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

Meet the face of new Old City: Jamie, a 26-year-old Italian princess from Bucks County. Five-foot-three, in four-inch booties. Clingy turquoise minidress, cinched with a studded black leather belt that accentuates the contrast between her slim waist and her ample chest. We’re inside 32˚, the “luxe lounge” in Old City that was once among the city’s hottest hot spots. Eight years ago, the crowd waiting for drinks was three-deep on a sweltering Friday; you might see a Phillie or an Eagle sipping Moët, or a Hollywood stud relaxing with a few curvy blondes after a movie shoot in town.

Tonight, the bartenders look bored. The roped-off VIP lounge is empty. The private liquor cabinets and their $225 bottles of Grey Goose are collecting dust. In a word, it’s dead. Granted, a lot of the club’s clientele is likely at the Shore, but even on crowded nights, celeb sightings are rare. The upscale crowds have defected. What you get instead are guys in shorts with untucked polo shirts, and girls like Jamie, who want to be glamorous like Fergie but on a Sam’s Club budget.

Jamie orders a vodka and club soda and fires up a Marlboro Menthol Light. Her drinking marathon with her blond, short-shorted friend began after work at five, when they headed to — well, let Jamie explain it.

“What’s that fuckin’ place at the Phoenix?”

Tir Na Nog? I reply.

“Right! Then Public House, Field House … ”

The girls eventually worked their way down to a dance club at 2nd and Chestnut, the new epicenter of debauchery in Philadelphia.

“Grey Lounge. We only stayed there for two drinks. It smelled like dead fish,” Jamie says, a slight slur to her words. “I assume it’s the sushi.” Next up was Heat, another dance lounge. “I stop everywhere,” Jamie says, blowing smoke and talking with her hands. “Everywhere that serves, I’m stopping for a drink. Specifically, Miller Lite. But I’ll drink vodka if it’s on special.”

Short-Shorts says they used to go to Cebu at 3rd and Chestnut: “It used to be so much fun. It was very clubbish. I met [R&B singer] Ray J there. We hung out in the VIP all night.” I tell her Cebu was closed down as a nuisance bar — underage drinking, fights. Someone was shot inside. She shrugs and checks her iPhone.
Both women are single, but neither sees Old City as a target-rich environment for hooking up. “I have a horrible experience with that,” Jamie says. “They travel in packs. You get to Old City, the guys look better, but they rub up on you. It’s really fuckin’ cheesy.”

Ten years ago, Old City was the Next Big Neighborhood. With Continental at 2nd and Market and Buddakan around the corner, Stephen Starr became the neighborhood’s official Pied Piper, attracting the cocktail crowd, foodies and boldface names. In swept the high-end restaurants and hip vintage and designer boutiques. Lofts that once housed starving artists were remodeled with gleaming hardwood floors and stainless steel appliances. The trend-chasers couldn’t park their Lexuses along 2nd Street fast enough. Suddenly, everyone wanted to be in Old City.

As the saying goes, that was yesterday. Today, on any weekend night, it’s the Land of 1,000 Snookis. Liquored-up women in micro-mini plunge dresses and mile-high heels (panties optional). Dudes on motorcycles burning rubber, or blasting stereos from tricked-out SUVs, cat-calling and feel-copping. It’s like Jersey Shore meets Pimp My Ride meets South Street, trashed mobs instead of flash mobs.

Jamie’s looking to buy a condo in town, but as much as she likes to party here, she’d rather live in Rittenhouse. “If I want to get to sleep,” she says, leaning in close to be heard over the blaring club music, “do I want to be listening to this?”

Old City is neither the first nor the last neighborhood in Philadelphia to experience rebirth, then struggle to survive once the hype is gone. (See the timeline.) While some have held steady, a few “resurrected” neighborhoods remain on unsteady feet or on life support.

But the spectacular crash of Old City seems in an entirely different league. It has everyone confused, from the nightlife bloggers who helped build buzz about the area, to the entrepreneurs who came in with the gold rush, to those who wonder why the narrow, cobblestoned streets of Philadelphia’s most historic neighborhood are now clogged twice a week with some of its trashiest, drunkest people.

“I was really attracted to the artsiness of the neighborhood, the building styles, the gallery district,” says Ellen Yin, who opened Fork in 1997 at 3rd and Market.

“The city planned to make Market Street the pedestrian walkway to the waterfront.” Thirteen years later, Yin is still waiting for that plan to materialize.
Long before restaurateurs like Yin and Starr planted their flags here, Old City was defined by two things — history, and the Delaware River. It served both equally well, with Independence Mall to its western border on 6th Street, and the warehouses with views of the water along Front Street. In the early ’70s, the residential population of the neighborhood numbered around 100. Then the artists moved in, drawn to spacious, dirt-cheap lofts they could convert to studios. By 1995, when Starr debuted Continental, the neighborhood was still a bit dodgy, pockmarked by crime and panhandling. Still, each year seemed to bring a new coffee shop, or an office filled with nine-to-fivers, or a fashion retailer.
“I was drawn to the vibe of the area,” says Megan Murphy, who worked in Old City for a decade before co-opening Vagabond boutique on 3rd Street in 2000. “It was so artistically driven, I wasn’t sure if we’d be welcome here with our clothing store. But I definitely saw an opportunity for foot traffic.”

Murphy’s shop, along with Me & Blue, helped establish Old City as a shopping destination. Dining, retail, art — business was up all over. So was rent, and entrepreneurs followed the money. Brownie’s and Rotten Ralph’s were joined by new bars aimed at the upscale crowd, joints like the Plough & the Stars and the Five Spot, where Jill Scott and the Roots launched their careers.

