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What Philadelphia Has that Pittsburgh Wants

When it comes to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the relationship can be summed up in two words:  sibling rivalry.  Our kin to the east revels in one-upping the 'burgh, whether it's convention centers or sports facilities and then there's that pesky conversation about which town has the better hockey and football players (note to @MikeVick: please RT this story, Big Ben's not on Twitter).  Philadelphia has returned to its roots, however, to position itself as a major East Coast player and here's where we can take our cue. Note: We'll refrain from commenting on the football rivalry right now.

Making the most of Philadelphia's identity as the cradle of liberty is a single-subject museum that speaks to the city past and present.  The National Constitution Center opened its doors in 2003 and shines a light on the four-page document from every conceivable angle.  A permanent exhibition, "The Story of We the People," features a 17-minute multimedia presentation titled "Freedom Rising" that illustrates the struggles of our forefathers in shaping the constitution. 

Over a hundred exhibits featuring film, photographs and artifacts  ("The American National Tree" is compelling, a series of touch screens telling the story of citizens well-known and not) help bring the constitution to vivid life, making this a great venue for public discourse on the document and how it affects us today.  That President Obama chose the location for his speech on race during the 2008 campaign seared the museum on the collective consciousness.

On a parallel track, the National Museum of American Jewish History, which opened its doors in November, recounts the immigrant Jewish experience over three floors and leads to a fourth, called "Only in America," that highlights eighteen American Jewish heroes including Jonas Salk and Steven Spielberg (Irving Berlin's piano is also on hand).  Surely Pittsburgh can riff on its industrial past by expanding the Carrie Furnace site or further developing the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area?  This approach is working in post-industrial European cities.  A Super Bowl Hall of Fame and Museum could keep the Pittsburgh story fresh, or so says one Pop City reader.  We'd have to agree.

In a city fueled by immigrants, food is on everyone's lips.  Restauranteur Stephen Starr has leveraged that in recent years, opening a slew of stylish concept eateries in and around Center City.  Eating his lunch of late are chef-driven restaurant groups helmed by Iron Chef and James Beard Award winner Jose Garces and fellow Beard award recipient Marc Vetri. 

Garces' Latin-infused food is showcased at tables as varied as Amada, where Spanish tapas enliven a seductive dining room, to Distrito, a slice of uptown Mexico City and Village Whiskey, a sliver of a room where the perfect burger has met its match in duck-fat fries.  Vetri opened his refined, eponymous 40-seat restaurant in 1998 with a focus on Northern Italian cuisine. 

The more casual Osteria followed in 2007 and he recently launched Amis, a bustling brown-on-brown space.  Next up is Birreria 600, where Italian drafts will lubricate the masses.  Both chefs are masters of upmarket dining yet see the value in more egalitarian fare and it's a formula that could prove successful for the likes of Richard DeShantz of Nine on Nine and Kevin Sousa at Salt of the Earth.

At the other end of the food spectrum is the Italian Market, where shoppers have been stopping on their way home for over a hundred years.  Fruits and vegetables are sold outdoors year-round (they put out fire cans in the winter) and old-time butchers and fish mongers with names like D'Angelo and Cannuli Bros. stand cheek-to-cheek with new kids on the block including Caseificio Claudio, a storefront where five hundred pounds of fresh mozzarella are made daily.  Mariella Esposito, an Italian immigrant, started working at Fante's Cookware in high school and never left. 

"This is a market of immigrants," she says, "and every new wave has added food, language, customs."  What would she say to anyone interested in starting a Polish Market in Pittsburgh (pierogies, haluski, kielbasa, oh my!)?  "Keep the traditions or they won't come to you you can get stuff everywhere!  Do harder-to-find things.  And make it welcoming, give it a Polish flair."

No Philly food conversation would  be complete without a mention of the Reading Terminal Market, a massive food hall where generations have manned stalls that sell the hoagies, scrapple and cheesesteaks for which the city is known alongside delicacies such as crispy Southern fried chicken (Delilah's) and salmon curry (Little Thai Market).  This is where Philly business does lunch and you eat standing up or on bar stools.  The facility was nearly razed in the 1980s but cooler heads prevailed and today, it is one of the most vibrant public markets in the country.  With an equally-focused effort, the nascent Pittsburgh Public Market could get there as well.

All over town is the City of Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program, which got its start as the  Anti-Graffiti Network in 1984.  Conceived as a effort to redirect the energy of graffiti artists, the program has facilitated over 3,500 murals, some painted by professional artists and others a collaboration between school kids, prisoners and anyone else willing to pick up a brush.  Many of the murals are sponsored by foundations and local companies and marquee efforts include "Legacy," an homage to Abraham Lincoln, and "Philadelphia Muses," a shout-out to heroic women. 

Full of whimsy is "Gimme Shelter," a hodgepodge of dogs and cats plastered onto the side of an animal shelter.  Silver lining?  Nary a mural has been tainted by graffiti.  Pittsburgh's Sprout Fund has already looked to Philly's program for inspiration and a full-on expansion would be the sweetest eye candy.  Also worth a gander is Philadelphia's Percent for Art program, which decrees that 1% of the dollar amount of any construction project that will be paid for, in whole or in part, by the city must be spent on site-specific art that enhances the space.

University City
is the district surrounding the University of Pennsylvania west of Center City.  Its creation is due, in large part, to "enlightened self-interest," according to Tony Sorrentino, an executive director and urban planner at Penn.  With entire city blocks east and west of the school crumbling by the mid-1990s, Penn stepped in as developer and built a large bookstore and four-diamond hotel, gradually adding shops, restaurants and a movie theater to the mix.  Proving the concept attracted outside investors and construction of rental apartments and other housing is moving apace. 

"Universities have a responsibility to their neighbors," continues Sorrentino.  "We're an economic engine and we're in the place-making business.  If tension goes away between 'town and gown,' everyone wins."  Through Penn Home Ownership Services, the university offers home loan programs that incentivize faculty and staff to purchase close-in properties.  This program further supports the university's commitment to a diverse, safe and thriving urban community.  Harvard is studying the model as should Pitt as one alternative for the still-gentrifying areas of Oakland and the Hill District. Point Park is well on its way.

At the end of the day, Philadelphia continues to play to its strengths.  Museums are the crowning achievement on the cultural landscape and Philly radio is considered the pride of the East Coast.  No less than four urban radio stations, an amalgam of hip-hop, R&B, discussion and dialogue, speak directly to the African-American community (Pittsburgh's last urban radio station, WAMO, closed its doors in 2009).  "Urban radio is one of the most popular formats," says E. Stephen Collins, Director of Urban Marketing and External Relations at Radio-One Inc. Philadelphia, "and if listeners can't get it in Pittsburgh, they'll go [to stations outside of the city] and listen on satellite radio or the Internet.  The [African-American] community accounts for $800 billion in spending nationwide and advertisers from tourism to automotive to luxury are getting in on it.  You're missing out on all of that."

We're listening. Meanwhile, we've got a big game to watch this weekend which is raking in millions for our city so we might able to up our game in more ways than one. For those who want to keep up on the great things going on in Philadelphia, may we suggest our sister publication, Flying Kite? Sign up to receive it weekly.

New Girl In Town Elaine Labalme will break bread with most anyone and is partial to the doughy goodness of Kribel's Bakery in Brookline. 

Photos (top to bottom): Liberty Bell Center; Jose Garces; pork bellies at Distrito; Italian Market; mural; pickled goods at Village Whiskey.
Photographs copyright Michael Persico

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