You Can Feel The Difference

November 14, 2012 |  by  |  Possible City  |  ,


Photo: Bradley Maule

“The city feels bigger to us,” said my godmother Rori, who lived in Philadelphia in the 1960s and who was visiting a week ago. “Has it grown?”

I probably smiled.

“Whenever we return to Philadelphia,” she continued, “we go around–and we’re very careful observers–and this time it really seems like things have changed.”

It wasn’t hard to feel that way. We were sitting inside one of the exquisite penthouse libraries on the awfully refined rooftop terrace of the new Hotel Monaco at Fifth and Chestnut–the kind of space you’re likely to encounter in Mexico City or Istanbul or Athens. The emerald lawn of Independence Mall sprawled out below us; and the Bourse next door–perhaps Philadelphia’s most beautiful building–burned amber in the mid-morning sun.

Rori isn’t the only one to notice. My friend the acclaimed author Beth Kephart, whose 2007 book Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River is one of the most closely observed works on the contemporary city, wrote recently in the Inquirer, that the city today makes her “feel electric and included, part of a big thing getting bigger, younger than I inevitably am. I’ll feel proud–that’s what it is. Hopeful. Alive.”

Photo: Peter Woodall, 2011

The insistent life of the city now extends in all directions; it crosses bridges; it climbs into dead spaces like the Lafayette Building reborn as the Hotel Monaco, as Kephart notes, into once “lost or crumbled things.” It seeps into the sidewalk on Fairmount Avenue, on Broad and Cecil B. Moore, on Frankford and Passyunk, on Moyamensing and Lancaster and Girard.

It’s crept into the imagination of Drexel University president John Fry, the quietly assertive and incomparably effective city builder, who in figuring out how to develop the 30th Street rail yards is determined to leverage the city’s most valuable assets for future growth.

It’s pushed its way into the board rooms of major real estate developers who had thought the only way to make money in Philadelphia was to build in Great Valley or Conshohocken or South Jersey.

And despite the seemingly intractable wall of racialized poverty, violence, and addiction, despite brutally byzantine tax policies, despite painfully recalcitrant bureaucracy, despite nagging efforts to reverse progressive plans and codes, the wind, as Center City District CEO Paul Levy has noted, is at our back.

For the city is indeed still growing–probably has been since about 2005–and you can feel the difference.

Photo: Bradley Maule

Consistent with a broadly pro-urban demographic shift across the US–of the 20 large, old central cities I analyzed, only four are losing population–Philadelphia grew seven-tenths of a percent from 2010 to 2011.

That seven-tenths of a percent–the very slender difference between decline and growth–quietly informs every discussion, every experience, every project being unfurled.

It’s not growth alone, for had it not been for the irrational resilience of Philly folks–from Ed Rendell to Lily Yeh–during what felt like the eternal decline of the 1980s and 1990s, there may not have been enough energy left to recover and build on. Eight of the top ten largest cities in 1950 had as of that census reached their peak population (only New York and Los Angeles are larger now then they were then). Of those eight, four have begun to recover from their late 20th century losses: Chicago (which grew in the 1990s, lost on the 2000s, and is growing again), Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington. None of those cities had lost more than 25 percent of their peak population, but the other four–Baltimore (-35 percent), Cleveland (-57 percent), Detroit (-62 percent), and St. Louis (-63 percent)–have. That they still appear to be shedding people is reason enough for us to be grateful for all the real possibilities that lie ahead.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. His essays and book reviews appear in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, The Millions, and Fanzine.


  1. I agree with you about Phila, but Strickland’s Merchant Exchange is by far our most beautiful building.

  2. Love this. Thank you.

  3. I’d say the rebirth happened years before. Case in point: In a stroke of genius and a leap of faith, a group of developers began converting the abandoned Piers 3 and 5 into residences beginning in 1985. But the housing market collapsed and hardly anyone bought, so the buildings became apartment houses in 1986. But after a Miami developer bought Pier 3 from a foreclosing bank, the 172 units there sold out within three weeks in 1994! Meanwhile, after a similar story at Pier 5, 40 of 96 units sold on a single weekend!


  1. Good Article on the Growth and renwed "feel" of Philadelphia - City-Data Forum
  2. Philadelphia vs. Minneapolis - Page 22 - City-Data Forum
  3. Pearls Of The Delaware | Hidden City Philadelphia
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