Brandon Joyce is exactly the kind of resident Philadelphia is spending big money trying to attract. A charismatic Virginian with a pirate’s beard and a philosophy degree, he persuaded two dozen other young bohemians to migrate to his South Philadelphia Athenaeum, a cavernous warehouse near Broad and Passyunk. He lived there with his tribe for over a year in illicit squalor, organizing free rock shows and holding informal classes in math and philosophy.
Then Joyce, 28, caught the eye of a writer from National Geographic Traveler, who said the Athenaeum’s reinvention of an old industrial space was helping make Philadelphia “the Next Great American City.” But by October, when Traveler’s subscribers learned about the art colony, the Athenaeum was no more. Acting on noise complaints from neighbors, the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections conducted a midnight raid. Once inside, they discovered a host of fire-code violations, and threw the Athenaeum’s stunned residents out onto the street. “I’m not saying I’m not a patron of the arts,” says L&I’s Dominic Verdi. “But this was an emergency situation. You had open wiring, no fire alarms, no fire doors, no emergency lights.”
The issue of young residents and businesses roughing it in the city’s aging building stock is a perennial problem. In the past five years, L&I has forced other creative types to shut down or renovate. This year, the William Penn Foundation gave $175,050 to a nonprofit to study whether the city needs more affordable live/work spaces for artists. In the meantime, the Athenaeum’s diaspora are crashing with friends and studying math on diner tables while Joyce searches for his next compound.