How Paul Levy Created Center City

Philadelphia's vibrant downtown is due, in large part, to the vision of one man. So why is Center City District's Paul Levy still not satisfied?

And government might not be the best choice for someone of Levy’s abilities and temperament. He is too used to being in command, too accustomed to reasonable resources, and too business-oriented to transition easily back to City Hall.

What Levy does best is synthesize. Over the past 28 years, he and the Center City District have attained a remarkable understanding of what it takes to craft a successful city, a brew of security and liveliness and place and economics and a million other factors.

It’s a renaissance approach to city- building that is altogether rare. High-level government bureaucrats and urban academics have enormous expertise, but in a very narrow band. Business leaders can’t see past their own self-interest; politicians focus on their base constituencies and the next election; activists zoom in on whatever urban failings outrage them most.

But Levy has dabbled in all these worlds, and his daily running of the Center City District has been a decades-long study in the urban liberal arts, via a quasi-governmental organization that answers to big business and operates like an entrepreneurial nonprofit.

On top of this, Levy layers the perspective of a historian and an avid student of urban innovation.

At our first interview, when I asked him about the early days of the CCD, he answered with a 2,400-word soliloquy that touched on the myriad iterations of local government from Beijing to Houston, the deterioration of civic business leadership that followed the rise of multinational corporations, Margaret Thatcher, the state of play in City Hall in 1990, and a dozen highly specific demographic statistics.

Curious and maybe a little skeptical about his breezy confidence, I spent two hours fact-checking those statistics, to little avail. Levy was correct—or correct enough—in all his facts, one of which was just how utterly suburbs dominate the cities in the population race, a state of affairs that dates back decades. According to the most recent data, the suburbs still rule, but their edge is eroding. In Philadelphia, for the past decade, migration to the city has sped up, while the exodus to the ’burbs has slowed down. That’s happening for a lot of reasons—changing tastes, energy costs, safer city streets and a million other factors, one of which is Paul Levy.