Ahead of NFL draft, looking back to when a tour of Philly meant Rizzo and mob hits

The Frank Rizzo statue on the steps of the Municipal Services Building in Philadelphia.

When I arrived in Philly 15 years ago, I did what any transplant would do: I asked another transplant for a tour.

My friend Jim happily obliged. Like me, he was a New Yorker. He had gone to college with my oldest brother and moved here for work. He fell in love with the city, married, started a family. He had even become a South Philly committeeman.

Jim offered a choice of a short tour (a cheesesteak and the Liberty Bell) or the full tour. I went with the full tour.

As I rode shotgun in Jim’s maroon Buick LeSabre, we drove through the streets of South Philly, past Frank Rizzo’s childhood house (Jim was on a Rizzo kick), varied locales of mob hits, and the informal parking lot in the middle of South Broad (there thanks to Rizzo, Jim said).

Next, City Hall, immortalized in Jim's telling when John Travolta drove through its courtyard in the movie Blow Out. Then the Wanamaker Building, where Mannequin was filmed. And, knowing every tour needs a touch of the macabre, Jim slowed in front of the old Four Seasons. This is where Joan Rivers' husband killed himself, Jim said solemnly.  

We finished at the Art Museum, where Jim drove around back and parked atop the Rocky steps. The view was magnificent, even if the skyline then was a bit less impressive. 

So my first tour of Philly consisted mainly of mobsters, party bosses and sordid death. Like Jim, I was hooked.

I bring this up not simply out of nostalgia, but because Thursday our streets will be flooded with hundreds of thousands of temporary transplants, some taking in their first view of our city, a city barely recognizable from the one I saw from the steps of the Art Museum in 2002.

This is no longer uncharted territory. Three big events in three years. The Pope. The Democratic National Convention. Now the NFL draft, the three-day bonanza that kicks off  Thursday at the amphitheater built for it at the museum. It's no longer just that we've been here before, it's just what we do. 

Not just that our city has changed; so ,too, has our image of ourselves.

I talk about this every time one of these big shows comes to town. But this time, we didn’t have to talk very much. Because, aside from the unlucky souls in Fairmount living in lockdown for the last few weeks (sorry, Fairmount, it is pretty bad up there, and the city needs to address it for the next event), we’ve progressed to the point where we’re not going bananas over a few traffic barriers.

Perhaps my sanguinity comes from being a baseball fan who doesn't particularly care about the draft. What I do care about is that we’re once again on the national stage, and at last, Philly is the attraction, not just the venue.

The mega-events “come on the heels of Philadelphia itself becoming the draw,” Meryl Levitz, president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia, told my colleague Suzette Parmley. People come now for our food and culture, history and museums, and so much more, Levitz said.

Now, they come for the draft.

Plus, I want that cash. The projected economic impact of the draft for the city is $80 million, compared with the $500 grand the city’s laying out in services.

Projections can be dangerous, as we learned with the DNC. Still, a nice deal if we can swing it.

And, yes as my colleague Bob Ford writes, we will all have to endure the old Philly chestnuts all week: Rocky, and Santa, and snowballs, and Pat’s and Geno’s. And we will likely run any out-of-towners off Twitter if they dare criticize anything about Philadelphia.  

Many of our visitors will likely come with their own preconceived notions. I’m sure some of them will want to see where Mannequin was filmed or marvel at the median parking lot on South Broad. But it’s our job – one that gets easier with each of these events – to make sure they go home with a new vision of the city.

One with a downtown thriving with life, where tours of the old neighborhoods don’t stop at Mafia hit sites as much as vibrant new restaurants from dozens of different cultures. Where amid entrenched challenges – the ones that plague all big cities – we are trying, often successfully, at remaking ourselves.  

My buddy Jim moved away seven years ago. He came back recently for the Mummers Parade. (Some things don’t change.) There were parts of the city, he said, that even he didn’t recognize anymore. I’d have to give him a tour.