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

Thirteen years after the Old City zoning restriction was passed, City Council extended it to cover all but a sliver of the entire neighborhood. By then, it was too late. “It was as exciting a revival as you could be involved in,” says Conor Corcoran, a 33-year-old attorney who’s represented a number of Old City bars and once lived above Campo’s on Market Street. “Ten years ago, that neighborhood was full of 30-something professionals who were reinvesting in the city. Now it’s a playground for meatheads and the feckless women in pencil-thin miniskirts who love them.”

“The word I’d use to describe the crowds is ‘douchey,’” says Alison Dilworth, a bartender at Sassafras, a cozy pub with a tin ceiling and tile floors that’s been a classy Old City staple since 1976. The longtime locals call a place like Sassafras an “oasis,” a safe harbor in a sea of cheesiness. Other neighborhood gems haven’t fared as well — this summer, the owner of the Khyber announced he was done booking rock shows. Seems even the punk-rock kids can’t stand the scene on 2nd Street anymore. “I feel bad for the hookers,” Alison says. “They’re indistinguishable from the women here. I saw a vagina once. On a Thursday.”

When Lucy’s Hat Shop opened 12 years ago between Continental and Fork, it was a wine bar. The chef was David Ansill. Today, dudes in cargo shorts and girls in flip-flops pay $20 for a wristband that allows them to drink as much as they can in a two-hour stretch. One steamy night on the 200 block of Market, I run into Fran and Nikki. They’re from Fishtown. Fran is wearing Daisy Duke jean shorts. They’re headed to Lucy’s.

I ask if they’ll talk to me about nightlife in Old City. They both smile, but Nikki has a logistical concern.

“We just can’t talk too long,” she says, squirming in her black shirt with white polka dots. “I have to pee.”

We get right down to business. Why Lucy’s?

“There’s always a good crowd,” says Nikki, 21. “They have 75-cent pony bottles on Thursdays.”

“Usually we come here half loaded,” says 23-year-old Fran, teetering on wedge sandals.

As the Frans have poured in, others have moved out. Mary Patel and Joe Barber owned a 6,000-square-foot loft on 3rd near Market Street, in a 150-plus-year-old building that was a leather tannery in a past life. Steve Buscemi once prowled their roof deck, with its view of the Ben Franklin Bridge and seven-seat Jacuzzi. Joe liked dinner parties; Mary was partial to cocktail soirees. The pair doesn’t want to talk about their old neighborhood, but a close friend says the mayhem outside their door every weekend made it tough to sell their $1.7 million nest: “They had problems because the buyers know about the noise. Coming home at night, it was a real scene there.”