All About Philadelphia

Planning a visit or a move to Philly? Get details on what makes this city like no other.
By: Alan J. Heavens
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Say Philadelphia and thoughts turn immediately to the Liberty Bell, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Rocky Balboa running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But there's much more to this city of 1.6 million, and whether you plan to visit a couple of days or plan to settle here, you'll quickly learn there's much, much more.

A lot of cities often spend billions to become “special places.” Philadelphia simply is special, thanks to its place in the country’s history, its adherence to tradition, its diverse economy, geography, central location and its tendency to go its own way, despite national trends that are often running in the opposite direction.

Case in point: Health. While the rest of the nation is perpetually on a diet, the American Obesity Association put Philadelphia in the top 10 for overweight people six years in a row, the last time in 2007.

If you consider that the city’s chief culinary export is the cheesesteak, and that a “Yo! Philadelphia Basket” from the Pennsylvania General Store features, among 13 high-fat entries, TastyKake Krimpets, Asher’s Chocolate Pretzels, the Melrose Diner’s Butter Cookies, and Downey’s Liquor Cake, you’ll understand why.

Before they arrive here, visitors often repeat the same tired jokes -- native W.C. Fields epitaph “I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” or “I went to Philadelphia for the weekend and it was closed” -- humor inspired by long-gone Sunday “blue laws.” After even a couple of days walking its streets, exploring its alleys and pocket parks, riding its subways, visiting its museums and historic sites, dining in its restaurants, these visitors usually are eager to return.

It’s a nice place to visit; living here can be very good too, and both are getting better:

Modesty. Philadelphia isn’t flashy. It’s not Las Vegas, it’s not Los Angeles, and it’s not New York. Residential real estate here is affordable and undervalued compared with most large metro markets. The city and the seven surrounding counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey that comprise its metropolitan area did not see the run-up in prices during this decade’s housing boom, nor have they seen them fall. Since the end of the boom, median sale prices are down just 4 percent, and its foreclosure rate is the one of the lowest in the nation. Flippers and speculators are not attracted to a market that doesn’t offer the opportunity to make a killing. That, and construction costs that are 18 percent above the national average, means that unsold inventory are low, and sales, while down, have almost bottomed out.   

Center City. Twenty years ago Philadelphia was on the ropes and near bankruptcy. The center of the region had shifted to King of Prussia 30 miles west. Applications for building permits totaled just 100 a year. Little if any market-rate housing was built.

In 1992 Mayor and now-Gov. Edward G. Rendell launched an eight-year effort to encourage investment in the city, and a building boom resulted, aided in 1997 and 2000 by two 10-year tax abatements, one for converting unused office buildings and warehouses, the other for new residential construction. Since 1998, 10,000 units of housing, mostly condos, have been added to Center City, and its boundaries have expanded to adjacent districts. The median sales price is now $500,000, and for-sale housing units have almost doubled in value over a decade.

In 2007 for the first time in 15 years, the central business district increased its share of regional office space, and while adding more office space, occupancy was up to 89 percent and rents increased 14 percent from 2006. The Pennsylvania Convention Center expansion now under way will create a total of one million feet of saleable space, including the largest contiguous space in the Northeastern United States. In 2008, there are an estimated 88,000 residents in Center City, making it the third-largest downtown in population in the country, after New York and Chicago.  

Transportation. Philadelphia has a transportation infrastructure that newer cities are spending billions to create today. Philadelphia International Airport serves 32 million passengers a year. The city’s Amtrak ridership increased 3.3 percent in 2006 from 2007 -- 3.7 million passengers boarding and arriving at 30th Street Station along the busy Northeast Corridor. The city is served by two interstate highways, 41 local and regional bus lines, seven regional rail lines, five trolley lines, a high-speed line to New Jersey and more than 150 bicycle lanes. Rising gas prices has increased ridership on all transit lines, so much so that routes are being expanded and trains added. Forty percent of all Center City residents walk to work. There are two car-sharing entities -- Philly CarShare and Zip -- that allow residents to forgo automobile ownership.    

Arts and entertainment. The reason most given by young professionals and empty nesters for moving to Center City is for its cultural and entertainment offerings. It took awhile, but it is now a 24/7 city.

Only midtown Manhattan has a higher concentration of its region’s cultural venues. Philadelphia ranks behind Washington, D.C., in the number of museums per capita, and those numbers are being added to constantly. The 100,000-square-foot National Museum of Jewish-American History in Independence Park opened in 2010, and the Barnes Foundation moving its collection from the suburbs to a building being designed for it on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a boulevard created in the 1920s that gave rise to Philadelphia’s frequent comparisons to Paris (there is a Rodin Museum on the Parkway as well).

More things to be proud of:

  • Renovations to and expansion of the Philadelphia Museum of Art are underway.
  • The venerable Please Touch Museum, one of the most popular children’s attractions in the city, has moved from its cramped Center City location to the renovated Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park, on the site of the Centennial Exposition in 1876.
  • The 2007 King Tut exhibit at the Franklin Institute (now called The Franklin) drew more than 1.3 million visitors.
  • The Academy of Natural Sciences holds some of the oldest and largest collections in the country.
  • The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts annually draws one million visitors; the venerable Academy of Music about 500,000; its theaters include the Walnut Street, which is celebrating its 200th birthday; the Prince, the Arden, the Wilma, the Suzanne Roberts and more intimate venues.
  • The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts founded by the portrait artists Charles Wilson Peale and Thomas Sully and sculptor William Rush continues to produce artists.
  • State-of-the-art stadiums house Phillies baseball and Eagles football.
  • There are more than 200 restaurants alone in Center City (from just 65 in 1992). When surveyed, 83 percent of all visitors to Center City said they came there to dine.
  • Outdoor cafes number over 215 in the city.
  • Instead of being squeezed by development as in Washington, Philadelphia’s Chinatown is growing and expanding northward from its traditional boundaries between Arch and Vine Streets and Ninth and 12th Streets in Center City. The neighborhood has benefited from the business from the Convention Center and the rebirth of the downtown. Not only has there been a commercial and retail boom, but new housing projects have added condos and rental units and drawn new residents.

