Urban Renaissance: Philadelphia’s Turning Point

“We went to Philadelphia looking for rotting America, It turned out to be the perfect place.” — Terry Gilliam, director

In his 1995, neo-noir film Twelve Monkeys, Terry Gilliam chose downtown Philadelphia as the primary setting for his post-apocalyptic vision of America. Gilliam stated the city oozed an atmosphere of “sadness and melancholy,” of which he masterfully captured for the big screen.

His assessment was predicated by decades of similar disparagement. Philadelphia’s agonizing 20th-century decline was well covered by the mass media.

Once an industrial center and growing American city, Philadelphia was rocked by mid-century economic and urban spatial restructuring. After 1945, thousands of Black Americans relocated to Philadelphia as part of the wider Great Migration from the South. With an existing housing shortage before the influx of migrants and a hostile white majority population, the city was ill-prepared for the sudden demographic shift. At the same time, there was a subsequent decline of the American manufacturing industry, which led to an exodus of jobs. The loss of work and intra-neighborhood racial tensions resulted in the economically-mobile, middle-upper class white Americans leaving the city for the suburbs — a phenomenon known as ‘white flight.’ Philadelphia thus experienced a population peak in the 1950 census with 2.1 million people before it began to steadily slip for decades. This contraction was a prime example of the creation of a ‘donut city’ in that while the city center hollowed, the metropolitan region as a whole continued to grow with a net increase of jobs in the suburbs.

However, the wound inflicted on the city’s heart caused a slow bleed that refused to coagulate. The loss in population led to the extraction of taxable wealth, thus the city had to operate with less tax revenue. Shrinking local economic activity exacerbated job loss, which in turn strained the citizens who remained. There was greater demand on the municipal social services to assist the rising low-income populace; however, the city had less money to operate them.

By 1990, Philadelphia had hemorrhaged 500,000 people and, as reported by The New York Times, was on the “brink of insolvency.” Violent and organized crime, which had blighted the city since the turn of the 20th century, was at an all-time high. From the late 1980s to 1990, the city’s murder rate was four times that of the nation’s at large.

So with this gloomy and ominous survey of Philadelphia’s post-WWII history, it may be reasonable to then ask: “why is this article titled, “Urban Renaissance?

The Turning Point

In 2007, for the first time in fifty years, Philadelphia experienced annual expansion. Proving not to be an anomaly, the city continued to grow each year at a modest rate. By the end of 2017, Pew Research reported that the city added more than 79,000 residents within its borders.

The same organization had published an article three years prior that drew attention to the sudden contemporaneous stabilization of the city’s middle class. Having dropped from nearly 60 percent of the population in 1970 to just 43 percent in 2000, the disappearance of the middle class ground to a halt by 2010, with the share of upper class Philadelphians even increasing by a percentage.

What Happened?

“Philly is moving in a new direction and slowly making a more positive name for itself.” — Roseanne Tabachnik, NBC Philadelphia

Residents of Philadelphia have felt the city’s overall change in fortune. Anecdotal stories across the web paint a picture of a city amidst its rebirth. Business owners have reported increased foot traffic to downtown stores while a growing amount of local millennials are remaining in the city after university, citing job opportunities and the quality of life as primary motivators.

New International Style skyscrapers across Center City and University City serve as physical affirmation of these accounts. A flourish of new developments have been approved and constructed since the mid 2000s. The Comcast Center (completed in 2008) and Circa Centre South (completed in 2016) both tower above their respective neighborhoods, their acres of glass lit by the sun or the city lights at night. The Comcast Technology Center, which will rise an impressive 1,121 feet above Center City streets, is expected to be completed in 2018. Just a block from the similarly-named Comcast Center, the Comcast Technology Center will be the tallest building in the United States outside of Manhattan and Chicago. It is amongst 12 other towers expected to open in 2018.

