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.”

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  • Michael

    How does this article not mention MTV’s “The Real World”? That’s what helped solidify the idea that Old City was for awful, nonsense, pretentious behavior.

  • Jan

    Living in the burbs, I remember the resurgence in Olde City with NewMarket, as part of the restaurant renaissance and shopping mecca. We took a walk in that area last weekend. How sad to see what it’

  • Lou

    Why would a “Philly” magazine write something like this about the oldest and most historic area in its own town?? Granted, old city (on market, 2nd and 3rd particularly) does get alittle cheesy on the weekends but by no means does it represent the greater part of old city. 3rd and Race area is probably the best place to live in town which is also considered old city. by far a great living demographic. 1st Fridays are larger than ever before…all the art gallieres….its really not the picture you paint. If you are going to write something like this be more specific about what it is you are writing because indeed there are some great places in old city and good people. The is new construction and new restaurants opening soon. Bad write up and certainly misleading.

  • Aaron

    For bashing one of our treasured neighborhoods. Old City is one of the most historic neighborhoods in the COUNTRY and you have the audacity to tear it apart. As a writer for Philly Mag, you represent our community. You should be advocating – not bashing

  • Phil

    Best bar in Old City history

  • roofie

    Oh, Live Bait. You mean the bar that was shut down by police because the bartenders were brazenly drugging female patrons?

  • dawn

    I agree that it is incomprehensible that Phillymag would allow such tasteless misleading garbage to fill its pages. Old City has rejuvenated a once dead area. Both clothing vendors and restaurant owner’s have fought to clean up the image of Old City and your ignorant writer complains about a bygone era of clubbing. Luxe lounges have been out of favor for years. Have you looked at the economy lately? Who can afford a $250 bottle of Absolut? With regards to Live Bait, I worked behind the bar there for two years. We never drugged our patrons. I think you are just bitter that you never got laid.

  • Barack

    Triumph, Buffalo Billards, Swanky, Spazzo, Panorama, Franklin Fountain, Marmont Steakhouse, Mac’s, SoHo, Kabul, Cuba Libre, Nicks, Sassafrass, Fork, Bistro 7, Ralphs, Amada,Irish Pol, Beneluxx, Society hill bar, Campos, race st., Bocca, pizzicato

  • Jon

    This may sound pretentious, but Penn students have had this figured out for a while. This is why we stick with the small BYOs and restaurants around Rittenhouse and then party back on campus or stay d

  • Alice

    Philadelphia’s “trashiest” people? Really? My, my someone sure is feeling superior. Money is money, honey. And at the end of the day, it appears that the city is still alive. The article contains elements of a sociologically interesting chronicle of the character and economic changes of this particular neighborhood. But the mean spirited and judgmental tone the author used in describing women spending money in the old city (“liquored up women in micro-mini plunge dresses and mile high shoes (panties optional))”, reveals more of his dark side than it does Old City’s.

  • M.E.

    I remember opening up my 2nd floor boutique in Old City, then deciding that it was time to move on. I now operate ME & Blue in a similar up & coming location on Rose Avenue in Venice, CA. And construction has started. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the next 10 years…

  • g

    Shame on you.. to claim that the Old City you describe is the neighborhood. It isn’t. That 1 street between 10pm and 3am..and those few club type bars are awful, but the city refuses to inforce the laws on the books.. hopefully the owners will not make any money and close and go elsewhere.

  • T.R.

    As a 26-year-resident of Old City, that piece of garbage article is about on par with the people it says ruined the neighborhood. Old City was here long before they arrived, and it will remain when they no longer hang out here. But really, have you checked Old City’s real estate values out lately? No problems there. Richard Rhys’ article had it’s agenda going in, and it certainly got there. Anyway, what Old City residents go out on weekends anyway? It is nuts? Sure. But really, to proclaim the death of Old City is completely moronic. Another typical piece of trash in the completely un-hip pages of Philly Mag, an antiquated rag that no one reads anyway unless it’s free online. In fact, that’s the first Philly Mag piece I’ve read in like 6-7 years. Now I remember why that is.

