“Where is the Center City District?” I asked the desk clerk at the Hilton Garden Inn near Philadelphia's Convention Center.

“You're in Center City,” she replied.

“But where is the District — the revitalized urban retail, arts and dining center?”

“I can't think of any place like that,” she said.

She was confused.

So was I. I walked outside to see a Wawa convenience store, not exactly the cutting edge of urban redevelopment.

What I didn't know at the time was that the Center City District, promoted as a grand urban revitalization program akin to New York's SoHo, was all around me, but dispersed: a new retailer here, a new restaurant there, absorbed in the vast area that is the District — the third-largest residential downtown after Manhattan and Chicago.

Fact is, except for a few blocks on Walnut Street (left, top), near tony Rittenhouse Square, and on Chestnut Street, the new Philadelphia looks a lot like the old Philadelphia.

But there are signs of change. In the past two years, for example, Talbot's, Design Within Reach, Zara and Cole Haan opened stores on posh Walnut. And IKEA opened a 310,000-square-foot store in South Philadelphia.

Also, condo development is exploding. About 7,500 housing units were built between 1998 and 2005; another 3,460 are in the pipeline through 2008, according to numbers compiled by the District. Towers are rising around the city. And where there's roofs, retail will follow — or so District officials hope.

As I walked Philadelphia's Center City streets looking for new shops, I happened on some interesting retail spots. Just outside the hotel, for example, is Reading Terminal Market, an outdoor-like farmer's market that is actually inside an old railroad train shed. Like Philadelphia, the market has had good times and bad times since it opened in 1892. These are good times. It is fully leased.

More than 80 vendors, some descendants of the original standholders, sell everything from Philly Cheesesteaks to Amish baked-goods to hand-made Chocolate By Mueller (the nonpareils were superb; much better than Godiva chocolate — and cheaper, too.)

Also in my hunt for an urban revival, I was directed to South Street (top photo), a hip section of town catering to young folks. With Condom Kingdom and Bare Foot Shoes, it's no SoHo — more like early Greenwich Village or a college-town main street. But, with about 300 stores, it's hopping.

The art scene is growing too, especially in the Old City. Not far from the Betsy Ross House. in what was once a busy commercial waterfront district, galleries open their doors to the public and offer special performances on the first Friday of each month (left,bottom).

The District wants more retail. Badly. Representatives were handing out brochures detailing the area's demographics at the ICSC Deal Making show in that city last month. Included were testimonials from retailers.

“Tiffany has just invested in a multi-million-dollar, 11-month renovation of its Center City store because we recognize the city's charm and retail potential,” said Sandra Alton, vice president, Tiffany & Co.

Potential is the operative word.

Vitals

Location: Center City Philadelphia

Population: 88,000

Employment: 300,000

Median annual income: $58,210

New since 2004: IKEA, Mimi Maternity, Talbot's, Zara, DiBruno Brothers Chestnut Street Emporium, Cole Haan Shoes, Smith Brothers, Design Within Reach.