`New' Philadelphia shows off for GOP

Reborn: The GOP convention gives Philadelphians a chance to shake the city's old image and show off a revitalized center city.

July 29, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - Thirty years ago, the local Chamber of Commerce got so nervous about the public perception of Philadelphia that it held a summit to dream up ideas on how to improve the city's image. Even the invitation was grim, featuring a two-bit comedian telling the tired old joke, "I went to Philadelphia last week and it was closed."

But while bad Philly jokes persist, the city is now looking on the bright side. It has a cuddly slogan - "The City That Loves You Back" - and is airing TV spots promoting the town around the country and even to its own residents. It also has a "Happiness Presenter" - a sunny tourism director who got the unofficial title while urging Republicans to hold their convention here.

When the GOP opens its convention here Monday, the city will show off this new attitude and hope that the rest of America buys it. Now is Philadelphia's chance to collect some good PR - and maybe even a new identity along the way.

"This is the coming-out party," says Charles Pizzi, head of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, "for a city that has remade itself."

With its buildings lighted in red, white and blue, colonial re-enactors at the delegates' disposal and a Liberty Bell art display, this old Quaker city is tarted up for a political bash. But that is not its only transformation.

Over the past decade, Philadelphia has saved itself from bankruptcy, revitalized its downtown and found itself in the midst of an urban renaissance. Real estate prices are soaring in center city, where developers have built about 4,500 new hotel rooms in the last two years to get ready for the Republicans and the spin-off tourism and convention business they hope will follow.

Now Philadelphia is focusing on its image, hoping to be remembered for something sexier than Ben Franklin and old decrees that closed the bars and stopped the baseball games early on Sundays.

"It will always be a Quaker city, but we don't live by those laws anymore," says Neil Stein, who rented his trendy restaurant, Striped Bass, to ABC anchor Peter Jennings for $65,000 for an afternoon party next week. "The city's just got this great energy right now."

Even the crustiest Philadelphians have turned boosters, praising the Republicans for picking a city that has not played host to a convention since 1948.

"It puts a rubber stamp that the city is worth seeing," says Elliott Curson, the advertising executive who dreamed up the slogan "Philadelphia isn't as bad as Philadelphians say it is" on a controversial billboard in 1971. His new idea for a city motto is positively gushing: "Best City in History."

But Philadelphia - a city of 1.4 million people - has been hemorrhaging, losing upwards of 150,000 people in the last decade as families move to the suburbs in search of better schools and safer neighborhoods. As the tax base threatens to erode and the city struggles against urban blight, with more than 50,000 vacant lots and buildings, the old industrial hub is still searching for a new purpose.

"It'd be nice if the Republicans took a bus up here and saw what Philly was really facing," says Peaches Ramos, a longtime activist for the Fairhill neighborhood, which sits in the more than two-mile section of the city known as the "Badlands."

Ramos argues that the city is mastering the cosmetic approach to urban woes - ridding streets of abandoned cars and erasing graffiti - while decaying houses, homelessness and the drug trade remain unchecked.

Native Philadelphians, so tough to please they famously booed Santa Claus at a football game several years ago, offer their own gritty assessment of the city's progress.

"It's a dump!" says North Philly secretary Saundra Pope. "Filthy-delphia!" she adds during a lunch break, continuing with, "fattest people around" and "City of Brotherly Hate" before heading off on her heel.

The argument that Philly still has much more work to do flows, albeit more gently, at the Italian Market in South Philadelphia. Amid fruit stands and butcher shops, some residents argue that the $50 million convention extravaganza highlights an over-emphasis on downtown business at the expense of the neighborhoods. When the delegates go home, they say, the city will have little to show for it.

Here, some blame swirls around "de-mare," ex-Mayor Ed Rendell in South Philly parlance, who spearheaded the center-city renewal for most of the 1990s. While Rendell generated budget surpluses, renovated buildings like Reading Terminal and even once scrubbed the toilets in City Hall, his efforts were seen as catering to big business.

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