The Philadelphia Experiment
Published: May 2009
By Francine Maroukian
What happens when America's most historic city wants to forge a new identity?<b>Francine Maroukian</b> looks beyond the Liberty Bell.
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.
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.
But the strongest case I can make for this city's revitalization is its diverse restaurant scene. For the last 20 years, telling New Yorkers what to eat has been my business. As a former highfalutin caterer, I have prepared intimate parties in private homes as well as splashy events like a sit-down dinner for 300 at the Guggenheim Museum. It was also my pleasure to tell people where to eat, providing restaurant advice by matching the specific occasion to the perfect location. But lately, when people ask me to name my favorite restaurants, I tell them that on the whole, I'd rather eat in Philadelphia.
This city has been the culinary hub of my adult life as I traveled up and down the Northeast Corridor. In the early seventies, when it was still a thrill to find fancy food in funky places, I had my first "fusion" meal (today's upmarket name for flavors from a city's melting-pot neighborhoods) in a renovated storefront restaurant called Frog. During that period, I also ate at Wildflowers, Astral Plane, and Lickety Split; the names may sound outdated, but what was going on in those restaurants is still influencing cuisine today. Before terms like regional and free-range became commonplace, these entrepreneurs were using what they could get their hands on: the bounty from the countryside, where tradition kept the farmers rooted in agriculture, not agribusiness. Although they may not have gotten the press of their Californian counterparts such as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, people like Steve Poses of Frog were at the forefront of a culinary revolution, scratching seasonal menus on blackboards out of necessity, not merely fashion.
Today, the city has almost too many destination restaurants to mention: Striped Bass, Morimoto, Susanna Foo, La Croix, Salt, as well as offerings from headlining chefs that show up on hot-restaurant roundups, such as Marc Vetri's eponymous 10-table hybrid of classic and contemporary Italian cooking, or Guillermo Pernot's fiery ¡Pasión!, to name just a few.
And witness the city's burgeoning "bring your own bottle" movement. Liquor and wine distribution in Pennsylvania is run by the state, and restaurateurs pay the same amount as their own customers (their only discount being the 7 percent sales tax), so it might seem that the BYOB trend grows out of restriction. But it's actually about freedom. A BYOB is often more of a personal statement for the chef-owner, with a smaller number of seats than most conventional restaurants and a spontaneous seasonal menu.
Most people don't typically figure the cost of the bottle into the cost of the meal, and, for that reason, BYOB's are almost recession-proof, quickly building a coterie of repeat customers. First-timers often complain about the very things that make BYOB's so lovable to regulars: the panache of limited seating, the excitement of small, select menus listing specials that may be snapped up by the time they get a chance to order.
At the popular Django (526 S. Fourth St.; 215/922-7151; dinner for two $70), Aimee Olexy and her husband, Bryan Sikora, are big proponents of the "buy local, cook global" philosophy, showcasing food that is fragile in its seasonality. Order a dish such as cannelloni of wild dried Montana morels, sautéed wild leeks, and white-asparagus vinaigrette when you see it; it may take another growing cycle before you see it again.
This surging scene reminds me of years ago, when a chef from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, told me: "There are three kinds of cuisine in America. There is French, there is Oriental, there is Philadelphian."
Now that I live in Philadelphia, I am more guide than guest these days. For the most part, friends who come to visit aren't interested in the Liberty Bell. I let them do a couple of cartwheels in my thousand-square-foot loft, and that's all the Philadelphia freedom they seem to require. In addition to giving restaurant advice, I also encourage them to see the beautiful public gardens in Independence National Historical Park, near the just-opened National Constitution Center, a strikingly angular structure designed by Henry N. Cobb. "Center City Philadelphia has the nation's largest concentration of people who walk to work," reports Mark Alan Hughes, senior fellow of the University of Pennsylvania; strolling through this immaculate public ground, you can understand why. People in Philadelphia live with history on a daily basis. They have access to national landmarks not found in most other American cities. I might not stand in line with schoolchildren to see the most significant institutions of our colonial heritage, but I rarely miss the opportunity to walk through the park on warm days, stretching out on a bench to have my coffee.
Early one recent morning, I was awakened by the irritating, all-too-familiar sound of rattling jackhammers: a 7 a.m. crew was outside, tearing up the historic Belgian Block surface of New Street, a short stretch connecting Third and Fourth Streets in my neighborhood. "Typical city wreck and ruin" I grumbled as I closed my windows against the noise. Weeks later, when the work was done, I watched several masons get down on their knees to reline the street—by hand—with the blocks they had painstakingly saved. When people ask if I regret my experimental exodus, this is the poetic, quintessential Philadelphia moment I conjure up.