  • Susan

    I’m confused. Don’t Old City shops and restaurants continue to be named “Best of Philly” by your magazine EVERY YEAR? Doesn’t this district continue to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year with its historical landmarks and local businesses? Hasn’t there been residential and retail development and continued support for the city’s programs and arts? Your article dismisses ALL of this to focus solely on the bars and their “unsavory” patrons … Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill!!! Old City has ALWAYS drawn an element of unruly behavior—even 10 years ago. (And, BTW, so does Rittenhouse, South Street and University City. What do you expect at night in a bar in a city? Bingo?) I think you missed the BIG PICTURE. And it is articles like this that will only HURT those of us in Old City who do our best to bring unique shops, exhibits, events and more to Philly. AND Old City TRULY IS UNIQUE — not filled with chains like other areas of the city. So why not focus on how we do things RIGHT, how we are surviving and even FLOURISHING…

  • Susan

    I’m confused. Don’t Old City shops and restaurants continue to be named “Best of Philly” by your magazine EVERY YEAR? Doesn’t this district continue to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year with its historical landmarks and local businesses? Hasn’t there been residential and retail development and continued support for the city’s programs and arts? Your article dismisses ALL of this to focus solely on the bars and their “unsavory” patrons … Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill!!! Old City has ALWAYS drawn an element of unruly behavior—even 10 years ago. (And, BTW, so does Rittenhouse, South Street and University City. What do you expect at night in a bar in a city? Bingo?) I think you missed the BIG PICTURE. And it is articles like this that will only HURT those of us in Old City who do our best to bring unique shops, exhibits, events and more to Philly. AND Old City TRULY IS UNIQUE — not filled with chains like other areas of the city. So why not focus on how we do things RIGHT, how we are surviving and even FLOURISHING…

  • ha

    douchebag central. hopefully everyone fistpumps their souped-up civics into a brick wall. it’s a distilled concentration of every frosted tip asshole in the city, and that’s why yogurt has more active culture than old city’s nightlife “scene.”

  • Ben

    ..To the Old City residents who don’t like having their neighborhood’s dirty laundry aired: This article is 100% accurate..Accept it. Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovering..I haven’t been a regular Old City bar since Upstairs At Nick’s closed. That was the start of the douchey decline,and you know it.

  • Isaac

    I agree that the weekend nights are BS in old city but agree that besides those two 5 hour stretches on friday and saturday night its the best place to live in the city (ive lived all over Philadelphia) and during the day its great. First Fridays are amazing with all the art and culture and diversity. Campos has the cities best cheesesteaks and National Mechanics has the best veggie burgers in town. Theres alot of treasures in the forms of botiques and restaurants as well.

  • Drew

    I agree with many of the statements in this article. However, I lived on Front & Chestnut and worked on 4th and Chestnut from 2007-2009, and to this day I LOVE old city. Yes, on the weekends it is infested with Douchey Dudes and trashy girls from Jersey. WHO THE HELL IS GOING TO HEAT ANYWAY? You guessed it: Douchey Dudes and trashy girls from Jersey. If you live there you know where to go and you deal with it. If you are in your 40s and complaining about the noise are you stupid? You live in a section of the city where there are 30 bars in a 3 block radius, what do you expect? This article while partially accurate is not helping anyone.

  • Ben

    The ‘But its only on weekends’ argument doesn’t wash. If my neighborhood was taken over with A-holes every week like clockwork, I wouldn’t be trying to spin the (tiny) plus of having a few decent resturaunts..uh, no. I’d be moving out and hoping I could find a sucker to buy my insanely overpriced “loft space” in “exciting” Old City. Buyers remorse much? Bail out. Everyone else with a clue did years ago.

  • Nunya

    Why would one ever tuck in a polo shirt with shorts? Are you encouraging even worse fashion? That statement makes me question the entire legitimacy of this post.

  • Barbara

    Your observations are spot on. Fusco’s photos are great. Proves that one image is worth 1000 words…

  • Chadwick

    Old City has gone to hell in a hand-basket smelling of stale urine and vomit. “Investors” came in buying out art houses and families and honest businesses that were the charm and hallmark of this historic area, making way for the new ‘hip scene’ and even though OCCA expanded the historic protected corridor, they shit the bed when it came to liquor licenses because of goodfellas and then for a fee L+I turned a blind eye. The city as a whole is still corrupt and entirely to blame. I hope the folks that infiltrated the gentle folk that once filled and SLOWLY cultivated culture in OCD enjoy have their properties being underwater, they are the Madoff’s of OC and the festering mess that they made is their legacy.

  • Charles

    Olde City is a waseland.

  • Brian

    It is great to see Philly Mag publishing real journalism again. Very good article and on the money. Interesting that the people who don’t like the article are largely illiterate and full of rage. The city does not need such people. Well, the entire civilized world doesn’t want them, but our proximity to NJ probably means we are stuck with them.

  • Sara

    It puts the majority of douche bags in one place, making other areas less douchey. We should all be thankful for Old City, or should I say DOUCHE City.

  • Katie

    The same thing that will happen to you in a few years…

  • Jim

    What is a “frosted tip asshole?” How can an asshole have a tip?

    Anyway, I think Susan nailed it. What do you expect in a bar, at night, in a city? Stay home where grown ups belong.

