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The Philadelphia Experiment

Most vital to Philadelphia's resurgence are industrial-to-residential conversions. Thanks to a 10-year property tax abatement, converting the abandoned buildings of Philadelphia's past is more than doable; it's desirable. Unsightlyfeatures that smacked of a building's working-class roots—cumbersome details such as beams supported by metal columns; exposed pipes crisscrossing mile-high ceilings; wall-sized windows that actually open (necessary for light and air in factories without modern climate control)—have been reborn as industrial chic.

Again, what is happening in Philadelphia may appear to be no different from what is happening in other American cities attempting the same overhauls. But the number, size, and diversity of the factories still standing, plus their proximity and contrast to other historical housing, is unparalleled. I've got nothing but love for these buildings. Center City's industrial conversions are as distinctive and important as the Federal-style town houses and Victorian mansions of Society Hill and Rittenhouse Square. They speak of Philadelphia's history, just a different—but perhaps not as picturesque—era.

In less residential areas, large-scale conversions have taken place. A prime example of this transformation is the Left Bank, a mixed-use complex located in a block-long, 700,000-square-foot Art Deco building that was originally the Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Warehouse (among the largest buildings on the National Register of Historic Places to be converted to residential use). But even in Center City, developers have changed more than 300,000 square feet of factory and warehouse space into loft housing in the past three years, with 500,000 more on the drawing board.

The population of Center City skews in favor of single-person households (61 percent). And in one of those odd twists that demographers love, the very people who sought the solace of the suburbs in order to raise a family now find themselves longing for a return to city living as they watch television in their relaxed-fit jeans. According to Center City Developments (published by the Center City District and Central Pennsylvania Development Corp.), between 1990 and 2000, married couples became Center City's second-largest residential group, at 15 percent. Even my neighbors, an older couple who "retired" from the suburbs, became late-in-life loft dwellers in the converted shoe factory we call home.

Ask a dozen Philadelphians what draws them to downtown and you'll get as many answers. Some will go on about everything from the Pennsylvania Ballet to experimental theater, in such impressive settings as the Academy of Music—the oldest American grand opera house still used for its original purpose—and the soaring Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, designed by Rafael Viñoly.

Others point to the city's wide range of subcultures. During the residential concentration of its industrial heyday, immigrants formed their own communities, setting up churches, shops, and schools in districts where they could continue to speak their native language. Today there are still distinct "communities" below the city's surface, but kinship seems rooted in shared tastes rather than commonly held ethnic and religious traditions. Every society has a "third place" that provides a walk-to refuge between work and home —the Parisian sidewalk café, the Italian gelateria, the German Biergarten—and the continuing presence of these European-style hangouts is a direct link to Philadelphia's multicultural past.

One of my favorite third places is the chic coffeehouse La Colombe (130 S. 19th St.; 215/563-0860), with a beautiful solid wood turn-of-the-century bar, converted by partners Jean-Philippe Iberti and Todd Carmichael into a customized coffee station. The partners started their café business in 1994 using a 15-kilo Vittoria roaster, and now turn out 470 metric tons a year. Not only is La Colombe the best cup of coffee I've ever had in Philadelphia, but it is the best cup of coffee I've ever had anywhere, including New York. With five blends sold nationally, La Colombe is served in the restaurants of Manhattan's pickiest chefs, like Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.


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