Philadelphia took more than 150 years to develop, and three of its neighborhoods generally chronicle that spread, from east to west. For your own self-guided walking tour, start at the Delaware and work your way toward the Schuylkill.
STAY AT: SHERATON SOCIETY HILL Set back from a wide, tree-lined drive that sweeps around the Greek Revival-style Philadelphia Merchant's Exchange (the first stock exchange in the country), this compact hotel is built low to match the scale of the neighborhood and to preserve river views from Society Hill Towers, the I. M. Pei-designed apartments across the drive. 1 Dock St.; 800/325-3535; www.starwood.com; doubles from $179.
EAT AT: FORK A graceful, non-gimmicky American bistro where everyone will be happy. Order the house-baked sour cream coffee cake or mascarpone-stuffed French toast with warm currant compote at the friendliest Sunday brunch in town. 306 Market St.; 215/625-9425; brunch for two $30.
SNACK AT: PETIT 4 PASTRY STUDIO There's finely detailed, French-influenced pastry work going on here: classic tortes, tarts, and éclairs. If you're lucky, the bakers might be working on a tray of their trademark petits fours—Tiffany-blue boxes with a ribbon of icing, or pink squares featuring Robert Indiana's distinctive LOVE logo. 160 N. Third St.; 215/627-8440.
SHOP AT: FOSTER'S URBAN HOMEWARE If New Yorkers are obsessed with their city, and Californians with their cars, Philadelphians fixate on their interiors. Nothing exemplifies the city's metro-modern mojo better than Foster's, a sort of glamorous hardware store carrying a well-edited mix of streamlined glassware, utensils, and textiles. A savvy staff offers design and decorating advice to shoppers more concerned with the question, "Does this go with my life?" than "Does this match my couch?" 124 N. Third St.; 267/671-0588.
DON'T MISS: The Dream Garden is a 15-by-49-foot mosaic mural by Louis Comfort Tiffany, based on a Maxfield Parrish painting; it's housed in the lobby of the Curtis Center, a 1910 Georgian Revival that served as headquarters for the Saturday Evening Post. In 1998, developer Steve Wynn bought the iridescent mural (100,000 pieces of glass in some 260 tones) for his art collection, but civic-minded Philadelphians helped reverse the sale, and The Dream Garden stayed put. Walnut and Sixth Sts.; admission free.
STAY AT: LOEWS PHILADELPHIA HOTEL Designed by Howe and Lescaze and built in 1932, the landmarked Philadelphia Saving Fund Society building was the first International Style skyscraper in the country. Its 27-foot-high, red neon PSFS sign (lit 24 hours a day during the Depression to reassure customers) is a fixture in the Philadelphia skyline. The Loews Philadelphia Hotel now occupies the structure; on the three concierge levels (29th floor and above), you can see the 27-ton, cast-iron William Penn crowning nearby City Hall, the largest statue in the world to top a building. 1200 Market St.; 800/235-6397; www.loewshotels.com; doubles from $215.
EAT AT: VIETNAM Clean, light, fragrant, and energized are the words for the cuisine at Vietnam. Owner Benny Thuan Lai attributes such adjectives to the leaves: almost every dish is served alongside mint, lettuce, or lemongrass. Order No. 8, charbroiled pork rolls wrapped in rice paper, followed by No. 75, "seafood spicy salt," along with a Vietnamese beer. 221 N. 11th St.; 215/592-1163; dinner for two $35.
DON'T MISS: Philadelphia's legendary cheese steaks are really neither about the cheese nor the steak, they're about the story—where it is, how long it took you to find it, and who went along for the ride. Seven years ago, Sheila Lukins, my former boss at the Silver Palate, asked me to write about cheese steaks for her USA Cookbook. I was driven around Philadelphia by Wayne and Bob Aretz, brothers who knew every culinary nook and cranny of the city and asked lots of questions. Was the roll crusty enough and the interior soft but still substantial?Is Cheez Whiz the right choice?(If so, order "wit Whiz.") After three days of discussion and tasting—including several from the Reading Terminal Market at 12th and Arch Streets—we decided upon Tony Luke's (39 E. Oregon Ave.; 215/551-5725), a well-balanced cheese steak "wit." Truth is, I really don't remember the sandwich all that well. But riding around town in pursuit of hot meat was unforgettable.
