Monday, December 18, 2017
Travel

Philadelphia proud: Artists, foodies and a growing population discover a city anew

PHILADELPHIA

When I was a kid growing up in a suburb of Philadelphia, the city's tourism board launched a goofy ad campaign that featured adults strolling around in their pajamas. They visited the art museum in their pajamas, and they shopped — clearly buying real clothes — while remaining in their pj's.

Called "Philly's more fun when you sleep over," it made the city seem desperate. Just stay the night, it pleaded. We won't even ask you to put on a pair of pants.

This ad stands out as a particularly humiliating moment for the city, up there with the time in the early '70s when officials placed a billboard next to the Schuylkill Expressway that read: "Philadelphia isn't as bad as Philadelphians say it is."

I was certain it was that bad. I was also a teenage snot who didn't know what she was talking about.

The last train back to the suburbs left the city at 12:10 a.m., final call for us, a bunch of kids who couldn't stomach another Friday night hanging out in a suburban Wawa parking lot. To avoid that fate, we'd head for the city, knowing little about it and even less about what we might do once there, and talking, often, of the future, when we'd all move to New York.

It wasn't Philly's fault that we couldn't drink, couldn't afford anything more expensive than a CD and were confined to how far we could walk.

Where have you been all my life?

Unlike New Yorkers, Philadelphians don't live stacked on top of one another, but spread out across a web of neighborhoods. At the end of the workday, the core would empty, leaving us walking the busiest streets alone, surrounded by check cashing businesses and dingy clothing stores. By the early 2000s, Philadelphia had been losing jobs and residents for half a century.

But nearly a decade has gone by, and I have to ask: What's the statute of limitations on apologies to a city?

It wasn't until a recent trip back that I met Philly as an adult, a visit that felt like running into an attractive, long-forgotten schoolmate at a reunion and pointedly asking: Weren't you that kid who wore cargo shorts and sold bootleg DVDs?

Did I have the wrong person in mind all along?

Friends who swore they'd never come back have started to return, lured by a place that's younger and livelier than the city we thought we knew.

Most American cities are growing, but it wasn't inevitable that Philly, in all its postindustrial, dilapidated glory, would do the same. Yet the population is increasing, especially when it comes to 20- to 30-year-olds, many of whom have fled cities like New York or San Francisco that promised to bankrupt them.

On this particular trip back, I worried how my girlfriend and I would fill four days. I threatened to take her to the Betsy Ross House, an obligatory stop in a Pennsylvania child's education. But by the end of our stay, she had still never tried a cheesesteak or gone anywhere near the Liberty Bell. There was plenty else to do.

Sorry, cheesesteak, I'm busy tonight

When I left Philly in 2005, the food scene was already ascendant. Judy Wicks was at the helm of White Dog Cafe, which had an entirely farm-to-table menu before the term became popular. And Ellen Yin, a Wicks protege, was running Fork, a New American bistro in Old City that, 16 years later, still feels fresh.

In the ensuing years, restaurants and bars have opened in neighborhoods far from downtown that previously had little to offer. Some are derivatives of Brooklyn successes, like the Fette Sau and Barcade facsimiles in Fishtown, a former manufacturing district north of Center City. With its coffeehouses and stores that sell nothing but old globes and whiskey-infused soap, Fishtown naturally draws comparisons to Williamsburg, but it's years away from being dismissed as the home of hipster excess.

Most of the new arrivals are entirely Philly inventions. Pizza Brain, a quirky pizza parlor that opened last year in Fishtown, has walls covered in an obsessive's collection of macrame pizza slices and pizza-themed vinyl records. And farther south, in the historically Italian Bella Vista neighborhood, Little Fish, one of the city's many BYOB restaurants, is serving Alaskan king crab with rice noodles and hot sour broth.

Whereas 10 years ago I couldn't have told you where to get decent Mexican food, the city's growing immigrant population has spawned a handful of options. In South Philly, cheap taco places now abut the Italian Market, blasting mariachi music near shops where balls of provolone hang from the ceiling. Not far from there, half a dozen competing Vietnamese restaurants have taken over an entire shopping center.

Curtains rise on art, theater, music scene

Autumn flatters Philadelphia. Without massive condos blocking out the sun, afternoon light accents the ivy-coated buildings and murals, which have multiplied in the years since I left. Some are so cheesy, you'd think they were painted under pressure from a socialist propaganda machine, but others are strikingly honest portraits of hard-working locals. We walked by dozens of them, passing scenes of Puerto Rican immigrants in the Centro de Oro district and African-American pool players farther to the south.

The indoor art scene has benefited hugely from the recent relocation of the Barnes Museum from the suburbs to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The idea was to draw more people, so I expected the museum's designers to scrap the collection's tightly laid-out arrangement. But they didn't. Every room on the first floor is a near-replica of the Lower Merion mansion I remember from childhood visits, with works by Renoir, Cézanne and Matisse hung so close they almost touch.

These days, Philly has a theater scene, dozens of concert venues and tiny art collectives.

It's an odd time to celebrate the city. The money-starved public school system is disintegrating, and its cops have been acting more like bored criminals lately than agents of the law. If none of that changes, it's hard to imagine the recent arrivals sticking around.

But they're there for now, they're claiming ownership and their numbers are expected to keep rising.

It's a trend that will force the city to think about how it wants to grow and who stands to benefit from that growth, questions that would have seemed unimaginable a decade ago, when cities like Austin were trying to stay weird and Philly was trying to stay clean.

In the city I thought I knew, there was no doubting Philly's underdog identity. Perhaps it's not as bad as they say it is.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @annamphillips.

     
                           
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