  • A.D.
  • Christina

    It’s obvious that the comments coming from those ‘offended’ by the article’s description of Old City are either individuals not from Philly or do not live in Center City. Old City on First Friday’s is amazing, the art, the wine, and life is glowing. Every other weekend is a trainwreck of Joyce Leslie outfits, patent leather shoes, soco and lime shots and douchebags cat calling you from their cars. It used to be such a fun area to hang out in but has become absolute trash. Everything this article says is correct. The history will always be there, which Philadelphia should be proud of. The nightlife is a different story. It’s gross. Unless you use hair gel and wear spandex dresses, and enjoy dancing without being felt up, i’m sure you’ll agree.

  • C

    I read this article last night, I have to say I’m offended. I’ve lived in Old City for a little over 4 years now, only resting here because of the numerous slumlords of Center City. Yes, I’m a 20 something, but was never the 20 something, mini skirt wearing kind of girl. I may be the classiest woman in Old City on any night of the week!!! I love it here and wouldn’t change a thing.

    Let’s please realize that Old City is more than just the tiny bar-lined block of 2nd St., between Chestnut and Market. Rather, it is all blocks that lie east of Independence Mall and both north and south-sides of Market St. extending from Callowhill to Walnut Sts. Also, lets not forget the history and beauty of this neighborhood. This neighborhood is the the real reason anyone visits Philadelphia. It’s an awesome place to live and don’t regret living here a day yet.

  • Christina

    You would see that the writer is not bashing the cobblestone streets, boutiques, and some good restaurants. It’s discussing the nightlife and weekends. For those who say “it’s just 2 blocks that get ridiculous” boroughs of cities are defined by their nightlife. Just because National Mechanics has good beers, and Continental is down there doesn’t mean that the crowd and scene hasn’t turned to sleezy. It’s just something Philadelphians have to accept. The article is discussing the nightlife, the pictures are of the trashy nightlife….read, people.

  • erin

    what ??

  • Ariel

    It seems that the writer is going thru a mid life crisis and is not having the fun he used to. Don’t get mad becuase your old hang out spots aren’t there nay more and your friends don’t want to hang anymore. Just be the older person that you are and hang in rittenhouse. To judge a historic area and say it’s washed up. dude, there is SOOOOOOOO much more to talk about. If you think Old city is done, ask the THOUSANDS that continue to come out. Don’t forget, at one point, you too looked forward to come out.

  • Steve

    OC is the best place to get your crunk on and pick up junk girls. Ain’t nothin nobody gonna do to change it neither.

  • Celeste

    What I find offensive about this article, and especially the accompanying slide show, is the idea that the “hoi poloi” don’t belong in a “classy” neighborhood like Olde City. What’s wrong with what’s shown in many of the pics? Apparently, it’s bright colors, short hemlines, and clothes that don’t hide the body–on women who aren’t sticks. Horrors! Granted, the radios and the motorcycles are just nuisances, and I’m no fan of the grab-and-vomit crowd. But I live in Queen Village, and anyone with any sense (or taste) knows that, if you want to avoid that sort of thing, you just don’t go to South Street on a weekend night. Does that prevent me from enjoying the BYOs, the offbeat music venues, the “Fourth Fridays”? No. So why is Olde City somehow doomed b/c the people who populate Market and Chestnut Sts on weekend nights opt for Miller Lite instead of Moet? Cities, and especially the most vibrant areas of cities, are meant to accommodate all kinds of people at different times. It’s called the “rhythm” of the city or the ‘hood. Listen, learn, and at least try to dance to it.

  • Alex

    Setting aside the offensively classist bent of the author’s remarks, let’s focus on the misogyny implicit in this article. How intellectually and ethically cowardly of him to resort to making women the “poster-people” of this classist rant. After all, women are such easy targets, since misogny is nearly as reflexive in our culture as the fundamental classism of even the ever so slightly privileged. Making women so inordinately the focus of this article (men as “offenders” are only mentioned a few times, and in passing) is as offensive as it would be to blame the “decline” of a given multi-racial area on the members of a particular race. Very poorly done.

  • Kara

    Terrific article. What’s most amusing to me is the sheer number of discruntled, unhappy readers who are obviously dressed in skimpy spandex as they comment. How completely classless to personally attack the writer who is just doing his job, and quite honestly, doing it well. Shame on you.

  • Andrew

    I have been debating if I should renew my sibscription to Philadelphia Magazine. Even at $5 a year I felt it was not worth the paper it was printed on. After reading this disgrace of an article, with it bold face lies and sexist ramblings, my decision has been made.

