Partly cloudy.

That's the forecast offered for our city in Philadelphia 2007: Prospects and Challenges, a new study ordered up by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Or is it partly sunny?

It all depends on how you squint at the data.

Or how confident you are that city voters are about to pick a new mayor with the kind of leadership skills shown recently by Martin O'Malley, former mayor of Baltimore, and Shirley Franklin, mayor of Atlanta.

Those two are among the six peer cities to which authors Basil J. Whiting and Tony Proscio compared Philadelphia in this study, which picks up where a similar comparison left off eight years ago, as Ed Rendell left and John Street took over.

To sum up, Philly isn't as far behind cocky Boston nor as close to scary Detroit as it seemed in '99. Cleveland has lost the comeback mojo we've sort of found. Baltimore and Atlanta started the decade behind Philly in many respects, but have been more deft and focused in addressing their woes since. Pittsburgh has a lot going for it, but its region, unlike ours, is a basket case that drags it down.

Studies like this inevitably have a flavor of "on the one hand, we have five fingers, while on the other . . . "

But this one delivers a couple of clear messages:

Philadelphia now has a cohort of can-do, upbeat civic leaders that wasn't as visible or vocal in 1999, people such as Alba Martinez, Paul Levy, Joe Torsella and D.L. Wormley. In part, they've stepped up to fill a perceived vacuum at City Hall. But Whiting and Proscio find this group's Next Great City chatter a little hollow, given that "the city's economic, demographic and social fundamentals are still pretty bleak."

Baltimore and Atlanta show that mayoral leadership and vision not only still matter, but also are indispensable, the authors say. In Philly, they add, the new leadership contingent is "decentralized" and mostly white. It tends to stay warily "on the opposite sidewalk" from the city's mostly black political leadership.

Those waiting for some "benevolent cabal" of business folk to save Philadelphia should give up the pipe dream. Even in cities where such cabals once existed - Boston, Cleveland, Charlotte - the pressures of a globalizing economy are causing them to fray or disintegrate.

The study provides a good map of Philadelphia's assets and weaknesses. It mostly corresponds to the portrait that emerged from the recent Great Expectations dialogues among more than a thousand citizens, sponsored by The Inquirer and the University of Pennsylvania. One thing I think the authors missed, flying at 20,000 feet over the turf, is just how many viable neighborhoods Philadelphia still has, places that elicit great affection, pride and spirit from their residents.

The authors also offer a fair, nuanced portrait of John Street that is well worth reading. They describe the mayor (accurately, in my view) as far bolder and more capable at policy than many will ever give him credit for. Despite the grievous corruption he's allowed to take place around him, he retains a stout personal integrity.

But the authors also describe the slow-leak demoralization about City Hall during Street's tenure. They are right to trace some of it to his stubborn, almost pathological aversion to using the bully pulpit of his office to convey a vision, sell a message of progress, or rally support. The mayor can't get over his sense that such stuff is silly froth for which Ed Rendell got way too much credit in the '90s, while he (Street) was doing the heavy lifting of saving the city from fiscal ruin.

It's not froth. It's fostering a sense of energy, purpose and promise. Creating space for new hands and new voices to step up. Framing issues in new ways that alter poisoned rhetoric. Innovating to create new sources of capital, instead of just fretting endlessly that traditional ones are dwindling.

Those are the jobs the political leaders whom we elect this year must do if Philadelphia's promise is ever to overcome its stark woes. They must do it in concert with the new cohort of civic leaders, not in isolation or opposition.

As this study concludes, "Whether Philadelphians have a city resurgent or one still in slow decline will depend . . . on whether the new mayor 'gets it,' and on whether he and the newly positive business and civic leaders can make common cause."

So, voters, when you make your choice for mayor, don't just ask whether he shares your pet issue, your tribe or your skin color.

Ask yourself which guy is most likely to lead in ways that will inspire people of energy and talent to join in - instead of warily doing their own thing on the other side of the street.

Center Square |

Coming Monday, you can read The Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia 2007 report online at www.pewtrusts.org

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Chris Satullo (215-854-5943; csatullo@phillynews.com) is editorial page editor.