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PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - In the final scene of the movie "Creed," aging boxer Rocky Balboa stands atop the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and surveys the gleaming steel and glass office towers of the city's skyline.
The 72 stone steps look the same as they did when Balboa, played by Sylvester Stallone, ran up them in the famous training montage from 1976's Academy Award-winning "Rocky." But the view in "Creed," which opens on Wednesday in theaters nationwide, is clearer and brighter, reflecting Philadelphia's revival.
"In the 1970's, this city was right in middle of half a century of population decline," said Larry Eichel, director of the Pew Charitable Trust's Philadelphia Research Initiative. "In the last eight years, the city has grown by 72,000 people. That's not as much as other cities, but when you put it in the context of a half century of decline, it's an achievement."
"Creed" comes at a time when the city of 1.6 million is basking in the international limelight. Close to 1 million people packed into downtown Philadelphia in September for Pope Francis' historic first visit to the United States. In July, it will host the Democratic Party's presidential nominating convention.
The film is the seventh in the "Rocky" series, which long focused on a gritty, declining Philadelphia, which like many major U.S. cities was hurt by the loss of its industrial base.
Many Philadelphians have long loved the series, created by New York-born Stallone. The cast bronze statue of Balboa that appeared in 1982's "Rocky III" and stands at the foot of the art museum stairs remains a powerful tourist draw.
In the original film, Rocky hung out in a bar so run down that in one scene his best friend struggles to comb his hair in a bathroom mirror so broken that only a fragment of glass remains.
In the new film, Adonis Johnson, the son of Balboa rival-turned-mentor Apollo Creed, leaves behind a life of privilege to walk in the footsteps of a father he never knew. The title character, played by Michael B. Jordan, hangs out in Johnny Brenda's, a bar whose 2003 renovation as a live music venue marked a turning point in the gritty Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown.
The museum steps again feature in the film, with Jordan walking up them with his mentor Balboa as the older fighter undergoes cancer treatment.
That contrast underscores the region's transition from a manufacturing economy to one driven by healthcare and education, the so-called "eds and meds" sector that now makes up about 30 percent of the Philadelphia economy.
"If you look at the original 'Rocky,' ('Creed') really shows what's changed in the city," said Steve Milstein, a periodontist from the Philadelphia suburb of Oaks, who caught an advance screening of "Creed" last week.
Philadelphia's recent population growth, according to Pew research, has been driven in part by the rise of millennials moving into a few select neighborhoods studded with restaurants and nightlife. Other cities, including Boston, Austin, Texas; Seattle and New York, may boast more of this coveted group, but no large city has seen its demographics shift more by an influx of young residents than Philadelphia has.
Pew's research suggests that between 2006 and 2012, the percentage of residents aged 20 to 34 rose from 20 percent to 26 percent, or about 100,000 people.
But the Philadelphia of "Creed" remains very much a city where the paint is peeling around the edges, especially in neighborhoods away from the city's downtown business district, as seen in Creed's training runs through the city.
"We have neighborhoods that are going through tough times," said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter when asked about the movie in a recent interview. "But we've also seen some neighborhoods coming back to life."
Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis