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

Getting back to why he thinks this is all improving, he says party promoters are now required to register with the city, which should help weed out a lot of the fly-by-night types. And neighborhood groups like the Old City Civic Association and the Old City District have become more vigilant, putting pressure on “restaurants” that have no tables or chairs, and working closely with the police and the city to cite or shut down troublesome bars that may be overcrowded, violent, or code violators — Suede and its successor Triada on Market Street; Cebu, Dreemz and Moda on Chestnut. One bar owner says there’s now a tangible us-vs.-them attitude between the civic groups and the captains of the nightlife industry — unless your last name is Starr or Garces. “It’s like the entertainment district doesn’t exist,” he says. “Instead of trying to target the growth, like a rudder on a ship, they ignore it. They want it to go away.”

Good luck with that. Like it or not, Old City has become Philadelphia’s low-rent answer to South Beach. With SugarHouse opening just up the street this month, Old City’s crowds could swell even more, a tsunami set off by the new casino. Urban economist Kevin Gillen, vice president of Econsult Corporation, says Old City’s decline is actually a positive sign for Philadelphia on the whole. “Neighborhoods rising and falling, the changing of demographics — that’s the sign of a healthy city,” he says. “Cities that aren’t changing are the ones who should be worried.”

Of course, try telling that to the -NIMBYs who call Bleu Martini their neighbor. It’s fitting — and perhaps unfortunate for the staid civic crusaders — that one of the neighborhood’s most vocal champions is Danny Bonaduce, the pumped-up, loudmouthed host of WYSP’s morning show. Ask him about his pad, a converted grain silo at 2nd and Chestnut, and he can’t stop raving: “I’m in the coolest neighborhood ever,” he says.
Bonaduce says he’s run into problems — loud stereos, car alarms going off — but nothing unmanageable. “If you walk like you own the street, the street is yours,” he says. “If you walk like a victim, you’re going to be a victim. H.G. Wells said the first man who raises his fists in anger is a man who’s run out of ideas. I want to kick H.G. Wells’s ass. The truth is, he who raises his fists in anger first, wins.”
He pauses. “I think I’m sounding like the kind of people you’re writing about.”
Conor Corcoran would agree with that. “I looked out my window one day and saw Danny Bonaduce skulking down the alley,” he says. “I thought, ‘There is the grand pooh-bah of protracted male adolescence in America. I’ve got to get out of Old City.’”

After parting ways with Jamie and 32˚, I meet Anne. She has two friends in tow, and tells me it’s her first night out in Philadelphia as a 21-year-old.