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Does Philly Have An Image Problem?

Philadelphia is the love child of sports and sandwiches, of Meds, Eds and Beds, with an 8-foot-6 bronze statue of a fictional boxer no one can quit, thousands of murals (the count could be up in the millions by now), and endless instances of pure adoration, pure frustration, and a deep commitment to seeing things through.

We polled some of Philly's best, brightest and most outspoken. People who created the game, are changing it, and taking Philadelphia in new directions. From the Mayor to the Steak Princess, everybody has a strong opinion of the city's image: we measure ourselves as less than perfect, and ultimately, that's a good thing.

"I think there are times when we have a bit of a self image problem," admits Mayor Michael Nutter. "Philadelphians are very proud of their city, and we're not necessarily used to being in the spotlight. We're often surprised by our own success, or when we achieve something great." Nutter is a leader who, without blowing giant holes in the fabric of Philadelphia, has enacted major image-shaping changes over his first term, helping the city become a national leader in sustainability, community service and tourism. Says Nutter, "Some people like headlines. We like results."

Results, we've got. Greater Philadelphia is home to a dozen Fortune 500 companies, including Comcast, Sunoco and Lincoln National, and headquarters to many more global players including Vanguard, SAP North America, Siemens and Urban Outfitters. Within a 150 mile radius of the city, you'll find the majority of major pharmaceutical companies, and closer in, you've got your choice of top medical schools and research institutions. In a city that is often viewed as less than business friendly, there is a growing support system for all corners of the entrepreneurial community through the likes of Philly Startup Leaders, Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern PA, Independents Hall and University City Science Center, to name a few. There is even an initiative called World Class Philadelphia, convened by the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, that sets out to position the region more prominently.

"Philadelphians are changing the image of city from the inside out," says Meryl Levitz, head of the Greater Philadelphia Marketing and Tourism Corporation, the group who thought up With Love, Philadelphia XOXO billboards, massive ads in NYC and DC train stations and an all-out online marketing/social media blitz. Levitz sees the GPTMC's marketing efforts concurrently changing the city from the outside in. She explains that when considering Philly's image problem, it depends on who you are talking to, because Philly's image has undergone a major renovation, due largely to an influx of young people. When asked about diametrically opposed currents coexisting in Philadelphia, Levitz says, "You need a tension. That's what makes things happen and creates excitement. There's a good tension in Philadelphia, this criss-crossing and bumping up of Grace Kelly and Rocky. It makes for good blood. We value our blue collar and our blue blood."

A city of contradictions, all coexisting. Quaker roots with world renowned culture, top schools, the best in medicine and science, and a serious thing for donning Eagles sweatshirts and ingesting cheese covered meat on a roll.

We are in the midst of a transformation, says Ahmeenah Young, President and CEO of the Pennsylvania Convention Center and Authority. "Philadelphia is going through a rebranding drive, from an old industrial manufacturing town to a service industry." In a town once known as The Workshop of The World, Young recently cut the ribbon on a $787 million expansion of the Convention Center, creating, at one million square feet, the largest continuous exhibition space in the northeastern United States and expanding the facility all the way to Broad Street. While Young is quick to agree that Philadelphia has an image problem, she is just as quick to qualify that we are moving away from it. "The hospitality industry is the propeller." Consider our world class museums: the newly opened National Museum of American Jewish History, The National Constitution Center, and the soon to open Barnes Foundation on the Parkway, to name just a few, says Young.

In Beer and Gelato (and Beer Gelato) We Trust
While Garces, Starr and Solomonov are the faces on the Mt. Rushmore of the Philly food scene, they merely represent a variety of culinary movements in the city and suburbs having a major impact on the region's economic and overall health. Beyond the growing farmers markets and local and organic food options, you cannot beat Philadelphia's gracious hosts. From its homegrown food purveyors like Capogiro, to 'America's first gastropub' Standard Tap the first priority is a warm welcome.

Sarah Bonkowski, Capogiro Gelato's District Manager, explains that she wants customers to be happy. "It's ice cream! Capogiro is a happy place." Aside from a high quality product with innovative flavors like beer gelato, people come to Capogiro to be pampered. When you walk in, you are encouraged to sample. And sample. Bonkowski says a customer is welcome to try all 20 available flavors. They've done the math, and it makes economic sense. Most people don't get past 3 or 4, but really, you can go in there and keep asking, says Bonkowski. "Old school hospitality is very much alive here, and so is loyalty. People see you are doing it right, and they are inclined to meet and support that."

