First prize is a week in Philadelphia. Second prize is two weeks in Philadelphia. -- An old burlesque joke.
I spent a week in Philadelphia the other night. -- Another old burlesque joke.
On the whole, I'd rather be in Phialdephia. -- W. C. Fields' supposed last words.
This, America's fourth largest city, is used to jokes about itself. But the laughter comes easier today, for Philadelphia, after years of being the butt of humor throughout America, may be having the last -- and loudest-laugh on many other cities.
Philadelphia, hotbed of the American Revolution, home of statesman-investor Ben Franklin, first capital of a fledgling nation, is now basking in a glory and image she has not enjoyed since those heady 1776 days.
The attitude is different in Philadelphia today. Her citizens have more pride in their city. And tourism, an industry that generates more than $880 million annually, is booming.
There are many reasons for the new feeling in the City of brotherly love. The Bicentennial, certainly, rekindled an interest in the past and sparked a renovation of neighborhoods that had become rundown and dangerous; the end of the reign of Mayor Frank Rizzo with its attendant bad image and worse policies has seen a change in outlook for many citizens; even the movie "Rocky," with Sylvester Stallone dancing on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum and running past the packed vegetable carts in the Italian market, brought out a pride in this city that had been so lacking for so long. And the winning records of the city's Eagles (football), Flyers (hockey), 76er's (basketball), and Phillies (baseball) have helped throw off the loser's mantle this city has worn for all too many years.
New York, which began its East Coast ascendancy after the civil war, is no longer the overpowering influence that made Philadelphians feel like second-class citizens in the great megalopolis between Boston and Washington. New York has serious problems -- many of which Philadelphia has solved -- and most Philadelphians to whom I spoke wouldn't consider leaving their cozy city for the hectic life of Manhattan.
Although it is attractive and a growing tourist spot for many, Philadelphia still has many of the problems attendant to a big city. The streets are dirty, the crime rate is high (although the reign of Frank Rizzo helped decrease street crime), mass transportation is old and unreliable and there is a lack of enough really good hotels.
The addition of the new Fairmont heralded a new era in Philadelphia hostelry, which suffered for years from mismanagement and lack of rooms. At the moment Center City has only about 5,700 first-class hotel rooms, compared to more than 100,000 in New York, but the new Fairmont, a new Canadian Pacific Hotels facility, a new Four Seasons and (still rumored) new Hyatt and Trust Houses Forte hotes should do much to alleviate the shortage.
"This is not an overwhelming city like New York," said Paul Decker, vice president for tourism of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors' Bureau. "You don't need a professional guide to get around the city and see the major attractions."
Philadelphia is, indeed, a walker's city. "Center City," as Philadelphia call the downtown area, is only 30 blocks long and eight blocks wide, and it is possible to walk the length of Center City, from the Delaware River to the Philadelphia Art Museum overlooking the Schuylkill (school-kill) River in less than an hour.
Center City is a nice blending of old and new buildings, from 17th-and 18th-century townhouses in the Society Hill area to the soaring new office buildings along JFK Boulevard. And unlike so many cities, it is easy to get your bearings, with all major north-south streets named numerically (except what should be called First Street and is named Front Street and 14th Street, which is named Broad), and major east-west streets named for trees (Pine, Spruce, Locust, Walnut Chestnut etc.).
Walking the streets in Philadelphia is a visual, as well as a cultural, experience. One moment you are in sight of Independence Hall and Independence Mall, one of the hallmarks of the Bicentennial year and the home of the much-cherished Liberty Bell; the next you are in the midst of the Italian Market, a teeming produce market that looks like it was ripped from the heart of Naples. Or you can walk to the shores of the Schuylkill in the midist of Fairmont Park, the nation's largest, and see the scullers rowing their delicate boats in a scene unchanged from the days of artist Thomas Eakins.
While mainly known for its historic attactions -- Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross House -- Philadelphia has recently become a city of theater, and of music, and of nightlife.
The Philadelphia Symphony has always been known as one of the nation's finest, a fact recognized by President Nixon when he asked the symphony to visit China, the first visit by an American cultural body to that country. And the Philadelphia Opera and Ballet are source of joy to many.
But nightlife -- real nightlife of clubs, small cafes, jazz and discos -- is relatively new to Philadelphia, a town that once rolled up its sidewalks after dark. Today the city is awash in small clubs, many of them centered in the South Street entertainment area, a sort of Greenwich Village South. The South Street area, between Second and 10th streets, is jammed with clubs and restaurants catering to a sophisticated, good-time audience.
Nowhere is this renaissance in downtown Philadelphia more evident than in the restaurant scene. Years ago people would drive to the country to dine well -- to the Coventry Forge Inn in Coventryville or Jack Gleason's Faglesville Country Hotel in Faglesville -- to get a good meal. Today they stay downtown, or drive in from the suburbs to enjoy the amazing downtown restaurants boom. More than 150 first-class restaurants have opened in the Center City area in the past three years, many of them products of the Restaurant School.
The school, which teaches its students to own, manage and operate small restaurants, has produced graduates who have opened restaurants throughout the city, restaurants that have as their hallmarks informal atmosphere, short, seasonal menus and reliance on making everything from scratch.
Such restaurants as the Frog, the Latest Dish, Wildflowers, London, Downey's, the Commissary and the Black Banana pack them in each night to be waited on by denim-clad waitresses who are as casual and as down-home as anything you are likely to find in Texas.
Sitting amid forests of hanging plants and sipping California jug wine, you are likely to feel closer to San Francisco than the conservative, dour city that Philadelphia has been for so much of her 300 years. Or, you can go to the classic Philadelphia French restaurants like Le Bec Fin, Les Amis or La Panetiere, or have some wonderful seafood at Old Original Bookbinders, but you are more likely to sample the new Philadelphia, and meet the new Philadelphians, at Lickety-Split or The Garden or Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
With her new, young mayor, Bill Green, and a young population, Philadelphia is no longer the Main Line dowager she has been for most of her life. She has verve, life, and attractions enough to keep any tourist happy for a week-long visit.
"Philadelphia has marvelous diversity," says tourism official Decker. "When you combine our historical attractions with our night spots, cultural attractions and reasonable price, you have a vacation destination that is highly attractive."
That reasonable price is another factor that is helping Philadelphia attract more than 3 million tourists annually. Unlike the sky-high prices of New York, those for Philadelphia's hotel rooms are in the affordable category for most travelers. The average first-class hotel room is about $45 a night, and even the luxurious Fairmont has good rooms for $65. Try to match that in New York.
Shopping, another relatively poor attraction in old Philadelphia, where everyone met under the eagle statue in Wanamakers to shop, has also boomed of late. No longer do all surburbanites stay in the suburbs to shop. Today there is a new 125-shop downtown mall, called the Gallery, with an addition -- Gallery II -- already under construction. And in Society Hall an area of charmingly restored townhouses, carriages lamps and trees, New Market offers a unique collection of boutiques and restaurants in which you can spend days.
Days in Philadelphia are now a pleasure for visitors, from gently touching the cracks in the Liberty Bell to looking at the wildly innovative clothespin sculpture of Claes Oldenburg standing by City Hall.
For the next contest it will be: first prize is two weeks in Philadelphia.