A Philadelphia Story
Philadelphians have stopped apologizing for the City of Brotherly Love, a place with assets that have only gotten better over time
Philadelphians have stopped apologizing for the City of Brotherly Love, a place with assets that have only gotten better over time
Sometime in the last decade or so, an unusual phenomenon gripped many residents of Philadelphia and its suburbs. Business and leisure travelers who were becoming more frequent visitors began to notice this strange new thing as well. The Philadelphians stopped apologizing for their town, at about the same time more visitors started wondering what took the residents so long to show more love and appreciation for where they live and what they have.
The phenomenon coincided with the realization, sometime around 2003, that Philly, and in particular its heart, known locally as Center City, for the first time since the 1950s was no longer losing population. In defiance of demographic predictors galore, it turned out Philadelphia was not going to be surpassed by Phoenix as the nation’s fifth-largest city. It still hasn’t been overtaken by any Sunbelt upstarts except Houston.
Eight years ago, the city got another big boost in confidence when National Geographic Traveler magazine recognized the city as more than just a stopover for Amtrak trains speeding between NewYork and Washington. In a cover story declaring it to be America’s“next great city,”Philly was warmly praised for assets that have
only gotten better over time. The town is overflowing with one of the country’s liveliest restaurant scenes; it has a healthy mix of new and old hotels, several given a boost with creative tax schemes; it’s home to world-class art museums amidst a host of cultural offerings; it has ample parks and green space; it has diverse neighborhoods with affordable housing surrounding Center City; and it retains a deep appreciation of its singular place in American history.
Put it all together and you have a compact city many business travelers actually like to visit. Unless they are among the dwindling number who still enjoy complaining about Philadelphia International Airport or its hub carrier US Airways, visitors to the city are more likely to remember Philly for having a modern, sprawling Pennsylvania Convention Center smack in the middle of its central business district, within a few blocks walk of thousands of hotel rooms. Neither can the visitor miss that the city’s sidewalks are no longer rolled up after dark, a function of the growing population that supports a lively cultural, dining and entertainment scene in Center City. Only NewYork and Chicago have more people living in and around their central business districts than Philadelphia does.
Despite the recognition it has received, Philadelphia doesn’t often come in high on lists of the most popular cities for visitors when it’s up against San Francisco, New York or Washington, DC, or unique places like New Orleans or Santa Fe – places with global name recognition and far more developed leisure-travel markets. But Philly is in the top tier of US cities for its cultural, educational, health care and historical institutions and for preservation of much of its 18th- to early 20th-century central core. Those qualities are drawing younger residents, including many who attend college in the region and choose to stay after graduation, as well as retiring Baby Boomers moving from the suburbs, helping keep the city’s total population above the 1.5 million mark.
“More and more, people are moving here and staying here,”boasts Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, noting that the 2010 US Census showed that the city had gained residents for the first time in 60 years.“And from 2010 to 2012, we gained another 9,000 people. Philadelphia is a culturally vibrant and sustainable place,” notes the Mayor.“It’s a big city and a walkable city but one that still has a small town feel to it.”
Nutter is quick to add that Philadelphia has been called America’s most European city, for both some of its major landmarks and for the look and feel of Center City neighborhoods like Washington Square West and Society Hill, with their warrens of small streets of 19th century homes. “Our City Hall and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway remind you of Paris,”he says.
All-American As Well
Philadelphia also has aspects that could not be more uniquely American. In what is accurately called the most historic square mile in the country, a few blocks from the Convention Center, a nation was nurtured and given birth. In addition to icons such as the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, newer attractions in Independence National Historic Park include the National Constitution Center, the National Museum of American Jewish History, and the President’s House, a recreation of the new nation’s first White House, where George Washington, the“Father of the Country,”lived in the 1790s with a retinue of slaves.
Jack Ferguson, president of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, points to other new developments that visitors don’t want to miss. A spectacular new home for the renowned Barnes Foundation’s Impressionist art collection has opened on the Ben Franklin Parkway, a few blocks from the equally classy Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Pennsylvania Convention Center almost doubled its exhibition space with a massive addition that extended its footprint to Broad Street, the city’s major north-south thoroughfare, just north of City Hall, the largest municipal building in the US, and bigger than the US Capitol.
“If you haven’t been to Philly in the last five years, you haven’t been to Philly,”Ferguson says.
First impressions of a city and region are important and Philadelphia offers a memorable introduction for many business travelers with 30th Street Station, its handsome, 80-year-old rail hub on the Schuylkill River at the western end of Center City. The station is the third-busiest in Amtrak’s system, outpaced only by Penn Station in NewYork and Union Station in Washington. Besides trains virtually every half hour to Boston, NewYork, Washington, the state capital in Harrisburg, Pa., and other East Coast points, 30th Street bustles with commuter traffic on half a dozen suburban rail routes operated by SEPTA, the regional transportation authority. One of the suburban rail lines connects PHL airport to the rest of region, with trains every 30 minutes.
In part due to its location, the station supports a variety of eateries and retail stores. Besides serving rail passengers, the services are convenient to the burgeoning University City area west of the Schuylkill and Center City, what Ferguson calls“the smart side of town.” That means it’s home to Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania, some of the world’s most renowned medical institutions and numerous other scientific and technologically oriented enterprises. Ferguson points out that the region was helped through the recession by having a diverse economy, led by“eds and meds,” referring to colleges, medical schools, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies that are the leading employers.