Architecture. From Robert Smith’s Georgian design of St. Peter’s Church (1761) and its William Strickland tower (1842) to I.M. Pei’s Society Hill Towers (1963), just about every style, major architect, and school of architecture is represented here. The Chicago School’s Louis Sullivan worked here for Frank Furness, a 19th century architect who went his own way and broke two centuries of architectural convention and later was a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed Beth Shalom Synagogue (1953) in suburban Elkins Park, Pa.   

Philadelphian Thomas U. Walter’s best-known work is the dome of the U.S. Capitol (1863), but before he went to Washington, he designed the Girard College for Orphans in Philadelphia (1833-48), at 2101 S. College Avenue, considered one of the greatest expressions of the Greek Revival movement.

A visitor doesn't need to spend days hunting around the city for examples of architectural styles over the last 300 years. Everything, from the Georgian of Independence Hall to the Palladian of the reconstructed Library Company, the Greek Revival of Second Bank of the United States, Federal-style townhouses, late Victorian steel-framed Bourse Building to 20th century glass and steel office buildings, are an easy walk in and around Independence National Historical Park, starting at Fifth and Sixth Streets and Walnut Street.

Again going its own way, Philadelphia was a latecomer to skyscrapers, adhering to a tradition that no building be higher than the top of the hat on Alexander Calder’s statue of William Penn at the top of John McArthur’s City Hall (1901), 585 feet above the street. In 1987, developer Willard Rouse added the 945-foot One Liberty Place to the skyline, following that with 848-foot Two Liberty Place. Since then, no major Philadelphia sports team has won a league championship, leading die-hard fans to say the height violation led to a curse – which was broken Oct. 29, 2008, when the Philadelphia Phillies won its first World Series since 1980.  

Since 1987 other skyscrapers have been added, the most recent being the headquarters of the Comcast empire at 17th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, which is 975 feet high and was designed by Robert A.M. Stern.

Education and health care. Two of the major contributors to the city and the region’s diverse economy, universities and colleges are expanding and growing. The University of Pennsylvania in University City and Temple University in North Philadelphia together have about 50,000 graduate and undergraduate students, and both continue to expand their campuses and services to the rest of the community. In addition, both Temple and Penn have employee-assistance programs to encourage faculty and staff to buy homes and live in the universities’ neighborhoods.

The city’s public school system, long a stumbling block to efforts to bring middle-class families back to town, have seen vast improvement recently, thanks to the efforts of the city’s School Reform Commission and the involvement of parents in neighborhood schools. There are a growing number of charter schools, the school system of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia is the nation’s second oldest after Baltimore, and the private schools include Quaker institutions such as Germantown Friends, Friends Central, Friends Select and others.

Some of the best teaching hospitals in the world -- Temple, Penn, and Hahnemann and Thomas Jefferson universities -- are spending hundreds of millions to expand their facilities. Health-care research draws about $216 million to these medical schools in federal funding annually.

Pennsylvania Hospital, on Pine Street between Eighth and Nine Streets, now part of the University of Pennsylvania Health Care System, is the nation’s oldest, founded in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Thomas Bond. Every year, 5,000 babies are born there. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia at 34th Street and Civic Center Boulevard and St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children at North Erie Avenue and Front Street are two of the nation’s leading pediatric facilities, and Fox Chase Cancer Center in Northeast Philadelphia is a research facility that discovered the groundbreaking vaccine for Hepatitis B.  

The waterfront and rebirth of the port. Since the city was founded in 1682, and even before that, when the Dutch and Swedes had trading posts and settlements along the Delaware, the port has been its primary economic lifeline. After World War II, Philadelphia began losing business to other ports, especially New York and Baltimore. A shift to container cargos and a focus on trade with South America has resulted in a business boom for the port of Philadelphia.

Because container ships don’t require the extensive facilities of the past and the shipbuilding and repair industries have changed, large stretches of emptied waterfront have been converted to commercial (big box stores and shopping centers, office parks, restaurants and nightclubs), residential (condo complexes, two high-rise projects along the Delaware River) and recreation (Penn’s Landing, which runs along the waterfront in Center City, is the site of festivals and the Independence Seaport Museum).

There are similar plans for the Schuylkill, where pieces of a long-planned park system that will link up with Fairmount Park and suburban green spaces are appearing.  

Tradition. The city has many of them, the most interesting and fun being the Mummers Parade, held Jan. 1 each year unless the weather is bad. Thousands of performers “strut” up Broad Street from South Philadelphia to the reviewing stands at City Hall Plaza after spending most of the year designing costumes made of feathers and sequins. Prizes are given to the best of the New Year’s Associations that comprise the parade divisions -- the comics, the fancies and the string bands. Generations of families are Mummers, and the tradition dates from the 18th century, when residents would fire their guns into the air and visit neighbors to celebrate the new year. The first city-sponsored parade was in 1901.

Although the Mummers seemed on the way out over the last decade, the revitalization of Center City has boosted parade attendance and national interest.  

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