No one can agree on exactly when Old City jumped the shark. But seeds of its split personality — the calm north of Market Street vs. the bedlam to the south — were planted back in 1990, when a zoning restriction made it tougher for restaurants and bars to open above that line of demarcation. It was designed to ensure that the galleries of the then-present and the retail and residential spaces of the future wouldn’t have to contend with thumping bass lines from a club next door.

Problem was, almost nobody foresaw how the seemingly innocuous zoning change would impact Old City South, creating a De-Culturalized Zone of sorts. “It was like, ‘There’s trouble, right here in River City,’” says Rick Snyderman, one of the founders of First Fridays and owner of the Snyderman-Works Gallery, a block and a half above Market. Snyderman voiced his opposition to the plan at civic meetings, but the crowds booed him. “It was as if the whole world would collapse if people could get a drink north of Market Street. By pushing everything south, you create an entertainment ghetto. It becomes a district that’s for little else but drinking.”

The new zoning also underscored the essential problem that the city has struggled with in the decades since Ed Bacon put his stamp on Philadelphia. Simply put, there was never really a “plan” for Old City. The pitch Ellen Yin heard, about Market Street becoming a gateway to the Delaware? Good old-fashioned snake-oil salesmanship. A much-ballyhooed DisneyQuest project at 8th and Market became an Epcot-sized parking lot.

Big cities need a district, a place where 20-somethings can get a cheap buzz and fist-pump all night. That used to be Delaware Avenue, but almost all of those riverfront clubs closed long ago, after years of infestation with drugs and violence. Old City was just a short walk away. It offered easy access to the Northeast, to South Jersey, and to the neighborhoods above and below it that hadn’t been so radically gentrified. As the recession hit and the -moneyed scenesters who survived it grew bored with Old City and dispersed to Rittenhouse, Queen Village and Northern Liberties, the binge-drinkers and club-hoppers took over every Friday and Saturday night.

Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron sees a parallel between Old City South and her old ’hood. “I lived a block away from South Street toward the end of its heyday, and I left,” she says. “I didn’t want people vomiting and doing coke on my doorstep. Nobody wants those clubs, and [Old City] is the one place they can go, because it’s been de facto designated. They thought they could control it, but they were wrong.”

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.”

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.”

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.

Anne’s white dress with green stripes is tiny on her petite frame, and she looks more fresh-faced J.Crew model than Frederick’s of Hollywood tart. No six-inch heels. No bra or cleavage on display. It’s a good bet she’s wearing underwear.
In their search for booty-shaking hip-hop, Anne and her friends tried Red Sky, the club on Market where all the Russian kids from the Northeast and Lower Bucks hang out. Too much house music, not enough Kanye. “And zero beers on tap,” Anne says, perplexed by the menu’s $12 cocktails. “I asked what they had, and the bartender looked at me like I was an idiot.”

They’ve heard Grey Lounge is a good spot for dancing. Anne and her girls pass inspection by the doorman and head straight to the dimly lit floor in the back. To the left, a woman stands on a couch, gyrating. To the right, a greasy-looking dude is getting some lap action that would make the strippers from Delilah’s blush.

Surrounded by all this decadence, Anne looks like Laura Ingalls Wilder in a gangsta-rap video. Though she and her two gal pals are dancing with each other, they’re like chum in shark-infested water. It only takes a few seconds for a pack of raucous guys to move in and violently grind their hips against them. Anne’s trying to have fun, but after one song, they all flee and huddle near the bar. Anne spins to face a young guy in a tight t-shirt standing next to her.

“What was that?” she yells.

“I was just saying hello.”

“You grabbed my ass! That is not saying hello!”

The girls take refuge at a small table near the entrance. I wonder why they don’t just leave. As it turns out, Anne and her gal pals aren’t legal drinkers after all. At the door, as they began weaving a tale explaining why they didn’t have driver’s licenses, the bouncer said, “Make it look like you’re showing me ID. Show me anything.” If they leave now, their night might be over. And more than that, Anne really wants to believe in Old City.

“I’ve been here before for First Friday, with all the art and the free wine,” she says, brown eyes wide and glistening with sincerity. “I mean, what a great place for some girlfriends to go out for the night.”

Anne’s still talking as someone sprints past me and nearly knocks us both over on his way outside. A few guys follow, and the house lights blare on. Apparently, it’s only okay to dance on furniture if you’re female; when a guy tried it, some pushing ensued, and a punch was thrown. The girls look a little shaken up by all the commotion.

“It’s like a frat house,” Anne says. “Is it always like this?”

Outside, two cops watch the door to Grey Lounge closely for any hint of retaliation. Cruisers with lights flashing have taken their usual positions on 2nd Street at both Market and Chestnut to control traffic. As car horns honk, young guys make their last desperate passes at women stumbling by. A slab of tanned beefcake is urinating on a nearby wall, a few feet from the front door of the Old City District’s offices.

Meanwhile, Old City North is quiet. An $80 million hotel and retail project at 4th and Race is in the works. To the west sits Independence Mall, its majesty untainted by the hordes in spandex and Affliction t-shirts here, just a few blocks away. The new Jewish History Museum is set to open this fall. Perhaps there is reason for some optimism in these three square blocks, too: Ristorante Panorama’s Luca Sena is giving the old Snow White Diner at 2nd and Market a seven-figure transformation into Revolution House, an Italian eatery. Maybe it will give people a reason to be a little more like Anne — wide-eyed and eager, hoping to see a better Old City.

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