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Posted 11/10/2005 8:30 PM     Updated 11/11/2005 11:51 AM
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From 'Rocky' to rockin'
PHILADELPHIA — It's Thursday night, and the martinis are flying at 1-year-old Continental Midtown's rooftop terrace.

Dozens of pretty young things huddle around the circular bar, straining to hear each other over the pulsing music. Across the room, a slightly older crowd lounges on retro-cool orange sofas in front of a fire. Every few minutes the elevator swings open, depositing a new crop of late-night revelers.

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It's a good night to be here, says Enrique Oliva, 31, who recently moved from Houston. "Friday and Saturday? The lines are out the door," gripes the artist and brewer, surveying the scene from a corner near the entrance to the ultra-hip, all-black, co-ed bathroom.

Philadelphia, says Oliva, is quite the happening place. "It's not quite New York, but it's getting there." (Related item: Photo gallery | Philadelphia's music scene proves size doesn't matter)

Philadelphia? Happening?

Indeed. The gritty decay that served as the backdrop for Sylvester Stallone's Rocky in the 1970s has disappeared. And the long-overlooked city of 1.5 million is morphing into one of the nation's coolest urban centers.

Philadelphia just kicked off a year-long celebration of its most famous resident, Ben Franklin, born 300 years ago, with events that highlight its historical riches, including Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Yet the city no longer is just a place to see historical sites. (Related story: It's a big Ben birthday)

An exploding restaurant scene, newfound nightlife, eclectic shopping and an expansion of the visual and performing arts have catapulted it onto the short list of must-see urban areas.

"It's a real surprise," says British artist Ellen Harvey, who is in town to finish an installation at the 200-year-old Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which tripled in size this year. "It's so much more than I expected."

Taking a break in the museum's grand rotunda, where she is engraving floor-to-ceiling mirrors with scenes of the building in ruins, the Brooklyn-based painter says she's impressed by the city's vibe. "I don't know of another city of this size that has so much fabulous art."

A vibrant art scene is one reason National Geographic Traveler named Philadelphia the world's "Next Great City" last month. The magazine called Philadelphia's Old City gallery district, just three blocks from Independence Hall, "the liveliest urban neighborhood between SoHo in New York and SoBe in Miami."

Another reason: the city's food scene. Once known for little more than cheese steaks, Philadelphia has shot into the forefront of major dining cities, luring top culinary names such as Masaharu Morimoto, Japan's "Iron Chef," who chose the city over New York for his first eatery. A Philadelphian, Stephen Starr, was just named Bon Appétit's "restaurateur of the year."

"There was a giant void here," says Starr, recalling the landscape when he opened the city's first martini bar and restaurant, The Continental, in 1995 — considered a seminal event in the city's transformation. Relaxing in a corner of Striped Bass, one of 12 restaurants in his fast-growing empire, he says the city back then "was really quite boring. I wanted to go to places that were fun and lighthearted, and there was nothing."

A decade later, Philadelphia may not have quite the food scene of New York or San Francisco, but boring it isn't. Starr, who has since launched such off-the-wall spaces as Asian-influenced Buddakan (where a wall-size Buddha gazes down on diners), now has plenty of competition. There are more than 200 downtown restaurants, including an influx of gourmet BYOBs — a trend that has gone to new heights in Philadelphia.

Many of those eateries are in the Old City gallery district, which artists began colonizing more than two decades ago. Sprinkled with some of the city's most historic buildings, the once-dilapidated area near the Delaware River now houses restaurants, bars and boutiques as well as more than 40 galleries, offering an intoxicating mix of old and new, highbrow sophistication and lowbrow fun.

Old City's Christ Church, where tourists pose for pictures in Franklin's pew, is just down the street from a dozen of the city's wildest bars and clubs, all tucked into narrow Colonial brick buildings. The home where Betsy Ross supposedly stitched the first American flag, one of the city's top attractions, is around the corner from several of the nation's best 20th-century design boutiques, a shop that makes custom handbags and a spa.

"It's got this wonderful feel, like SoHo used to have before it became a shopping mall," says Lewis Wexler, a New York transplant.

Lured by cheaper rents and the booming scene, the former Christies assistant vice president opened Wexler Gallery, a stylish outlet on Old City's Third Street that sells $35,000 chairs by Wendell Castle and Dale Chihuly studio glass.

Another area that has blossomed is the skyscraper-peppered downtown, known as Center City. Fueled by an influx of residents, its walkable grid of tree-lined streets laid down by Philadelphia founder William Penn in 1682 now bustles with people day and night — a change from just a few years ago.

In 1998, after a battle to strike down a regulation forbidding sidewalk cafes, Neil Stein opened one of Center City's first, Rouge, along Rittenhouse Square. Now, more than 100 spill onto the sidewalks.

Few U.S. cities have such a well-preserved stock of buildings, from Victorian brownstones to old banks. Many have been revived over the past decade, giving the downtown streetscape a quirky charm.

As urban destinations go, Philadelphia still has some flaws. Most notably, it lacks an inventory of stylish, fun places to stay. Purveyors of urban chic such as Kimpton Hotels have yet to touch down, leaving visitors with few choices for lodging other than chains.

Philadelphia also struggles to reconnect with its waterfront, cut off from the city by the construction of Interstate 95.

But longtime residents say it's breathtaking how far the city has come since 1985, when the nation watched in shock as a police confrontation with MOVE, a radical anti-government group, turned an entire neighborhood into a war zone and left 61 homes gutted.

Many credit the turnaround to former mayor Ed Rendell, who took office in 1992 and made the revival of Center City — and tourism — his top priority. "He was the city's cheerleader, and his energy was infectious," says Janet Calderwood, of Calderwood Gallery, a famed outlet for art-deco furniture.

Rendell, now governor of Pennsylvania, pushed for tax breaks that have brought nearly a dozen new hotels downtown since 1998. And he rallied support for new art spaces, such as the $265 million Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2001.

He also championed an overhaul of Independence Mall that's just being completed. The changes include a new, $185 million National Constitution Center; a visitors' center and an interpretive center to house the Liberty Bell. Thanks in part to the additions, overnight tourist visits hit 8.34 million in 2004, up 39% in five years.

"Rendell really understood the importance of tourism and how it was an underutilized resource," says longtime city-watcher Howie Shapiro, who has written about the changes during nearly four decades at ThePhiladelphia Inquirer.

Talking over burgers at London Grill, in the booming Fairmount neighborhood near the Philadelphia Art Museum, Shapiro says the city is doing creative things to embrace visitors. This summer, it began placing storytellers at 13 benches in Old City to regale tourists with tales from the city's past at no charge. It also added "Adventure Tours" of Colonial sites, led by historically dressed characters, and daily re-enactments. At Harmony Lane in Old City, summer visitors saw costumed characters going about their day — churning butter, hanging laundry and exchanging stories about daily life.

"It's changed the nature of touring Philly," says Shapiro, who says tourism promoters have taken a page from Colonial Williamsburg and showmanship-focused Disney in making history come alive.

Restaurateur Starr, who grew up in the area, says it's all part of an "attitude change" in the nation's fifth-largest city, which long has had an inferiority complex about its much bigger neighbor 100 miles to the northeast, New York.

"When I was growing up, this was a city that had low self-esteem," Starr says. But like Rocky, the fictional Philadelphia hero, the city has begun to believe it's a winner. "There's a new pride. "

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