Paul Kimport and William Reed take a seat at the bustling bar of Fishtown's Johnny Brenda's, regarded by many as the best music venue in the city. Kimport and Reed also own Standard Tap, which changed the game for local craft beers. Back when the Northern Liberties pub opened, it was unheard of to offer only draft beer at a bar. No bottles whatsoever. Reed and Kimport built Standard Tap literally by hand, relying on a formula of trust and local good will. "I always wanted Standard Tap to be most relevant to the community," says Kimport. "Nothing warms up a bar more than a gracious host." William Reed says of the businesses' high standards, "We expect people to appreciate the difference in quality when it's done right. Sometimes that slides in Philly, with bar and restaurant owners assuming no one's going to notice the difference." The Johnny Brenda's and Standard Tap secret, and one that plays so well in Philadelphia, is to be as high quality and unpretentious as possible.

Speaking of unpretentious, Pat's King of Steaks is the first stop for many tourists to the city. Co-owner Danielle Olivieri is the Steak Princess, and she says that people arrive from out of town and want three steak sandwiches a day. "Really? That's what you want to eat? How about some broccoli rabe or crabs?" Olivieri, who spent about a decade in Florida, moved home to South Philly last year. And it had everything to do with family. "It's the fact that my mom and dad stopped over today on the way to the cleaners, and my sister was over until 2 AM baking, then I went by Pat's and saw my brother. I wouldn't have done any of that in Florida. I would have been home, watching TV. How much time can you spend by the pool?"

Philly Plays All Night, All Day
It's a Friday night in Manayunk. The legendary Schoolly D, the Original Gangsta rapper, takes the stage at the tiny but venerated bar The Grape Room. His backup band is Cookie Rabinowitz, and this event has not been publicized. "I'm going to sing a song called I Love Philly," says Schoolly, and what comes next is a shout out to every individual audience member. "I love you," he points. "I love you."

"Yes, hell yes, we have an image problem," says Jesse "Schoolly D" Weaver. "We don't have any characters left." The native Philadelphian, who had international rap hits in the mid 1980s, left for Atlanta and The Cartoon Network. He's back in Philly, making music, collaborating with up and coming spitters of the next generation like Tone Trump and Chill Moody. The three recently created a video tribute to West Philly. Schoolly describes Philly as "one of those cities with a sad face with tears coming down," and adds, "We need someone to spice it up again."

On the sweeter side of the region's music community, the raspy, honey voiced singer songwriter Ben Arnold, who heads out on a month long European tour in a few weeks but calls Philly home, says the city never feels completely comfortable with itself and the solution is a bit of perspective. "You get so involved in your own life that you don't see the picture from the outside. I see it because you have to leave a city in order to see your city." But, he adds, Philadelphia's reputation is better than it's ever been, and for someone who could live anywhere, he remains here, terming us, "by and large, a liberal and forward thinking town" that feels like one big community.

Philly's Got Attytood and Loves to Adopt
Philadelphians are famous for staying planted, and it's typical for a family to have four generations living nearby. Grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren may stray, but seem, inevitably, to come home to their roots. And love draws many of us here, like a siren, linking us inextricably to the life of the city.

When surveying prominent Philadelphians about civic attitude, you've got to talk to Philadelphia Daily News Senior Writer Will Bunch. The Pulitzer prize winning journalist writes the popular Attytood blog. Bunch, who followed his wife to Philly, echoes the sentiments of many who chose to move here as adults. "One thing I noticed in the 1990s is that people loved Ed Rendell as mayor, and the thing they loved about him the most is that he was such a cheerleader for the city. It's fascinating. He's not a native. He grew up in New York, went to Penn, and ended up staying here the rest of his life."

The former mayor's love for his adopted hometown is a story that gets told over and over. Gary Steuer is another public official who moved here from New York to helm the City of Philadelphia's Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy. "Philadelphians love to hate their own city. Local people have a perception of the city rooted in what it used to be instead of what it is now," says Steuer. "People who come from outside the city look at it with fresh eyes, and have a tremendously optimistic view of the city, with its liveliness and strong cultural and retail sectors, and a real sense of place."

Nick Stuccio is the Producing Director of the Live Arts Fringe Festival, the annual performing arts event that draws international talent to the city. He reframes the conversation. "I don't think it has an image problem. It's more that people are concerned about the image. We are constantly compelled to fluff ourselves up. Stop talking about being great. Just be great. We're a tough place, but I see that as a virtue. In my world of art, an excellent, insightful critique is the sign of a first tier place."

