Philly in a New Light

From bursting window boxes to glittering wedding parties, from icons like City Hall restored, there is a sense of a city reborn, of a place where people want to be, not flee.
From bursting window boxes to glittering wedding parties, from icons like City Hall restored, there is a sense of a city reborn, of a place where people want to be, not flee. (BETH KEPHART)

Illuminated, incandescent, its streets full of life, the city has acquired something like a European glow.

Posted: October 22, 2012

sResurgent Philadelphia is cinched with light. Walking, you'll find the sun smacked up against the Drake, and the eyebrow of the moon hooking the Schuylkill during its ascent to higher sky. You'll find a pinker dawn behind the lonesome hawks and a fringe of gold on the window-box flowers, hung like so many pairs of drapes on Delancey, Spruce, and Pine.

Credit the illuminators of bridges, buildings, signs. Thank the restorers of lost or crumbled things (Eastern State Penitentiary, Independence Hall, the Perelman Building, Naval Square, Logan Square, the Water Works, the Mercury Pavilion, Memorial Hall, the President's House).

Consider the permutations of the new: Rafael Viñoly's Kimmel Center; César Pelli's Cira Centre; Robert A.M. Stern's Comcast Center; Pei Cobb Freed's National Constitution Center; James Polshek's National Museum of American Jewish History; the famous and infamous architectural uprisings across the city's many campuses.

Congratulate the restaurateurs for their embrace of spill - onto sidewalks, into back gardens, through several iterations of rosemary-scented chicken liver ravioli and chestnut soup and coconut tapioca pudding, and, oh yes, all those saffron-colored tapas.

This is Philadelphia now. More than its icons, bigger than its tagline, our Quaker City has acquired something like a European glow; it has become, despite its notorious, impudent self, decorously hospitable. Ask the young careerists choosing Philly over New York, Boston, and D.C.

Ask the empty nesters, newly returned from their suburban exodus. Ask Toll Bros. how many units are left at that once and future Naval Square. Ask the University of Pennsylvania to explain its eastward surge. Recession or no recession, politics or not, broken things still being broken, and sauciness permanently in our nature, something inexorable stirs. There is gleam, and glitter.

Are we tipping toward perfect? Hardly. Is perfect possible? Not ever. What Philadelphia is, though, is different than it was - emerged from a harrowing chapter when city razing was part and parcel of city planning, when faceless concrete towers rose, when on Sundays you could walk long in some directions, dystopian in mood and miserably alone.

Not all that long ago Center City was interior, occluded, sunk in a sullen sulk. The commuters came, did their business, ate their vendor meals, went home. The grates crashed down. The forsaken things blew. Those who stayed behind were - it seemed to me, for I was one of them - on their mighty own.

Eventually I left my rental at Third and Gaskill to become a suburban mom. I'd had cocaine addicts on my doorstep, a thief's knife tossed into my garden, the spectacular drama of a near-fistfight just weeks after I'd emerged from intensive surgery. I'd had too many groundhog dinners at the same South Street restaurants. I couldn't find the green. I was sick for sky. I wanted light. I left.

It wasn't about giving up, back then, as it was about failing to imagine. Because who really could believe that an entire river - make that two - would someday be shined toward sparkle? Who would wager on so much empty space being reclaimed? Who would expect that the narrative of the city could be expanded to include new artists and entrepreneurs, wildly imaginative chefs, businesspeople with a broader purpose and a charitable gene?

Who would have bet on the fish returning to Philadelphia's rivers, the little boats, the people, that river otter, those birds? Who would have dared to dream it, and who would have the gall to see the dream through?

Turns out the dreamers were there all along. The visionaries, and doers, illuminators. Turns out that the incandescence was hiding in the shadows.

This is my city, I like to say, walking its streets again now as I often do, my husband beside me, my son, a friend. Or maybe I'm alone, making my way past outdoor tables, photographing a concussion of Rittenhouse Square brides, trying to frame the moon on the river, joining the parade of cyclists, joggers, scullers, readers along the Schuylkill Banks. I'll feel, as I walk, the exhilaration that surges when I travel in Florence, Seville, London, Prague, the newly consecrated corners of Berlin. I'll feel electric and included, part of a big thing getting bigger, younger than I inevitably am. I'll feel proud - that's what it is. Hopeful. Alive.

City of Brotherly Love? Call it that, if it pleases you. City of Light is how I see it.


Beth Kephart is the author of 14 books, most recently "Small Damages." She blogs daily about life and books at beth-kephart.blogspot.com.

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