With just a few days before the arrival of Pope Francis, Philadelphia is already another place. Say what you will about the laughable abundance of port-o-potties, Philadelphia looks phenomenal.
I decided to take the long way home from the gym this evening to pass through City Hall and Dilworth Park. Long burnt out bulbs in the bizarre orbs illuminating the building's corridors have been replaced, casting a bright light on every priceless work of Victorian Gothic craft adorning the grand building. City Hall's gates are up, at least the pair flanking Dilworth Park. The fountains remain on, despite the passage of Labor Day. Even City Hall's north apron, once packed with cars, is free of clutter.
Along North Broad Street, a tall stained glass window has been installed inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center's rarely used main entrance, and it seems to be finally seeing the usage it had always intended, almost as if the expansion is finally receiving its grand opening.
But more than anything that can be said for Philadelphia's recent transformation are the lights. The bright, white, glorious lights!
The dingy yellow street lamps, the dimly lit light posts that I can only assume were dully designed to detract moths, have been replaced by extremely bright LEDs and bright white lampposts.
After twelves years in Philadelphia, this is the first evening I've managed to recapture some of the excitement of being in a city entirely new, and so much of that is because the evening streets don't look like the urban battlefields of the early 1990s. Last week, and for the last twenty years (or more), the sidewalks were awash in a foreboding sepia tone that cried, "these streets aren't safe." For years I had to inform visitors from back home, "trust me, this neighborhood is safer than Georgetown. It's just the lights. They trick you."
For the last few months, Philadelphia has been checking off a long overdo to-do list and the end result of so many seemingly mundane improvements is staggering. Tonight's Philadelphia might be for the tourists, but next week it's for us.
But this is bigger than just a cleaner, brighter city we'll enjoy long after the Papal Pilgrims have left. The city we see tonight is a living postcard that the world will see over the next few years. Unlike the last Papal Visit in 1979, one that saw hundreds of photographs, perhaps thousands, we live in the digital age. Images of this new Philadelphia will be immortalized on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, literally millions of photographs, online, and immediately available.
Pope Francis won't be in Philadelphia for four more days, but already his followers have begun flooding in. Step outside and take a look. Tourists are everywhere, standing in awe, marveling at our architecture and history, and in doing so, reminding us just how marvelous and awesome our city truly is.
Images and places the world knows by heart, iconic monuments and monoliths like Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, and the Washington Monument are the stuff of 99 cent post cards right now because this week, this 300 year old city is something new, something the world has forgotten and most have never seen.
Beyond Philadelphia's history - a City Hall clock tower that is, by the way, 250 meters taller than Big Ben and not much newer - tourists are witnessing a city that is building. On my walk to work, my lunch break, and walking home I saw dozens of visitors pointing up in awe at Comcast's Innovation and Technology Center impressively under construction. Around the corner, 1919 Market is rising. The future sites of the W Hotel and the SLS International have been fenced off signaling something new is in the works. East Market installed its crane at 12th and Market, the hub of Philadelphia's hotels. Those who arrived by train or walked to the Schuylkill River saw the FMC Tower well under way and a University City skyline that looks less like the urban suburb it once was, and more like the extension of Center City it's becoming.
No one is getting what they expected, and perhaps this is the one aptly timed moment where Philadelphia's tiresome national and international reputation will be its salvation. Those attempting to grab a glimpse of the Pope in New York or Washington, D.C. will be getting the New York and D.C. they're accustomed to seeing on television. But those visiting Philadelphia will be getting a city they only thought they knew, one they weren't prepared for, and one they will continue to talk about for months.
Despite the headaches leading up to this week - mostly frustrations to those of us who live here - Philadelphia has done something very right: we're showing off. We're finally, after decades of Negadelphian rhetoric, bragging to the world about the things that make this city right.
As annoying as the parking nightmares, traffic jams, shunted subways, and general mobs of people may be, it is but one weekend that stands to change the way the world views Philadelphia, and when we come back from whatever shore town we flee to this weekend, we might find ourselves living in a city with the World Class reputation it once owned and has always deserved.