When stepping away from these specific stories and looking at the topic holistically, it becomes apparent that three major factors have contributed the city’s new direction: strategic investments in infrastructure and redevelopment coinciding with a renewed nationwide interest in urbanism, along with ambitious planned developments that are optimized for the coming demand for density.

Infrastructure Face Lifts

For an American city with only 30 percent of the residents owning a personal vehicle, Philadelphia thankfully boasts a considerable amount of travel mode choices. The city is serviced by four expressways, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) and NJ Transit buses, and the third oldest subway network in the country. Over a quarter of city residents rely on public transit to get to work, and an even higher percentage of low-income residents use public transit for additional trips (contrary to the opinion of Mr. Musk).

That being said, by 2010, Philadelphia’s public transit had aged rather poorly. The SEPTA subway and bus systems were notorious for their dirtiness and run-down state. The agency even published a humorously self-deprecating poll which asked users to provide reasons as to why they commute with SEPTA (although the published responses were typically kind in nature).

To address the aging infrastructure, SEPTA proposed a 12-year capital program of $7.3 billion. Titled “Rebuild the System,” the program followed the enactment of Act 89 in 2013, legislation which created a long-term state transportation funding solution. SEPTA plans to rehabilitate and replace critical infrastructure and key transit assets, along with introducing real-time communication and security enhancements to vehicles and stops. What has generated the most excited response from Philadelphians, however, is the plan to replace outworn vehicles and the antiquated payment system with electric vehicles and electronic fares, respectively. Philadelphia’s 2017 proposal is the most ambitious long-term transit overhaul in America other than those of Los Angeles and New York City.

But not all transit improvements require a billion-dollar price tag. One of Philadelphia’s fastest growing means of commuting is by bicycle. From 2010 to 2017, the number of people who commute by bicycle in Center City has increased by 79 percent. While the dominant age group of Center City is predisposed to biking (20 to 34 year olds comprise 40 percent of Center City residents), the city government itself is partially responsible for this uptick. In 2015, the City launched the Indego Bikeshare Program with a mere $3 million contribution. For perspective, that is 0.04 percent of the cost of SEPTA’s proposal.

Indego works by the user purchasing a pass and tapping it at a station’s card reader to unlock a bicycle. The first hour is free for pass holders, after which the commuter pays $4 an hour until the bicycle is returned to a station. The process ensures that transactions and rides are completed without vehicle loss or misplacement, and that there is accountability for losses that do occur.

Philadelphia’s infrastructural investments, while significant, have begun more recently than its other transformative efforts. Some transit programs, such as “Rebuild the System,” have just been proposed in 2017. The effects of these programs will thus only be measurable in the future. However, the city is feeling the effects of its development and redevelopment plans. Philadelphia has been extensively adapting its existing built environment and constructing new high rises for over the past decade.

Building Tall, Cutting Sprawl

The last point has perhaps garnered the most fanfare amongst urbanites. As the positive relationship between a city’s density and economic health has been well-established, Philadelphia’s sudden wave of high rise developments has attracted much attention. The city’s bid for the second Amazon corporate campus, released to the public in December 2017, emphasizes the already-existing density surrounding the city’s Amtrak station. However, the site, which sits along the Delaware River waterfront, is slated as part of a larger $6.5 billion development project. The plan, known as the 30th Street Station District, is intended to serve as a intermodal transit and regional economic hub, creating a “24/7” space for students, residents, tourists, and commuters to live, work, and play.

“To the north, the roughly 88 acres of rail yards offer an unprecedented opportunity for redevelopment.” — 30th Street Station District Plan

The Foundation For Development

As stated before, investments are perceived as key factors for economic development. These glistening towers and multi-billion dollar mixed-use developments underline Philadelphia’s recovery; however, they did not apparate into existence overnight.

