Turf Wars: Neighbors Gone Wild

For Stephen Starr and other Philly entrepreneurs, the biggest hurdle in launching a new project isn’t necessarily city bureaucracy. It’s powerful (and unelected) neighborhood groups out to get as much as they can

THE LINE TO GET IN stretched out from the front door and across a large paved lot, then hooked a right on the sidewalk. Now, close to 200 people are assembled, occupying every chair, wall space and inch of standing room. This airless chamber in the Fishtown Rec Center isn’t meant to hold so many, and the ambient temperature, spiked by body heat and social tension, tops out somewhere between moist and stifling. Only Stephen Starr looks cool—entering the room a few minutes late, all in black, with the mien of a man who’s been through this drill on numerous occasions.

For more than an hour, Starr fields questions from the residents of Fishtown, striking an agreeable pose. “If the neighborhood doesn’t want this,” he says, repeatedly, “I don’t want to do it.”

In some respects, the meeting between the Fishtown Neighborhood Association and Philadelphia’s most accomplished, famous and prolific restaurateur is beautiful enough to make anyone in love with American democracy a little weepy-eyed. Even the mightiest among us must stand before the people, etc., etc. But something about this picture skews horribly wrong.

First, there’s a kind of disconnect between what Starr’s offering to Fishtown and the idea that the neighborhood association can hold up his progress — and, by extension, Fishtown’s and the city’s — at all. But such is life in Philadelphia, where, by custom and practice, developers don’t just apply for permits from all the appropriate agencies. Developers must also perform a song and dance — sometimes the civic equivalent of a lap dance — for the communities in which they hope to locate businesses.

In this case, what Starr’s up to is pretty sweet: He intends to renovate a dilapidated eyesore of a building near the corner of Girard and Frankford, prune the trees that are growing inside it, and remold it according to the protocols of Starr über-cool — building the slick city version of a traditional German beer garden. We know what happens next. Property values, already climbing in Fishtown, will rise even more. And other businesses will open in Starr’s wake.

What’s not to like?

For the most part, the audience here, comprised mainly of 30-something hipster moms and dads, seems to agree with this happy assessment. But neighborhood groups are perhaps best typified by their disaffected minorities. And in this context, the squeaky wheels don’t always get the grease; sometimes they just make everyone in earshot cringe. Tonight, one young man in the audience wears vampire contacts, which make the pupils of his eyes appear pinpoint-small and devilish; he stares at Starr with a thin, perpetual smile. But the restaurateur never seems to notice, let alone get creeped out. One man tells Starr that if he is disturbed by the noise, “water balloons — no, beer balloons” will rain down on the restaurant’s open courtyard.