  • Rachel

    Am I missing something? Will someone please explain to me how this article was SEXIST and what ‘bold face lies’ it told????!!!!???? Andrew, perhaps you could help me out? This mag really isn’t marketed to the uneducated and illiterate…why were you reading it in the first place?

  • Mob

    Hey Andrew, I bet the magazine is really gonna miss your sorry $5. You little bich.

  • Andrew

    Rachel, read the comments, other people have already gone into detail about how this article is full of incorrect information and what can clearly labeled as sexist. Are you sure I am the uneducated and illiterate one?

    Mob, in a day of declining print media, and the need to keep circulation up, yes, every subscription counts. The reason the subscription is not free is because then the publication becomes a complete joke, which is is doing fine on its own. But you wouldn’t understand things like market share, circulation and advertising sales woulda ya Mob? ;)

  • Joe

    Dear Andrew,

    It’s clear to me you’re just another greasy, sleezy guy who’s out trolling for drunk young girls in barely-there clothing every weekend. If I were you, I too would be offended by the 100% accuracy of this piece. Get a life and try not to be so angry. Life is too short. Great piece, Richard! I always look forward to your work. Sometimes the truth hurts, right Andrew?

  • Justin

    Old City is dealing with ANY party district in the WORLD deals with=TIME. Del Ave used to be the place to be(now vacant), then South St.(now Flash Mobs), then Old City(now 19-24yr old) then Ritten House (now 21-26yr olds) and THEN NoLibs(where I go NOW till the “others” find out about it) AND back again to Del Ave (Casino is starting it) It’s called a cycle!

  • Noel

    The author should dig deeper into the causes of the nuisance bars mentioned. The cause is Councilman DiCicco who has not only abandoned Old City but also betrayed it. DiCicco appointed convicted fel

  • Noel

    DiCicco appointed convicted felon Senator Fumo’s understudy Carl Engelke to a paid city role to stop nuisance bars mentioned in this article. Carl Engelke also takes money from the same nuisance cl

  • Tom

    What the article fails to point out is that the neighborhood organizations in Old City are run by people who have this outdated vision that they are “protecting” something. They should face the fact that there isn’t much to “protect” right now. Rather than objecting to everything that someone tries to do in the neighborhood (Think Marathon Grill, CVS etc.) they should be working to bring businesses like this into the area that don’t appeal to the weekend trashy drunk crowds and that would go miles in helping to develop a true residential neighborhood. But because they don’t see beyond their own outdated personal interests they are facilitating the demise of the neighborhood rather than helping it to move forward. Time for some new blood on the Civic Association and the other neighborhood organizations who can see beyond “what used to be” and what can be. Call it what it is at this point – a has been area of the city that is in desparate need of some life support if it is going to survive as a place most people want to be. Until the neighborhood organizations change it is only going to get worse in Old City.

  • Michael

    Not that this article isn’t full of presumptions and reek of bougie main-line elitism that we’ve all come to expect from phillymag… but please…. people who are crying about how beautiful and his

  • Michael

    historic old city is need to GO THERE. Saturday night. 2:15am. Stand on 2nd & Market. Until you’ve actually witnessed this drunken sea of trash first hand, you’ve got no business commenting.

  • Leigh

    I’m sure locals were just as alarmed by the freaks outside of Revival, Nick’s and the Khyber, at some point. So the hipsters have migrated from Old City to No Libs and the great unwashed have migrated from South Street to Old City… big deal… the problem I had with this article was the slideshow that seemed to equate curvy women with cultural downfall. Better close your shutters, the legion of chubby tarts might be invading your part of town, soon…

  • Drew

    I must elaborate, that there is just as much trashy dushiness (sp?) coming from the northeast as there is from Jersey. Either way, once the few bad clubs fall out (looking at you MODA & HEAT) things will calm down a little. Still a great area.

  • Mike Mechanic

    Wow, moved away in the 2000’s, didn’t know things got like this. I remember we felt the place was going downhill when Live Bait came to town. It attracted the stupidest and trashiest people. Because they had not paid their contractor for the work done on the top floor, the contractor turned them in to the fire marshall as the top floor was not fire code compliant. They received a shut-down notice from the city. The owner took off the front door each night and placed to the side to hide the shut down notice. One night a cop was parked opposite the front door. I had a little liquid courage that night and being one of the neighbors who hated the tacky jersey crowd Live Bait attracted, I approached the officer and asked him why he didn’t shut them down. He said they were trying. I replied, but there is a shutdown notice on the door, that the owner placed over there on the side. The police officer brimmed with a smile – he exited his car to be met by the owner – he passed him by, grabbed the door, saw the sign . . . and that was the last night for that cheesy tacky place! I’m glad to have played even a small role in helping the neighborhood, but alas, it seems the tasteless clowns have won. too bad.