Stephen Starr Stands Up for South Street

But will city officials listen to his plea to save the orphaned neighborhood?

This past Monday, the Inquirer’s Michael Klein posted a piece on his Insider blog under the headline “Stephen Starr has had enough of Philly.”

A headline like that can get your attention.

Klein reported that Starr will soon have 21 restaurants in the city and he’s been thinking it might just be time to start plunking down a few more of his first-class eateries in other cities, like maybe NYC and DC.

Fair enough. The man’s done more than his share to boost our city’s rep and when one of our own charms a populace beyond our borders it makes us all look better in the mirror. We’re down.

But wait.

Though it may have been only intended as an aside, Starr had something else to say in his quasi-sayonara. It turns out he doesn’t particularly appreciate the way our civic leaders treat some of our old established neighborhoods—especially one neighborhood in particular.

Listen:

“… the city needs to work on some of its established neighborhoods, like South Street. I think the city government, in the last few administrations, has ignored it. Left it like an orphan. It has more potential for restaurants and retail, but the city fathers have not spent time trying to make it work.”

Sweet Jesus.

A prominent businessperson standing up for South Street?

I’ve spent most of this summer on South Street, thanks to Arts on South, a group that loans empty spaces to organizations that commit to bringing innovation and vitality to the street. The nonprofit I head was granted space on the 600 block of South to teach kids comic book writing.

I’ve learned a whole lot about South Street in a hurry.

For one, Starr is right: It is an orphan.

And worse: South Street has been allowed to become a symbol for flash mobs and tacky stores, a once-flower power/peace/love strip considered long past its time. It’s thought by many as a slice of old hipster Philadelphia best avoided, a stomping ground these days for hustlers, losers and tequila-drenched louts looking to grab a late night cheesesteak at Jim’s.

It is a depiction of South Street not without shards of truth.

But like all lazy characterizations, the truth about South Street is much more nuanced.

There are businesses on the street—businesses with scruples and heart—that fight doggedly every day to keep their doors open despite the worst of economic times. They’re built Philly tough: They don’t know the meaning of quit.

Kids attracted to comic art, many in high school, stop by our Mighty Writers space on South unannounced every day. They look at the art on our walls, ask about the artists, then sit at a table and create comic drawings of their own, often staying an hour or more.

None of these kids is ever going to bonk anybody on the head.

Early evenings on South you can find couples holding hands, young families from Bainbridge and Fitzwater and Catherine and Christian taking strolls, old heads from back in the day coming through South to visit their former stomping grounds, tourists who’ve heard about South Street and want to see it for themselves.

There are proud seniors on the street who can sing every word to the old Orlons song penned in South Street’s honor.

South Street is not the altogether nasty place we’ve been taught to believe it is.

But Starr is right: It is an orphan. And it needs all our attention.

Any business people care to second Mr. Starr’s emotion and help get city government cracking?

Tim Whitaker ([email protected]) is the executive director of Mighty Writers, a nonprofit program that inspires city kids to write.