Jamie Lokoff, co-founder of Milkboy, an Ardmore recording studio and cafe that's about to open a full scale live music venue in Center City, says that to a degree there's an inferiority complex because we compare ourselves to New York, Los Angeles and Boston, places typically named when the topic of the city's brain drain arises. "Even sometimes on weather maps, you see DC, New York and Boston, and Philly gets lost." But Lokoff thinks it's a great thing that the city is so close to these major metropolitan areas, plus "you've got the beach and skiing an hour away, and the history of the country in your back pocket."

The national media takes every opportunity to remind the world that we threw snowballs at Santa Claus, perpetuating what amounts to a 40 year-old exaggeration. But with the Eagles rehabilitating fallen NFL stars, and the Phillies attracting the game's top talent (welcome back Cliff Lee), sports are integral to the city's image. Temple University has been on both sides of the glory. Its basketball team is part of the "college basketball capital of the world," as Director of Athletics Bill Bradshaw describes it. Yet Temple's football program, the region's lone Division I program, has long suffered (until recently).

"I have talked to people in search firms who say it's difficult to get people to move here, but even more difficult to get them to leave." says Bradshaw, who believes Philadelphia is the greatest sports town anywhere but not at the expense of culture and arts. "Nothing goes better with sports than a cheesesteak and a cold beverage. For that we stand guilty. That does not define or marginalize us. It's a charming part of what makes Philadelphia."

Murals That Move Us
In the arts and culture sector, the city is overflowing, thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of Jane Golden, Executive Director of the city's Mural Arts Program. In 26 years, Golden has put Philadelphia on the international forefront of public art. "There seems to be a new sense of excitement about Philadelphia, and an appreciation, certainly as it relates to art, culture, and the creative economy." She points to the repurposing of old industrial buildings, the new presence of collective galleries and increased focus on art in service to social issues. "I feel optimistic and the attitude is shared," says Golden.

Carmen Febo-San Miguel, the director of the Hispanic arts and culture center Taller Puertorriqueno on North Fifth Street, is one of many who share Golden's optimism, saying that while the city has had an image problem, in the past decade, efforts to change that perspective are succeeding, with tourism on the rise as evidenced by an 85 percent hotel occupancy rate. While the recent economic downturn has translated into less commercial traffic on the Fifth Street corridor, lots of projects already in the pipeline continue to progress, like the Barrio's streetscape improvement project.

Of all the people we interviewed, only one voice stood out in defense of a balanced view of the city. "Philly doesn't present as something it's not. Our image is pretty close to reality," says Meg Saligman, the nationally celebrated muralist based in Philadelphia.

Consider the bustling nightlife in Center City, coupled with neighborhoods on the rise in the northern areas of Fishtown, Port Richmond, Northern Liberties, Kensington; in South Philly, the revitalized East Passyunk corridor; and in West Philly, reaching out beyond the traditional confines of University City. These areas offer housing well below the price of comparable square footage in New York, DC, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle. "All over the country, they're talking about what a great city this is," says Rutgers-Camden Chancellor Wendell Pritchett.

You would be hard pressed to find the precise mix of great bars and restaurants, progressive thinking, strong arts and culture, reasonable real estate prices and innovative retail anywhere but Philadelphia. Asked to sum up our city in a few words, Michael Nutter replies, "Resilient, passionate and caring."

Even in Philadelphia neighborhoods that have escaped the changes occurring in Fishtown and parts of West Philadelphia, Mural Arts' Jane Golden notes a perceptible change in attitude, where she sees a new openness to taking risks and trying things that haven't been done before. "The notion that Philadelphia is a provincial town was true for a long period of time, but it's not true today. Philadelphia is an international vital city. What makes Philadelphia unique is the desire to grow and at the same time preserve what's good."

SUE SPOLAN  is a lifelong Philadelphian who serves as Innovation and Jobs Editor for Flying Kite. She's also Communications Director for Fourth Wall Arts, a freelance writer, and part time director for NPR's Fresh Air. You can follow her on twitter @extrenergy. Send feedback here.


View of City Hall and the Avenue of the Arts from the south

Mayor Michael Nutter

Schoolly D

Ben Arnold next to the new site of the Race Street Waterfront project

Pat's Steaks - South Philly

All photographs by JEFF FUSCO


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