Philadelphia is a city that celebrated the centennial of its founding seven years

before

George Washington took up residence on Sixth Street as first president of the United States.

So is it any surprise that we are not enamored of change? Old cities rarely are. Change is inevitable, of course, but so is heartbreak. Why seek it out?

Which makes this election season so remarkable. It has turned into a referendum on change - and change appears to be winning. The results of Tuesday's election will let us know for sure, but the signs are encouraging.

Let us count the ways:

We may be seeing the city's first postmodern mayoral election when it comes to race. Since 1970, the color of a candidate's skin has trumped all other considerations. Clearly, that is changing.

Michael Nutter, the current front-runner, is a black man with wide appeal among white voters. Tom Knox, an Irish-Catholic rich guy, has staked a claim to win one out of four black votes.

Does this mean an end to race-based politics? Of course not. (Witness the divide-and-conquer TV ads put up in the final days by surrogates of Mayor Street.) But it's a step forward - many steps forward from that Era of Bad Feeling, the Frank Rizzo years.

We could be witnessing the End Days of the old Democratic political machine. Its effectiveness has long been in question; now it will be subject to proof.

The party chair, Bob Brady, offered himself up as a candidate for mayor. He had the near unanimous support of the city's 69 Democratic ward leaders. And what is the result?

If Brady is lucky, he'll run third out of five candidates on Tuesday. More likely he'll end up fourth.

Let's face it: This is a one-party town and has been since 1865, though the one party in power went from Republican to Democrat in the early 1950s.

Without a viable opposition party, reform of the political machinery has to come from within. And it looks as if Democratic voters are ready to insist upon it.

Knox and Nutter, the two candidates in the lead, are talking the talk of political reform and have the support of the majority of Democratic voters.

Of course, reform is in the eye of the beholder. Even Brady is casting himself, without much success, as a champion of change. If it came to pass, it would be nice, just for starters, if the ruling party would stop treating young and energetic political activists as a form of fungus.

We may be seeing an outbreak of civic optimism. Most of the voters tell pollsters they are unhappy with the direction of the city. I think that signals discontent with the present, not pessimism about the future.

Since the 1950s, Philadelphia's story has been one of decline - decline in population, in political standing, in jobs, in prosperity. A quarter of the population has fled in the last half-century, leaving some neighborhoods in ruins. As Chaka Fattah likes to remind us, nearly one in four Philadelphians lives in poverty. If the homicide rate is a gauge of social stress, particularly among the poor, the barometric pressure is rising.

The Street administration, now in its eighth and final year, lacks the energy and focus to deal with the violence. So, it is encouraging to see the five Democratic candidates - collectively and individually - step up and take leadership of this issue.

You can disagree with particulars of their plans, but at least they see it as something that is solvable, if we all try hard enough.

In fact, if we all try hard enough, we can envision an end to the decline in the city's fortunes and a revival of political integrity and civic activism.

This election could offer proof that there is a constituency for a Philadelphia that is neither corrupt nor contented. That we can be a city that draws new people and new jobs, an ancient urban place that is still brimming with vitality - with more to come.

Hope is a fragile thing, but it's out there, in the neighborhoods in the suddenly crowded streets of Center City, among the new and old generations of Philadelphians who love their city too much to let it down.

They believe in a brighter future. They are ready to move forward. We are poised on the threshold of change. Tuesday will tell us what the next step will be.

Contact Tom Ferrick at 215-854-2714 or tferrick@phillynews.com.