The groundwork for Philadelphia’s 2007 turnabout began as early as 1992 by then-mayor and former governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell. When Rendell took office, the city was in the throes of a $250 million budget deficit with a derelict downtown and a shrinking population. Rendell, with the assistance of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (hereafter referred to as PRA), sought to strike at the heart of Philadelphia’s decay by revitalizing downtown and Philadelphia’s tourism industry.

After all, the city possessed a rich history buried underneath years of decline. Philadelphia was the United States’ first capital city, housing the Second Continental Congress during the time which they signed the Declaration of Independence from the British Empire. Historically-important sites such as Independence Hall, Carpenter’s Hall, and the Liberty Bell stood as reminders of the city’s past prominence.

There were many other beautiful, historical structures in Center City that sat abandoned and decaying in the early 1990s. Mayor Rendell realized that in order to resuscitate the city, these crumbling monuments needed to be recovered and repurposed. The PRA began a renewed acquisition effort in the city center. The crown achievement during this phase was arguably the purchase of the old Reading Terminal Headhouse in 1993.

The 1893 terminal, which had ceased train service in 1984, was the subject of fierce debate over the decade preceding its acquisition. Some called for the building’s demolition; however, the late urban-renewal advocate Edmund Bacon staved off its destruction until the city purchased the property. The Reading Terminal Headhouse underwent restoration and was partially integrated with the new Pennsylvania Convention Center. More famously, the redevelopment contributed to the revival of the hundred-year old Reading Terminal Market, which packed in 6.5 million visitors in 2016.

But while the commercial structures in downtown received ample investments for renewal during the 1990s, the residential neighborhoods of Philadelphia remained on the periphery of the redevelopment efforts. It was not until 2001 when the PRA created the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative did the contemporary residential redevelopment movement begin.

The Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI) was funded by bonds and used to preserve and redevelop neighborhoods along with stabilizing vacant properties. Historical neighborhoods such as Society Hill or the Old City received significant attention from the program; however, there remain legitimate criticisms of residential redevelopment efforts forcing low-income residents out of their homes for the supposed benefit of the community, such as “Penntrification” of the predominantly Black American community known as Black Bottom.

Program Shortcomings

Residential renewal efforts, while they have manage to entice the return of middle class citizens along with an increasingly numerous amount of foreign-born residents, have yet to effectively serve the existing low-income Philadelphians, the majority of whom are people of color.

Philly.com reports that since 2000, housing prices have increased citywide, which has been felt most significantly in historically low-income neighborhoods. Rent prices in North Philadelphia, Kensington, Fishtown, Center City West, Hawthorne, and University City have doubled over the last decade, with the average price a little under $2,000 a month. Perhaps this contributes to the troubling statistic that 56.4 percent of residents spend at least 30 percent of their income on rent.

Just as has happened in cities across the United States, the rising property values and rental costs associated with redevelopment have begun to gentrify historically low-income, segregated communities across Philadelphia. Even with the city’s current growth and recovery, low-income communities face a Hobson’s choice between remaining beleaguered by high crime rates and unemployment or being priced out by new development. So far, the issue has not been adequately addressed and the dilemma for low-income residents remains; however, there is significant evidence that points to gentrification being part of a complicated cocktail of neoliberal economic policies rather than an issue impacted by the direct policy decisions of municipal governments. It is thus of the author’s opinion that Philadelphia’s government is not to blame for the pricing out of poor residents.


From a bird’s eye view, it is apparent that Philadelphia is correcting course; however, the city is far from a point of recovery. Current statistics show that of the top ten largest cities in the country, Philadelphia is the poorest and has the second-highest homicide rate behind Chicago. But decades of decline will take some time to overcome. Philadelphia is at a crossroads in its history — a turning point where planning and policy decisions will have a drastic impact on the shape of the city for decades to come. With investments in public transit, bike-and-ped infrastructure, development, and redevelopment, Philadelphia is positioning itself to be a desirable urban locale important national player in the 21st century.

San Diego-based writer. Interested in urban planning, languages, cultures, travel, history, and fiction.

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