All About Philadelphia

Planning a visit or a move to Philly? Get details on what makes this city like no other.

Say Philadelphia and thoughts turn immediately to the Liberty Bell, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Rocky Balboa running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But there's much more to this city of 1.6 million, and whether you plan to visit a couple of days or plan to settle here, you'll quickly learn there's much, much more.

A lot of cities often spend billions to become “special places.” Philadelphia simply is special, thanks to its place in the country’s history, its adherence to tradition, its diverse economy, geography, central location and its tendency to go its own way, despite national trends that are often running in the opposite direction.

Case in point: Health. While the rest of the nation is perpetually on a diet, the American Obesity Association put Philadelphia in the top 10 for overweight people six years in a row, the last time in 2007.

If you consider that the city’s chief culinary export is the cheesesteak, and that a “Yo! Philadelphia Basket” from the Pennsylvania General Store features, among 13 high-fat entries, TastyKake Krimpets, Asher’s Chocolate Pretzels, the Melrose Diner’s Butter Cookies, and Downey’s Liquor Cake, you’ll understand why.

Before they arrive here, visitors often repeat the same tired jokes -- native W.C. Fields epitaph “I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” or “I went to Philadelphia for the weekend and it was closed” -- humor inspired by long-gone Sunday “blue laws.” After even a couple of days walking its streets, exploring its alleys and pocket parks, riding its subways, visiting its museums and historic sites, dining in its restaurants, these visitors usually are eager to return.

It’s a nice place to visit; living here can be very good too, and both are getting better:

Modesty. Philadelphia isn’t flashy. It’s not Las Vegas, it’s not Los Angeles, and it’s not New York. Residential real estate here is affordable and undervalued compared with most large metro markets. The city and the seven surrounding counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey that comprise its metropolitan area did not see the run-up in prices during this decade’s housing boom, nor have they seen them fall. Since the end of the boom, median sale prices are down just 4 percent, and its foreclosure rate is the one of the lowest in the nation. Flippers and speculators are not attracted to a market that doesn’t offer the opportunity to make a killing. That, and construction costs that are 18 percent above the national average, means that unsold inventory are low, and sales, while down, have almost bottomed out.

Center City. Twenty years ago Philadelphia was on the ropes and near bankruptcy. The center of the region had shifted to King of Prussia 30 miles west. Applications for building permits totaled just 100 a year. Little if any market-rate housing was built.

In 1992 Mayor and now-Gov. Edward G. Rendell launched an eight-year effort to encourage investment in the city, and a building boom resulted, aided in 1997 and 2000 by two 10-year tax abatements, one for converting unused office buildings and warehouses, the other for new residential construction. Since 1998, 10,000 units of housing, mostly condos, have been added to Center City, and its boundaries have expanded to adjacent districts. The median sales price is now $500,000, and for-sale housing units have almost doubled in value over a decade.

In 2007 for the first time in 15 years, the central business district increased its share of regional office space, and while adding more office space, occupancy was up to 89 percent and rents increased 14 percent from 2006. The Pennsylvania Convention Center expansion now under way will create a total of one million feet of saleable space, including the largest contiguous space in the Northeastern United States. In 2008, there are an estimated 88,000 residents in Center City, making it the third-largest downtown in population in the country, after New York and Chicago.

Transportation. Philadelphia has a transportation infrastructure that newer cities are spending billions to create today. Philadelphia International Airport serves 32 million passengers a year. The city’s Amtrak ridership increased 3.3 percent in 2006 from 2007 -- 3.7 million passengers boarding and arriving at 30th Street Station along the busy Northeast Corridor. The city is served by two interstate highways, 41 local and regional bus lines, seven regional rail lines, five trolley lines, a high-speed line to New Jersey and more than 150 bicycle lanes. Rising gas prices has increased ridership on all transit lines, so much so that routes are being expanded and trains added. Forty percent of all Center City residents walk to work. There are two car-sharing entities -- Philly CarShare and Zip -- that allow residents to forgo automobile ownership.

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