Changing Skyline: The sensuous city

They used to be the mean streets. For the past decade, good things have been happening in cities, Philadelphia included.

Two office towers rose, as have cultural venues, housing, medical buildings. Says one planner: “Philadelphia has turned the corner.” (B. KRIST for GPTMC)

The television series Sex and the City debuted in 1998, the same year I began writing about architecture and cities for The Inquirer. Little did I guess back then that Carrie Bradshaw's glamorous gallivanting through the streets of Gotham signaled a major image update for America's cities, from lawless jungles to middle-class playgrounds. It's the city that's sexy now.

As we close out this bad-news decade, it's worth remembering that at least one redeeming trend emerged out of the repeating loop of war, terrorism, and economic woes. Many of our cities enjoyed a fabulous ride during those roller-coaster years, erecting housing, cultural venues, and medical buildings with an abandon not seen since the Roaring Twenties.

Without a doubt, it's bleak out there at the moment, with urban mayors whacking at budgets like samurai warriors. But once the dust settles, I suspect the last decade will be seen as a time when a select group of cities - Philadelphia included - tipped from dying to dynamic.

Philadelphia may not have been the star performer in that lucky bunch, but look what this old rust-belt town accomplished since the millennium began: City Hall issued 24,000 residential building permits, the largest number since the creation of the Far Northeast in the '70s. Taxpayers reached deep into their pockets to pay for five museum buildings, two sports stadiums, one enormous vaulted concert hall, and, soon, an enlarged convention center.

And, at a time when corporations around the country are consolidating operations, Philadelphia welcomed two gleaming office towers, including one, Comcast, that broke the city height record. Like Carrie Bradshaw's heels, our condo towers - nine by my count - grew ever higher as the years went on. Some good architecture even slipped into the party, notably the Piazza at Schmidts and Penn's Skirkanich Hall.

Of course, Philadelphia has seen up-cycles before, most recently in the pre-crack cocaine days of the '80s when Liberty Place was the skyscraper muscling its way to the top of the skyline. The city has an old habit of taking one step back for every two steps forward. It's still putting up too many parking garages on prime corners. But this time, there is a sense that the accomplishments will stick.

Looking for historical perspective, I called Alex Garvin, a renowned urban planner who is a 40-year veteran of New York's ups and downs, and a survivor of the '70s financial meltdown that left the Big Apple bankrupt and bereft. Before I had a chance to compose my first question, Garvin declared: "Philadelphia has turned the corner."

It's hard to imagine anyone uttering such an upbeat assessment a decade ago. Philadelphia was far behind other cities in emerging from our nation's previous real estate collapse, which began in the late '80s. Planners and economists were more likely to suggest that Philadelphia was about to go the way of Detroit - one of several Midwest cities that, sadly, weren't saved by the boom.

Garvin attributes Philadelphia's good fortune primarily to the big moves initiated by planner Edmund Bacon in the decades after World War II - rather than to the leadership of Mayors Rendell, Street, or Nutter. During Bacon's time, American cities saw their treasuries drained by the flight of taxpayers to the suburbs, the cost of battling poverty, and the heavy burden of racism. It was common for cities to write off downtowns as obsolete in the automobile age. Philadelphia bucked the conventional wisdom and invested in its office district, Center City neighborhoods, and transit system.

Preserving that dense core and extensive transit network was Philadelphia's salvation. When the boom arrived, Philadelphia didn't have to invent a downtown from scratch, as cities like San Diego and Denver did. Center City's early-20th-century office buildings, made obsolete in the '80s by the new Market Street towers, were available to be resurrected as condos. Factories became lofts. Marble-clad banks became restaurants.

Because the city's rowhouse fabric survived, most new developments were obliged to take an urban attitude, even if they did frequently insist on making room for suburban-style parking garages. The key is that developers continued to nudge their 21st-century rowhouses into Center City's colonial-era lots.

And when developers exhausted the downtown sites, they pushed into adjacent neighborhoods. Surely, the boom's most profound legacy is the enlargement of the downtown core, and the incorporation of a ring of surrounding neighborhoods: Queen Village, Bella Vista, Fairmount, Northern Liberties, Fishtown, Powelton Village, and University City.

That you can now embark on an hour's walk in any direction from City Hall without encountering significant urban blight is at least partly a result of the city's tax abatement policy. But tax breaks alone wouldn't have produced all those new rowhouses if the Housing Authority had not demolished virtually all of its forbidding, out-of-context high-rises under the Rendell and Street administrations. A dozen towers were replaced with more than 7,600 new units, mostly in the form of rowhouses.

What distinguishes this boom from its predecessors is that it was accompanied by a distinct change in the way Americans perceive cities. In the '70s and '80s, Carrie Bradshaw would have carried a can of Mace instead of a designer purse. Television's gritty urban cop dramas portrayed cities in apocalyptic terms. News images of riots, crime, and angry anti-busing protests stuck in people's memories.

There's clearly been a mellowing. Cities and suburbs no longer see themselves as enemies. Race is less of a polarizing issue, and cities are safer than they've been in decades. For today's college graduates, a generation that has mostly grown up in the suburbs, cities are an alluring Oz that offers - if Sex ... is to be believed - a nonstop whirl of art openings and romantic trysts.

Even the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center towers didn't derail the urban comeback. The nation's outpouring of sympathy for New York was a remarkable turnaround from its response 26 years earlier to the city's bankruptcy, immortalized by the New York Daily News headline "Ford to City: Drop Dead."

In Philadelphia, much has been made of the fact that the city's population inched up last year for the first time in 60 years. That's nice, but far more meaningful is the growth in the number of households, which shot up by 18,000 by 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Rowhouses that once housed sprawling, multigenerational families are increasingly home to singles, gays, and empty-nesters.

Like other successful American cities, Philadelphia still must reckon with difficult economic issues. Planners argue that urban places will need to invest heavily in infrastructure and transit just to stay even, especially as energy prices shoot up.

Cities also have to remember they're competing with the suburbs for residents, and that means matching their record on clean government, fiscal management, crime, schools, and public amenities like parks.

Not everyone will want to live in a big city like Philadelphia. But after a decade of improvements and image enhancement, most people probably wouldn't mind spending the weekend, especially if they can get a good rate at one of the new hotels.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or