we start a young friends group?'” says Corie Cutler, 28, of Gloss Public Relations and Rittenhouse Row. “What we saw in '85, '86, '87, was that the 'old guard' was still dominating all the boards,” says Oliver St. Clair Franklin, 59, president and CEO of University City's International House, which just inaugurated a young friends group. “The old guard has all gone off to their reward. My generation is now the one that's in place, and it's a generation that recognizes how important young people are.”

The 20-something invasion is reaching into the stuffiest quarters of Philadelphia society. Beginning in the 1970s, the Union League's decline mirrored that of the city's business community as a whole. By the late 1980s, the not-for-profit club found itself operating at a loss — and, seemingly as a hail-Mary move to save itself, began admitting women. In 1994, the Union League's membership bottomed out at 2,250, down from an all-time high of 3,600 in the 1950s. A push to actively encourage members to propose friends to join has raised membership to 3,000, and much of the gain has come from 500 juniors added in the past five years. “The average age went down from 'deceased' to 64,” an older member jokes.

That younger clientele is forcing the League to adjust. The club has embarked on a $24 million expansion project, due to be completed by its 150th anniversary in 2012. A new fitness center will look a lot like any gym — with yoga, aerobics and spinning facilities; the League is thinking about adding squash courts as well. Monthly happy hours for “juniors” have enlivened a typically quiet wood-paneled bar. In June, Kenn Kweder, a '70s-era enfant terrible of Philadelphia's rock scene, with vestigial shaggy hair, stood under an oil portrait and played Neil Young and Pink Floyd covers on an acoustic guitar. “I just got a request for 'Heroin,'” Kweder said between sets, referring to an old song of his. “'Heroin!' At the Union League! I can't believe it!”

But young members are in many ways making the Union League an even more traditional place. They were among the strongest advocates for a decision this year to scrap a casual-attire policy implemented in 1999. “They're working their way up the ladder in their careers. The 65-year-old retiree likes to dress casual. The 28-year-old professional likes to dress up,” says Jeff McFadden, the club's recently hired 37-year-old general manager. “A lot of our juniors like the jacket and tie, they like the upscale, they want to impress the movers and shakers of Philadelphia.” According to assistant general manager Patricia Tobin, “When you ask a junior why they join, it's because they want to socialize with their bosses and the people who will be their bosses.” Most of the new juniors, like their older counterparts, have jobs in business or law. Historically, members arrived with the impulse of the joiner, not the networker: Old Union Leaguers saw membership as a lifelong commitment to an existing community, with the idea that if you drink enough scotches with someone, you're in a better position to do business with him later. Today's juniors are making a social investment for the short term; the happy hours, with their hints of a carefree world where career advancement can wait, are the exception. “If we were having a junior happy hour every week,” McFadden says, “the juniors would be thinking, 'I'm not here to meet other juniors. I'm here to meet the CEO of Sunoco.'”

Old neighborhoods used to become cool slowly. This was a lesson Bart Blatstein learned while living in Queen Village in the 1970s, as it was beginning to gentrify. “It started in the '60s — artsy types moved in there,” he says. “The real estate was cheap, and it became really bohemian.” Then, “The artist community got priced out of Queen Village. They couldn't go north, so they jumped over Society Hill and started Old City.” It happened the same way in Fairmount, and at the moment it seems to be happening in the Graduate Hospital area, he explains: “The creative community comes into a neighborhood and leads a turnaround.” Blatstein, a former strip-mall builder whose recent midlife crisis has involved a sudden devotion to urbanist design principles and an exploitable weakness for anything younger than his 49 years, thinks there's a way to speed up that process. He has subsequently made what is arguably Philadelphia's largest single investment in the way youth will reshape Center City's outskirts. He is trying to build a ready-made bohemia.

One day in 2002, Tommy Updegrove and his business partner, Robert Norton, were standing on a Northern Liberties sidewalk, being stood up by a real estate agent they hoped would help them find office space to rent. Blatstein drove by and asked who they were and what they were doing — because, he says, “They were looking suspicious.” Updegrove asked the same of Blatstein, who said he was a real estate developer with properties in the area. Updegrove — known to the 21,000 Philadelphians who receive his party-promoting e-mail newsletter as “Tommy Up” — said that he and Norton marketed nightlife.

Blatstein was smitten. “This is a young neighborhood, and I thought they could help me understand how creative types and young people of today think,” Blatstein says. He invited them to move into one of his properties, but Updegrove wasn't sure they could afford his rents. “Don't worry about it,” Blatstein told them. “I like you, I want you in the neighborhood.”

Blatstein installed the promoters in an unfinished loft workspace and started telling them his plans for Northern Liberties. He was looking to construct a community of artists in a neighborhood that had been lackadaisically attracting them over two decades. When Blatstein started to explain his high-concept design centerpiece, he realized that Updegrove and Norton didn't fully appreciate what a “piazza” is. So, two weeks after meeting them, Blatstein sent his newest non-paying tenants on a fact-finding mission to Italy. “We spent a week drinking in piazzas,” Updegrove says. “I guess he's a good businessman.”

