Philly's new vibrancy lures crowds
PHILADELPHIA — Only a year old, in this birthplace of American democracy, Independence Beer Garden is a landscaped oasis in a once-stark cement portico.
It draws tourists and Philadelphians, young people and families, some who play shuffleboard, bocce and oversized Jenga; others simply breathe in the savory barbecue scent from picnic benches. It produces a different vibe than the concrete terrace of Dow Chemical's Old Town headquarters.
The beer garden across from the Liberty Bell is among several outside-the-box businesses enhancing historic attractions.
They are “a big part of why Philadelphia was chosen to host the Democratic National Convention” in 2016, according to former Gov. Ed Rendell, who finds his adopted hometown a pretty cool place.
“We have become so vibrant,” he said. “We have more people living in downtown Philadelphia than any other city in the country except New York. It has created a market for great restaurants, clubs, theater, art, history and museums.”
Rendell, who chaired a local committee that bid for the convention, recalled a time as mayor in 1992 when he tried to lure The Vanguard Group, an investment management firm based in Malvern, Chester County, to build an office where a Center City high-rise had burned.
“The CEO said, ‘I'd like to, mayor, but the young people we get to work here want to live in the suburbs.'
“It's now 23 years later: Vanguard runs their own bus service to get the young people who will live nowhere else but downtown out to the suburbs to their offices.”
The Center City District, a business development group, reported in April that the 7.7-square-mile section of Central Philadelphia grew 16 percent since 2000. With 183,240 residents, it ranks second to Midtown Manhattan for center-city living.
As with Pittsburgh's efforts over decades to become a destination hub, Rendell said this city has challenges, “but there are so many upsides going on in Philadelphia, and as a convention city, I think it is second to none.”
The convention July 25-28, 2016, in Wells Fargo Center — 10 months after Pope Francis visits Philadelphia — will draw millions of dollars for Philadelphia from tourists and local taxes. It's the first time since 1948 that Philly has hosted the Democratic Party, and Rendell's committee promised to raise $84 million.
Pittsburgh tossed its name into the ring early on but withdrew from consideration in June 2014 because of the cost. Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald threw their support behind Philadelphia's bid.
Rendell is determined to repay Western Pennsylvania's support by holding DNC Rules Committee meetings in Pittsburgh during the convention. The party's nominee likely will be chosen well before the convention.
“My plan is to have the nominee kick off their arrival to the convention by beginning their journey in Pittsburgh with a big rally and then cross the state on a bus, stopping in small towns along the way,” Rendell said.
The 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia was “probably the best convention of either party in the last 25 years,” he said.
Democratic Party leaders and business owners across the city are immersed in planning.
The view from Independence Beer Garden is a kaleidoscope of America's history. Independence National Historic Park includes Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the Christ Church burial ground where Benjamin Franklin and four other signers of the Declaration of Independence rest.
Franklin died 225 years ago, but his likeness walks through Old City, thanks to Bill Robling's striking resemblance and knowledge about the legendary newsman, diplomat and Founding Father. He, too, draws crowds.
“I look forward to the people from all over the country, for both Pope Francis' visit in September and the convention next summer,” Robling said. “Philadelphia history is America's history. The more people you reach with retelling our country's history, the better country we are.”
Chef Walter Staib, proprietor of City Tavern, was born in Germany but could put many native Americans to shame with his knowledge of American history. He won four Emmys for his PBS shows, “A Taste of History” and “Superfoods,” and has published five books since opening the tavern that re-creates the 1773 restaurant where the Founding Fathers plotted liberty and debated details of the Declaration of Independence over mugs of beer.
“Philadelphia is the cradle of our Democracy,” Staib said. “It is the best of America's heritage and the new innovations that are driving the engines of this country.”
More than cheese steaks
No doubt the Democrats who assemble here next year will try a Philly cheese steak, the sandwich that's almost an ambassador for the city.
But natives want visitors to know Philadelphia is more than its thinly cut beef and melted cheese on a toasted roll.
“Don't get me wrong — we love the tourist traditions of the history and the cheese steaks, but when you come to Philly, you have to experience all of our uniqueness,” said Rachel Zimmerman, an artist and executive director of Inliquid, a former plumbing supply plant-turned-visual arts center that is another go-to spot.
It's in Kensington, once an industrial, working-class neighborhood drawing development with young adults looking for moderately priced housing and access to public transit.
“A healthy art community is part of the attraction,” said Zimmerman, whose space holds unique exhibits and sometimes hosts high-brow cultural events.
Around the block, in the window of Bahdeebahdu, a dazzling light sculpture by artist Warren Muller holds court.
In his design studio, Muller turns discarded bottles, equipment and industrial parts into luminescent fixtures. He sees light ahead for city neighborhoods that are rubbing off their grime and decline.
“There is a real sense of community, investing in community, and people are using fairly innovative ways, like ‘reuse' projects, to continue those opportunities,” he said.
Muller hopes convention attendees stray outside the city proper to enjoy what its neighborhoods offer.
Four blocks away, in Fishtown, “coffee and whiskey scientist” Todd Carmichael bursts with excitement in his LaColombe Torrefaction cafe. He and co-founder Jean Philippe Iberti have coffee cafes in New York, Chicago and Washington, and soon will open a location at Independence Mall.
“Come upstairs,” Carmichael beckoned. “You will be the first to taste our new invention, draft latte.”
He climbs steep, wooden steps leading away from the fresh baguettes, salads, and barrels of coffee-infused rum to his “laboratory.” He pours the silky coffee-milk combo from a keg; it has a sweet taste and light milkshake texture.
“Philadelphia is about to be the coffee export capital to the rest of the country,” Carmichael said.
The star of Travel Channel's “Dangerous Grounds” said his canned version of the draft contains no sugar, unlike rival Starbucks' canned product.
LaColombe's coffee is a big business that remains small at heart and true to Carmichael's roots: “Because of the investment of people and business in our city, we are able to cultivate and maintain a good balance of neighborhood stewardship that makes this city a great destination place for the individual tourist, a pope's visit, or a political convention.
“It is something we all have to both cultivate and maintain.”
Building a brand
Seun Olubodun hopes the fickle fashion industry goes to the dogs. He named the men's clothing line he founded, Duke and Winston, after his — dogs, that is.
A former Web designer with no fashion background, Olubodun fell into the apparel trade by trying to get online business from a Boston street clothier.
“I was not a fan of streetwear,” he said. “I like casual, preppy clothing. They made their brand off of a cupcake; why couldn't I make mine off of my dog?”
But being a young entrepreneur is not easy or glamorous, he confesses.
“I spend much more time with paperwork, answering calls, filling orders, than the creative part,” he said, “but it's part of the fabric of who I am and what this city is.”
Olubodun began working from a basement five years ago when he quit his information technology job: “I thought I would be an overnight success; that didn't happen. But after really working hard, building my brand, selling T-shirts at street fairs ... we are finally growing to a solid brand.”
Kevin Washo, executive director of the DNC host committee, believes the patchwork of old and new Philadelphia made it the ultimate location for the coming party.
“Even the compactness of the city played a part,” he said. “We have 11,000 hotel rooms in Center City, which should hold a large percentage of the attendees and give them the ability to walk or bike or use transit to visit all that the city has to offer.”
Washo, who grew up in Scranton and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, acknowledges the organizers have a year to get it ready.
“There will be many late nights of planning in the next year,” he said, “but we plan to make our state — and this city — proud from the moment it kicks off.”
Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.