Ron Rubin Was Here

He’s left a bigger mark on Philly than anyone this side of Willard Rouse, and now, at 77, he wants to put a casino in Strawbridge’s. The key to being Ron Rubin? Patience, and knowing how deals here really get done

The anti-casino forces won — there will not be a slots parlor in South Philly. To Rubin, though, neighborhood opposition is just one of the obstacles of building in a city — he’ll keep trying to find a way. When it was finally clear, last summer, that a South Philly site simply wouldn’t work, Rubin said okay, he’d put it somewhere else.

Foxwoods Casino is now going into the Strawbridge’s building — on the second and third floors of the historically certified landmark, built on the site where Thomas Jefferson had an office when he was Secretary of State in the 1790s.

Many people think this, too, is a horrible idea — to put a casino within a token’s throw of Independence Hall, to jam a slots parlor downtown. Many other people think it’s a pretty good idea, given how the city desperately needs the cash gambling will generate. A few are cautiously optimistic that a casino will rejuvenate Market East, which — despite Rubin’s efforts — hasn’t recovered from the exodus of department stores.

At the moment, however, at 8 a.m. on a crystal-clear spring morning, the folks streaming off the trains below, or parking in the garage just south of Market, or hoofing it from their downtown apartments — they’re just trying to get into their days.

They don’t know that Ron Rubin is hard at work, building their city.

WE THINK OF Philadelphia as the most carefully planned of cities, given William Penn’s original squared-off grid of downtown, plus the cast-in-brick preservation of Old City as the locus of America’s beginning.

But the larger and more complicated a city becomes, naturally, the harder it is to sustain a vision for its design. I-95 roaring right through the city, or Liberty Place breaking the implicit City Hall height restriction, or the Phillies’ new stadium ending up in a parking lot in South Philly instead of downtown — all huge projects, with mixed results for Philadelphia. But the point isn’t whether they’re good or bad: They happen, often at odds with what surrounds them, driven by political expediency or greed or stupidity or maybe one man’s obsession to get something built. Some of them change the city forever.

Casinos coming to the city — especially one downtown — might be that sort of landmark, something we look back on and wonder, like I-95 cutting us off from our river: Now how the hell did that happen?

Which brings us back to Ron Rubin. He’s spent half a century building downtown. Most Philadelphians have heard of Bill Rouse, whose Liberty Place put Billy Penn in shadow and opened up the city’s skyline. Ron Rubin has been just as important in changing our city, in creating it. He builds, and then builds again, bigger. Just how does he do it?