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The Philadelphia Experiment

Last year, I did something that many longtime New Yorkers fear and fantasize about simultaneously: I moved out of the city for a while, mainly because I was curious to see whether my life would still work outside Manhattan. As a writer, my days are held together by an equal mix of habit and superstition. Where would I be without the R train, Leo the butcher, and the lingerie wing of Century 21, the greatest discount department store?What would happen if I could not read the morning papers from my newsstand over "the usual" at the corner coffee shop?

Over the last three years, I wrote two books, and the bulk of that work was done in Philadelphia. I would plan to visit friends there for two days and often ended up staying for five. Although I am not the sort who requires Walden-like tranquillity in order to work, I did notice that people in Philadelphia had big, quiet apartments. There was more shade on the streets in the summer, less garbage year-round. After a day of writing, I was able to go out and have a great dinner in a place where I would be seated without having to wait 45 minutes and—better yet—one that I could actually afford. Most important, I was able to achieve what often escapes people: balance, that fine line between work and rest, between busy and bored.

I made my final pre-move trip to Philadelphia on a mild night in early November to meet my friend Mitch. We walked to dinner along the bricked side streets of Society Hill—swirling leaves, people wandering home, the steady glow from electric candles set in the middle of town-house windows. I could have ordered it from Central Casting: one gorgeous town, coming up.

Philadelphia was this country's first planned city, designed by William Penn as a grid of streets positioned at the narrowest stretch between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers (pronounced "skoo-kill") and anchored by five parklike squares. At first glance, Penn's "greene countrie towne"—surrounded by Pennsylvania Dutchfarmland and a string of bucolic bedroom communities haughtily referred to as the Main Line—can seem rather agrarian at heart. But the adjacent countryside and suburbs contribute little more than fine produce and a constant stream of SUV's to Philadelphia's cultural composition; the city's true character can be found in its buildings. Philadelphia is a glorious—and often tragic—example of an industrial American city in postindustrial times. You can see it in the contour and sweep of the architecture (Neoclassical, Romanesque, Beaux-Arts, Victorian Gothic) in renovated as well as neglected neighborhoods.

Although Philadelphia's urban identity is compromised by a curse of the quaints (partly because of conventional guidebooks that focus solely on its colonial heritage), at one time this city was a manufacturing boomtown. Referred to as the "workshop of the world," Philadelphia was home to a multifaceted hub of production and distribution, including singular manufacturers such as Baldwin Locomotive Co. (you can still climb aboard a 350-ton, 101-foot-long Baldwin 60000, installed at the Franklin Institute, a science and technology museum) and Stetson Hats (inventor of the original ten-gallon cowboy hat), as well as thousands of other smokestacked factories turning out everything from toys to twine.

What happened next is no surprise to anyone who has ever fidgeted his or her way through a high school history class. During the postwar manufacturing shift, when patriotism did not extend to "buying American," businesses fled the city, abandoning factories and mills. Like other American cities, Philadelphia stumbled over the problems caused by industrial obsolescence and fell into disrepair. But here's the difference. When it came time for urban renewal, instead of focusing on the "new"—tearing down and starting over—Philadelphia honored its past by concentrating on the "re": recycling, restoring, and rethinking how to best use its structures, in the process allowing buildings to have long lives. No wonder local screenwriter and film director M. Night Shyamalan chose Philadelphia as the location for The Sixth Sense, his 1999 supernatural thriller: there is something haunting about a city where everything used to be something else.

You can see significant examples of commercial "adaptive re-use" everywhere. On Broad Street, also known as the Avenue of the Arts, the Ritz-Carlton, Philadelphia occupies a McKim, Mead & White turn-of-the-20th-century reproduction of the Roman Pantheon that once housed the Girard and Mellon banks; the former Reading Terminal, which has the world's largest single-arch train shed, is now a top-notch food market (from artisanal cheese and free-range chickens to tacos and hoagies) as well as the city's convention center; the flagship store of Philadelphia-based Anthropologie sits on a corner of Rittenhouse Square in a Beaux-Arts building that was once home to industrialist millionaires Sara Drexel Fell and Alexander Van Rensselaer.


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