What The Hell Happened To Old City?

Just a decade ago, it was the city’s rising, glamorous neighborhood, a maze of cobblestone streets, galleries, boutiques and lounges. Now, weekend after weekend, it’s a whole different story

Ten years ago, Old City was the Next Big Neighborhood. With Continental at 2nd and Market and Buddakan around the corner, Stephen Starr became the neighborhood’s official Pied Piper, attracting the cocktail crowd, foodies and boldface names. In swept the high-end restaurants and hip vintage and designer boutiques. Lofts that once housed starving artists were remodeled with gleaming hardwood floors and stainless steel appliances. The trend-chasers couldn’t park their Lexuses along 2nd Street fast enough. Suddenly, everyone wanted to be in Old City.

As the saying goes, that was yesterday. Today, on any weekend night, it’s the Land of 1,000 Snookis. Liquored-up women in micro-mini plunge dresses and mile-high heels (panties optional). Dudes on motorcycles burning rubber, or blasting stereos from tricked-out SUVs, cat-calling and feel-copping. It’s like Jersey Shore meets Pimp My Ride meets South Street, trashed mobs instead of flash mobs.

Jamie’s looking to buy a condo in town, but as much as she likes to party here, she’d rather live in Rittenhouse. “If I want to get to sleep,” she says, leaning in close to be heard over the blaring club music, “do I want to be listening to this?”

Old City is neither the first nor the last neighborhood in Philadelphia to experience rebirth, then struggle to survive once the hype is gone. (See the timeline.) While some have held steady, a few “resurrected” neighborhoods remain on unsteady feet or on life support.

But the spectacular crash of Old City seems in an entirely different league. It has everyone confused, from the nightlife bloggers who helped build buzz about the area, to the entrepreneurs who came in with the gold rush, to those who wonder why the narrow, cobblestoned streets of Philadelphia’s most historic neighborhood are now clogged twice a week with some of its trashiest, drunkest people.

“I was really attracted to the artsiness of the neighborhood, the building styles, the gallery district,” says Ellen Yin, who opened Fork in 1997 at 3rd and Market.

“The city planned to make Market Street the pedestrian walkway to the waterfront.” Thirteen years later, Yin is still waiting for that plan to materialize.
Long before restaurateurs like Yin and Starr planted their flags here, Old City was defined by two things — history, and the Delaware River. It served both equally well, with Independence Mall to its western border on 6th Street, and the warehouses with views of the water along Front Street. In the early ’70s, the residential population of the neighborhood numbered around 100. Then the artists moved in, drawn to spacious, dirt-cheap lofts they could convert to studios. By 1995, when Starr debuted Continental, the neighborhood was still a bit dodgy, pockmarked by crime and panhandling. Still, each year seemed to bring a new coffee shop, or an office filled with nine-to-fivers, or a fashion retailer.
“I was drawn to the vibe of the area,” says Megan Murphy, who worked in Old City for a decade before co-opening Vagabond boutique on 3rd Street in 2000. “It was so artistically driven, I wasn’t sure if we’d be welcome here with our clothing store. But I definitely saw an opportunity for foot traffic.”