PHL Gaining Altitude
Roughly eight miles southwest of Center City, Philadelphia International Airport is squeezed between the Delaware River and Interstate 95 and has all of the good features, and a few of the headaches, of both a domestic hub and an international connecting gateway for direct flights to Europe and the Caribbean. US Airways’ hub operation and service by most other domestic carriers and a handful of foreign ones makes PHL a convenient place to reach from virtually every large- and mid-sized US city and a dozen in Europe. US Airways has about two-thirds of the airport’s flights and passengers, and currently operates 460 daily departures to 85 destinations. Unlike the NewYork and Washington areas with their multiple airports, PHL is the only major air field in a catchment area of six million people.
In another development that should make Philadelphians optimistic, US Airways CEO Doug Parker has declared that the airline’s PHL operation will stay intact as a domestic and secondary international hub if his carrier succeeds in its plan to merge with American Airlines. In fact, noted Mark Gale, the airport’s chief executive, US Airways wants to add to its international service with its application to start the first nonstop flights from Philly to Brazil. The airline also has long had ambitions to fly nonstop to China, Japan, South Korea or all three from PHL, Gale says.
Despite skepticism by some airline industry analysts, there’s a lot of logic behind what Parker, who will be CEO of the new American if the merger goes through, has promised for PHL. American has only 100 or so daily departures to US and international cities from NewYork’s slot-controlled Kennedy Airport, 100 miles northeast of PHL. There simply isn’t room at JFK, in the sky or on the ground, for much of the connecting traffic now flowing over Philly. Just over 55 percent of the hub’s traffic is local, starting or ending flights in the Philadelphia area, with the rest connecting passengers headed to or from Europe or points along the East Coast.
What’s more, since Parker’s old America West Airlines took over US Airways in 2004, US Airways has made good on promises to improve what he acknowledged was embarrassingly bad customer service, delivered by a disgruntled Philadelphia work force. The airport’s reputation suffered for years from both the service problems and a location that can cause flight delays, jammed onto a swampy 2,000-acre site with limited runway capacity and sandwiched between the NewYork and Washington air-traffic control areas.
The city-owned airport has done its part to overcome the problems, spending about $1 billion in revenue from passengers and airlines over a decade on infrastructure improvements. Gale ticked off a list of the upgrades, including adding a new international terminal, upgrades to much of is baggage-handling facilities, larger security checkpoints, additional restaurants and retail stores, an expanded gate area for Southwest Airlines, an enlarged concessions area in its commuter concourse used by US Airways Express, an ongoing project to rebuild every airport restroom and, coming soon, a new baggage-claim building for the commuter terminal.
Staying and Eating
The area around Philadelphia International has the usual collection of hotels operated by the big chains, but Center City is home to business travelers’favorite lodgings. At the top end is The Rittenhouse Hotel, the 93-room luxury-boutique leader, with its prime location on Rittenhouse Square, along with the Four Seasons, in another fine spot on the Parkway at Logan Circle, and the Ritz-Carlton, a can’t-miss-it former bank building across the street from City Hall and at the top of the Avenue of the Arts (South Broad Street).
Nipping at the heels of those luxury leaders are two recently opened Kimpton hotels, the Palomar and the Monaco, both of them in rehabbed early 20th-century office buildings. The Monaco, at 5th and Chestnut Streets, is off to an especially fast start since it opened in late 2012 and is already ranked No. 2 (behind the Palomar) in popularity on TripAdvisor for Philly hotels. Among the principal conventionoriented hotels are the Philadelphia Marriott and the Loews Philadelphia.
Among other Center City boutiques, travelers like The Alexander Inn, the recently renovated Latham Hotel, The Independent and the Morris House Hotel. Among chain offerings, the newest is Le Meridien, just a block from the Convention Center. Another perennial favorite, the Hilton Inn at Penn, is in a lively retail zone in University City, adjacent to the University of Pennsylvania. Another longtime favorite, the Omni at Independence Park, occupies a prime corner in Old City.
For those at a Convention Center event with an hour for lunch, life’s biggest dilemma could be: Do we walk a block or two east, where we will find dozens of Asian restaurants in the city’s Chinatown section, or do we drop down to the center’s ground level for a stroll through the Reading Terminal Market, among the nation’s oldest continuously operating farmers’market, with dozens of choices for sandwiches, salads, pasta, cheese steaks or, just in case, Chinese. Unless the biggest challenge is how to keep from overindulging at lunch because you know the opportunities abound for a sublime dinner at one of the city’s upscale restaurants.
For someone who lived in Philadelphia for decades and now returns occasionally for visits, the dilemma for this writer is whether to dine in some of my longtime favorite establishments or try some of the more celebrated new eateries. Among the city’s most highly regard restaurants are the dining rooms of two of the best hotels: The Fountain at the Four Seasons and La Croix at the Rittenhouse. In the same highend territory is Vetri, the premier restaurant of Marc Vetri, one of Philly’s culinary stars, and Le Bec Fin, a premier French restaurant now under new management.
Among celebrity chef Stephen Starr’s ever-expanding array of restaurants, many diners love Parc, on Rittenhouse Square, a stunning recreation of a Paris bistro. Il Pitorre is a newer, well-patronized specialist in great pasta dishes, in city overflowing with excellent Italian dining. On lower Market Street, Fork continues to get rave reviews. Among longtime neighborhood favorites is Standard Tap in the Northern Liberties area, with both burgers and a wide ranging number of daily specials. In the Fairmount section just north of the Art Museum, the oldstandbys, London and Rembrandt’s, are still popular with locals more than three decades after their opening.
Travelers to Philadelphia can find more information at discoverphl.com or visitphilly.com. BT
Opposite page: Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Love Park Right: The Liberty Bell, President’s House and the Academy of Fine Arts building
Opposite page: Independence Hall, Historic Philadelphia Center, Philadelphia International Airport Above : The Rittenhouse Hotel Left : Ritz Carlton Hotel