Philadelphia Metropolis


Urban Revival

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If you missed the late 1980s in Philadelphia consider yourself lucky.

By the end of the decade, the city was suffering from the civic equivalent of clinical depression. Wilson Goode was mayor, though just barely. After the MOVE fiasco of 1985, Goode was re-elected to a second term, but politically he was a dead man walking, a powerless and pathetic figure.Broad and Dickinson.jpg

As to the rest, the Philadelphia story seemed to be stuck in a loop, replaying the trends of the prior 20 years: loss of jobs and population, higher crime, more poverty, continued urban decay.

The 1990 census kept the loop rolling. The city's lost 102,000 residents in the 1980s and the population had fallen to just under 1.6 million, down from 2.1 million in 1950.

I did a spreadsheet and projected those numbers forward.  If the city continued to lose six to eight percent of its population each decade, it would fall to the 1.1 million somewhere around 2020, then slip below a million sometime before 2030.


I am delighted to say those projections were wrong. The rate of decline in population

slowed during the 1990s, came to a stop sometime during this decade and the 2010 census is expected to show that the city's population has grown during this decade. 

A July 2009 census estimate, cited in a recent Pew report, put the city's population at 1,547,297, up 30,000 from 2000. It's a small gain, but I'll take it.

The same report, done by Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative, showed that out-migration from the city has slowed in this decade. Fewer people are leaving Philadelphia than previously and more people are moving from elsewhere into the city.

When you subtract those leaving with those arriving, there is still a net decline.  But, the Pew report speculates, that is probably being made up by births and the influx of foreign immigrants. (You can read a copy of the Pew report here.)

How did this happen? How did the city stop its 50-year downward slide in population and begin to grow?

I'm sure there will be plenty of seminars on that topic come 2011, when the U.S. Census count is officially released.  And I am sure there will be lots of people ready to take bows. I'm also sure there is no one thing that made the difference.  Some were internal - the activist agenda of Mayor Ed Rendell has to count for a lot.  Some were external - the improved national economy during most of the last 20 years surely is a factor.  Some were a mix of both.

Philadelphia had strengths that sustained it in bad times: a healthy central business district, an extensive mass transit system; the growing tourism and eds and meds job sectors; a plethora of arts, cultural, recreation and sports options. As they say, Philadelphia has good bones.

But, a lot of it has to do with the fact that Philadelphia is urban. It is a city - dense, textured, sometimes gritty, with a distinct character and a long history. That history, which spans five centuries, is evident in every section of town, mostly through its buildings.

It seems odd to say that Philadelphia is having success because it is a city. But, that overlooks the fact that cities went out of favor for a long time.

After World War II, cities were places people wanted to escape from, as if they were prisons. The new model for living was the suburbs - orderly, clean, quiet and crime-free.  It's where Ozzie and Harriet, Fred McMurray and his three sons, Donna Reed and Robert Young lived.

For decades, cities lost the image war. The worst was in the 70s. Just think of  live in the city presented in these movies: Serpico (73); Death Wish (74), Dog Day Afternoon (75), Taxi Driver (76).

 Despite his glorious run up the Art Museum steps, Rocky (1976) spent most of his time in shabby rowhouse neighborhoods, dark and littered with trash. And what did he do when he became champ? He and Adrian moved to the burbs.  I'm guessing New Jersey.

When my wife and I moved onto our block in South Philadelphia in the mid-1980's, the older Italian-American neighbors were incredulous. Why in the world would you move here when you could buy a nice home in Washington Township?

A few years ago, I got a call from an older guy from Washington Township, a South Philadelphia expatriate who had fled in the 70s.  He was responding to a piece I did about South Philly and he waxed nostalgic about the good old days in my neighborhood.

Of course, he said, it must be terrible for you living there. It's all ruined now.  None of that is left. I told him that a lot of what he mentioned was alive and kicking and that he should visit the area again.

No, he said, it's ruined.  It's not safe. It just isn't what it was.

He was right about that. The neighborhood isn't what it was when he left - which was holding on by its fingertips. It had changed, grown and thrived, mostly due to the influx of newcomers (they called us The Strangers) who wanted to live in a city. We were urbanites. And that tribe has grown over the decades.

I grew up in the burbs, so I get them.  My sons, who were born and raised in the city, have a genuine distaste for them. A few years ago, when my oldest was 16, I took him on an errand to New Jersey.  As we were driving along Route 73, with its strip malls and jug handles and horizontal traffic lights, he sat huddled in the front seat, silent and not at all happy. Finally, he said, more to himself than to me: "This doesn't make sense."

To him and to a growing number of his generation, cities make sense. For the sake of Philadelphia, may this tribe of urbanites prosper and grow.


-- TF






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