STAY AT: FOUR SEASONS HOTEL PHILADELPHIA From the Four Seasons, you get a sense of the span of the Ben Franklin Parkway, marked by "the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost," works from three generations of the Calder family. Alexander Milne Calder created the famous statue of Penn that tops City Hall; his son Alexander Stirling Calder's Swann Memorial is at Logan Circle, and the white Ghost mobile in the Philadelphia Museum of Art was designed by grandson Alexander (Sandy) Calder. 1 Logan Square; 800/332-3442; www.fourseasons.com; doubles from $310.
EAT AT: FOUNTAIN RESTAURANT AT THE FOUR SEASONS Chef Martin Hamann challenges his hometown's cheese steak image with citified dishes such as Muscovy duck dressed with red onion tarte Tatin and star anise game reduction. This is mature, intelligent cooking—refined without being rarefied—and Hamann never loses his footing. 215/963-1500; dinner for two $125.
DON'T MISS: The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts houses American art ranging from Thomas Eakins to Georgia O'Keeffe. But the real jewel is the building itself, designed by George Hewitt and Frank Furness; Furness was influenced by art critic John Ruskin's book-length 1849 essay Seven Lamps of Architecture (adhering to the Lamp of Truth meant that everything used was real—no plaster painted to look like wood). The building is strange and wonderful and slightly hallucinogenic: black, pink, and white marble; a starry, brilliant blue ceiling; ornamental birds and flowers everywhere. 118 N. Broad St.; 215/972-7600.
You can spend a weekend in Philadelphia and eat almost every meal in a different Stephen Starr restaurant. A former concert promoter, Starr is a supercharged urban planner/party planner who frequently describes his properties in terms of movies and television shows. But don't call them theme restaurants; instead, Starr creates complete environments with an artistic, almost cerebral approach.Here, the best places (and times) for an all-Starr sampler.
BRUNCH JONES The retro décor of Jones—swivel chairs, wall-to-wall carpeting, even a fieldstone fireplace—seems a cross between the Mid-Century Modern of Rob and Laura Petrie and the Brady Bunch's seventies split-level ranch. Order the BMW pancakes: caramelized bananas, maple syrup, and walnuts. 700 Chestnut St.; 215/223-5663; brunch for two $35.
LUNCH CONTINENTAL A stainless-steel diner retooled as a martini bar with a global tapas menu. Olive-shaped halogen lamps pierced by huge toothpicks are suspended over the booths; the banquettes are olive green with pimiento-red trim. 138 Market St.; 215/923-6069; lunch for two $35.
DINNER POD If George and Jane Jetson opened an Asian-fusion place of their own, Pod would be it. There's a sushi conveyor belt, molded rubber furniture that lights up when you sit down, and high-gloss white poured-resin walls. 3636 Sansom St.; 215/387-1803; dinner for two $80.
DINNER ALMA DE CUBA A collaboration with nuevo latino master Douglas Rodriguez means signature ceviche (such as Fire and Ice: fluke with preserved lemon and hot garlic oil) and Cuban-inspired dishes like truffled empanadas and sugarcane-skewered tuna. 1623 Walnut St.; 215/988-1799; dinner for two $80.
DINNER BUDDAKAN A 10-foot gold Buddha watches over a long communal table in this former post office. On the menu: ginger martinis, edamame ravioli, and roasted ponzu chicken. 325 Chestnut St.; 215/574-9440; dinner for two $80.
LATE NIGHT TANGERINE You'll walk through a long, come-to-the-Casbah candlelit entranceway before you find the dining room, where votive candles, tucked into dozens of tiny individual niches along one wall, flicker like the twinkling lights of a distant city. 232 Market St.; 215/627-5116; dinner for two $80.
WHENEVER YOU CAN GET A TABLE MORIMOTO Starr joined forces with Masaharu Morimoto (TV's Iron Chef) and designer Karim Rashid to create this stunningly beautiful space. The walls are so rounded and smooth that they're almost liquid, while glass-top tables are framed by opalescent, lit-from-within benches that slowly shift from blue and green to fuchsia. Morimoto's ever-changing omakase ("Put yourself in my hands") is a multicourse tasting menu that may include such delicacies as hot-oil sashimi (live scallops splashed with blended hot oil and sprinkled with ginger and chives) or Kobe beef foie gras with Japanese sweet potato. 723 Chestnut St.; 215/413-9070; omakase for two $160.
Philadelphia is within easy driving distance of its nearest big-city siblings: 109 miles south of New York City and 136 miles north of Washington, D.C. Another option: leave the car behind and come here by train (Amtrak serves the city from several points along the Eastern Seaboard), arriving at the grand 1934 30th Street Station. It's a short walk (or cab ride, if you really miss that car) to Center City.