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

Attorney Corcoran also had a front-row seat for all of the action from his apartment above Campo’s. He fled the neighborhood this winter. “I just couldn’t take it,” he says. “The bars market to the lowest common denominator. Unless I want to go on a bender, throw up on some girls in a Camaro and grab an eight ball, I don’t go down there.”

Old-school bar Skinner’s closed and was replaced this summer by Mac’s, owned in part by It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia star Rob McElhenney, a St. Joe’s Prep grad. By day, you might see guys in khakis on their lunch hour there, or tattooed artsy girls sampling from the 99-variety bottled beer list — the kinds of folks who roam Old City most of the week. At night, the atmosphere changes — a DJ spinning hip-hop on the bar, $2 PBR Pounders, and more backwards caps than you’d find at a Phillies game.

I have lunch with a man who’s been intimately familiar with the nightlife here for years. He knows the right people at all the city agencies, the cops, the bar owners, the landlords. He prefers to speak anonymously. But I’m puzzled by his assessment of the neighborhood. “It was great here at one time,” he says between bites of a Caesar salad. “Then it went down for a bit. But things are changing for the better.”

Better? I ask him about some of the nightclubs that seem to attract the most trouble. There’s a theory that the first sign of Old City’s apocalypse appeared in 2002, when 32˚ launched the bottle-service trend here. Its narrow lounge drew a well-dressed, deep-pocketed crowd. The problem wasn’t 32˚ itself but the raft of imitators it spawned, and their customers, who tried to look the part but didn’t have the money to spend. Bar managers were inexperienced and overwhelmed. Restaurants like Suede that struggled out of the gate became dance clubs in less than two months. Then, when the economy collapsed like a high-heeled drunk on a cobblestone street, everyone became desperate to make money. Enter the party promoters.

“Your club is doing bad,” says this Old City insider. “A promoter says he’ll give you $10,000 cash to take over your place on Friday night. Now we’ve got a problem. You can’t control where he’s advertising. He’s on the Internet, he’s using those little cards that are on everyone’s car. Next thing you know, you’ve got 1,000 people outside and not enough security.”