Updegrove is a tastemaker, targeting what he considers Philadelphia's 2,000 “scene leaders.” One project for Blatstein, Updegrove says, is to draw scene leaders to Northern Liberties and “hook them up in one of Bart's spaces.” Updegrove has helped to fill the eight-unit live-work building on Cambridge Street — recruiting a DJ, a photographer, a graphic artist and a restaurant-installation designer. “He needs somebody to act as a filter,” Updegrove says.

After Updegrove and Norton mastered the piazza, Blatstein assigned them to read Richard Florida's 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class, controversial in social-science circles but not among boosters of scruffy neighborhoods. In it, demographer Florida argues that economic growth is driven by the idea-producing creative class — dismissed by Florida critic Joel Kotkin as “singles, young people, homosexuals, sophistos, and trendoids” — and that urban leaders can attract them by engineering bohemia. It is, then, a Tommy Up theory of economic development, as recounted at the Standard Tap: “These types of places are the whole social side of why people live here. That's as important as the jobs side. It kind of told me what I already knew,” Updegrove says of Florida's book. “Maybe that's the reason Bart hooked us up with that space and encouraged our efforts to bring other people here.”

But Blatstein's attempt to appoint himself a de Medici of Philadelphia hipsterdom faces a stiff challenge: The city's creative class refuses to be an economic engine. Here, artists — bolstered by a low cost of living, and coddled by a Quakerish lack of intra-scene competitiveness — can afford to treat their output as a hobby and live a happy life from a wage job. Mark Kahn, of Young Involved Philadelphia, calls it “the comfort vortex.” “It sucks you in, and sometimes there's not much driving you to do more,” he explains.

Such good-natured lethargy is visible in 16 veterans of the Little Rock, Arkansas, punk-rock scene who have migrated to Philadelphia since 1998. Since coming here, Ben Dickey has worked in the kitchen of Johnny Brenda's in Fishtown and at a South Street poster store, and he's played in a variety of bands. Dickey tried living in Brooklyn, but didn't last long. “There's too much at stake in New York,” he says. “Most of the people we know aren't willing to put up with so much bullshit. Most of us have realized that you can't make a living making music. You've got to have a job, and you can make your music however you want.”

With attractive demographics and enlivened street life, Philadelphia has developed a Potemkin downtown, empty office buildings hidden behind sidewalk seating. “With guys who do site-selection for the companies, there's no awareness of the fact that there's no business growth in Philadelphia,” real estate broker David Orkin says. “They just want to see how the Capital Grilles and the Striped Basses and the Morton's and the Morimotos are doing. If they're doing well, the water's fine and jump on in the pool!”

Center City's 20-somethings brazenly reject the traditional rules of brain drain: that high taxes and a lack of job growth should scare them away. For a decade, they have chosen lifestyle over economics, but Richard Florida's conclusion — that mobile workers choose to go where life is best — doesn't exactly explain Center City's growth; in fact, the new Philadelphians seem to have gone where life is easiest. A study by the Knowledge Industry Partnership showed that the top two factors among college graduates who chose to stay in Philadelphia were “Affordability, cost of living” and “Housing — availability, value.” When it comes to Ben Franklin's virtues, Philadelphia attracts the thrifty over the industrious.

All that political attention, then, is a bit aimless. While candidates spend a lot of time around Center City's young people, it's unclear whether they have much to say to each other. The young professionals' rather blissful existence gives them few political worries — John Hawkins says a decade ago, members of the political-networking group Young America PAC would come to meetings complaining about crime — but many pet issues. They are among the loudest advocates for cutting wage taxes, but it's almost impossible to find a young person in Center City who complains about his or her tax bill. “I call it the convenience tax,” Hawkins says. “I pay it to be convenient to a lot of interesting things and the city I care about.”

Perhaps that's why few in any establishment feel threatened by the 20-something invasion: The new guard isn't going to rock the boat, either. These 20-somethings don't feel challenged or threatened by the status quo, but rather cushioned by it. The slightly ambitious would-be operator faces few barriers — join the Union League, bring a $50 check to a fund-raiser, both are dying to have you — while the very ambitious will just network their way out of town. The true outsiders, the “creative class” that fascinates Blatstein, have bought comfort at a low price. They are creative types, but despite the buzzword, aren't really a class: no class-consciousness, only price sensitivity.

In the end, the only enduring change today's 20-somethings are making on Center City is as consumers. In 2002, YIP hosted a town hall meeting with a representative of the Goldenberg Group over the developer's plans to demolish the Sameric Theatre. To the leaders of YIP, this was a land-use issue of civic importance; to its constituency, it was both less and more. There were politely plaintive cries from preservationists and community activists to save the Sameric, citing the chandelier, the Art Deco facade, and the legacy of the city's grand movie palaces. Then a young woman stood up and addressed a heretofore unspoken grievance, stirring the audience of her peers like no other. “I want to see Minority Report! I want to see The Bourne Identity!” she said, raising her voice. “I want to see Lilo & Stitch!” b