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

Murphy’s shop, along with Me & Blue, helped establish Old City as a shopping destination. Dining, retail, art — business was up all over. So was rent, and entrepreneurs followed the money. Brownie’s and Rotten Ralph’s were joined by new bars aimed at the upscale crowd, joints like the Plough & the Stars and the Five Spot, where Jill Scott and the Roots launched their careers.

No one can agree on exactly when Old City jumped the shark. But seeds of its split personality — the calm north of Market Street vs. the bedlam to the south — were planted back in 1990, when a zoning restriction made it tougher for restaurants and bars to open above that line of demarcation. It was designed to ensure that the galleries of the then-present and the retail and residential spaces of the future wouldn’t have to contend with thumping bass lines from a club next door.

Problem was, almost nobody foresaw how the seemingly innocuous zoning change would impact Old City South, creating a De-Culturalized Zone of sorts. “It was like, ‘There’s trouble, right here in River City,’” says Rick Snyderman, one of the founders of First Fridays and owner of the Snyderman-Works Gallery, a block and a half above Market. Snyderman voiced his opposition to the plan at civic meetings, but the crowds booed him. “It was as if the whole world would collapse if people could get a drink north of Market Street. By pushing everything south, you create an entertainment ghetto. It becomes a district that’s for little else but drinking.”

The new zoning also underscored the essential problem that the city has struggled with in the decades since Ed Bacon put his stamp on Philadelphia. Simply put, there was never really a “plan” for Old City. The pitch Ellen Yin heard, about Market Street becoming a gateway to the Delaware? Good old-fashioned snake-oil salesmanship. A much-ballyhooed DisneyQuest project at 8th and Market became an Epcot-sized parking lot.

Big cities need a district, a place where 20-somethings can get a cheap buzz and fist-pump all night. That used to be Delaware Avenue, but almost all of those riverfront clubs closed long ago, after years of infestation with drugs and violence. Old City was just a short walk away. It offered easy access to the Northeast, to South Jersey, and to the neighborhoods above and below it that hadn’t been so radically gentrified. As the recession hit and the -moneyed scenesters who survived it grew bored with Old City and dispersed to Rittenhouse, Queen Village and Northern Liberties, the binge-drinkers and club-hoppers took over every Friday and Saturday night.

Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron sees a parallel between Old City South and her old ’hood. “I lived a block away from South Street toward the end of its heyday, and I left,” she says. “I didn’t want people vomiting and doing coke on my doorstep. Nobody wants those clubs, and [Old City] is the one place they can go, because it’s been de facto designated. They thought they could control it, but they were wrong.”