Philadelphia Pop-Ups Are Why We Can’t Keep Nice Things

From beer gardens to dinner parties to exhibits on prison shanks, we’ve become a town obsessed with temporary fun. But must everything good fade away?

Illustration by Nick Massarelli

Illustration by Nick Massarelli

If any one thing cinched Spruce Street Harbor Park as the summer’s best pop-up, it was probably the hammocks — dozens of them scattered in the shade, cocooning people reading or napping or making out. The sprawling swatch of riverfront, complete with swan boats and floating barges and water lily gardens, was so picturesque that it felt more like the Hollywood set of a park than it did an actual park nestled on the southeastern edge of Philadelphia, within spitting distance of the I-95 on-ramp.

If this were a movie set, it would be for one of those cheery rom-coms, the type where the city is all twinkle and no grit. (In essence: More Nora Ephron than Woody Allen.) Just look! Down the river there’s a boardwalk lined with shipping crates that hold hot-dog vendors and games like air hockey; behind that, children play with four-foot-high chess pieces and venture barefoot into a wading fountain. Around them, dozens of park-goers are sprawled out on beach chairs or waiting in line for a Jose Garces truffle-and-cheddar burger, while park employees hand out maps and greet newcomers: “Hi there, welcome to Spruce Street Harbor Park.”

That this place appeared to draw and delight every possible demographic is no wonder, really. The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, collaborating with David Fierabend from Groundswell Design Group, did such an amazing job creating this $600,000 shaded Shangri-la that upon entering, you forgot it was very recently a boring swath of nothingness sandwiched between the Independence Seaport Museum and the USS Olympia. You forgot that behind those greeters is the rest of the city, where people sit in airless cabs, where planters are dead-bolted to front porches. And you forgot, until too late, not to fall in love with this place that will eventually vanish as quickly as it popped up, like a vaguely hipster Brigadoon. (Update, 8/27: You now have a one-month reprieve — the new closing date is September 28th.)

BY NOW, WE’RE USED TO loving and losing; used to going to bed with a twinkle-lit garden and waking up with a trash-strewn empty lot.

That’s the nature of living in Philadelphia, a.k.a. Pop-Up City — a world in which every new project from chef collaborations to art galleries to beer gardens is here, celebrated, and then gone, sometimes within the space of 24 hours. Maybe, over the course of the past year, you supped on jerk chicken in the formerly vacant lot at 15th and South, turned into the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s fourth iteration of its gorgeous pop-up gardens. Maybe you watched a movie over at the parking-lot-cum-park at Eakins Oval. You might have bought clothes at the Smak Parlour pop-up in Rittenhouse; picnicked with your friends at that one-night white party known as Dîner en Blanc; atoned with pop-up yoga in the Magic Gardens; watched the Orchestra, dressed in street clothes, play a pop-up concert at the Kimmel; and visited Eastern State Penitentiary’s pop-up exhibit on historic shanks.

I could go on, but the moral of our story is clear: If you’re not popping up, then you’re just, well … sitting there. And who wants to just sit there anymore? It’s 2014. On my seven-
minute bus ride to work, I make dinner reservations, answer emails and catch up on world news. That’s the thing about this ephemeral new world: It moves fast, and rewards the nimble. Slow and steady is about as appealing these days as dial-up Internet.

There was a time when I might have written about our fascination with the fleeting as a metaphor for life in the big city: Pop-ups are exciting! Ever-changing! They suit our increasingly short attention spans and a post-recession dearth of funding for new enterprises. Hence: They’re hip!

But I think we’ve hit critical mass. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not siding with those buzzkills in the state legislature fretting over the liquor license loopholes that allow for pop-up booze service. They’re idiots. I’m just … exhausted. When everything worth doing has an expiration date, even having fun becomes just another deadline to hit. It may seem ironic to tire of a trend that’s based entirely on impermanence, but there you have it. I’m to the point now where pop-ups even seem a little nefarious. Here they are, indulging us in our fecklessness. Here they are, leaving nothing behind but empty lots and memories of splendor.

I wonder when we’re going to tire of this citywide one-and-done craze and go back to craving some long-term commitment. Or is there simply no turning back now that we’ve experienced this carpe-diem brand of joy, this breezy Snapchat version of city life?

IT’S TOUGH TO PINPOINT exactly when stuff “popping up” turned from the exception to the rule around here. All a person can say for sure is that the earliest iterations were such wild success stories that it’s no wonder everyone wanted in.

In 2010, it was Stephen Starr (who else?) who first took the cue from the New York pop-up restaurant scene. (New York had taken its cue from secret roving supper clubs in Latin America and Europe.) Starr launched a three-day collaboration with Talula’s Table owner Aimee Olexy in an empty restaurant space just off Washington Square. The concept was such a success that Starr paired permanently with Olexy. (Hence, Talula’s Garden, now a beloved food fixture in the city.)

Retailers, meantime, were busy realizing that popping up was especially well suited to the little guy, the starving artist, the Etsy-store owner who wanted to toe-dip into the brick-and-mortar world. Old City in particular began to bloom with month-long pop-ups in formerly empty storefronts. More chefs were selling out pop-up collaborations. In 2011, the first PHS pop-up garden opened to the public at 20th and Market, blooming full of vegetables and mini-classes. The movement had officially taken hold.

Until recently, it’s been hard to find a reason not to get on board with this moveable feast and the fizzy energy it injected into the city. Pop-ups got people talking, got them to visit neighborhoods they’d never have gone to, raised money for causes, highlighted the problem of unused urban land, and showed us time and again the potential this city has for greatness in almost all avenues.

Even more notable is the pragmatism we’ve seen at play. Quick, relatively inexpensive pop-ups have helped chefs, civic planners and artists work around impenetrable Philly obstacles: rising rents, bureaucratic red tape, liquor licenses that hover around $85,000. (That’s almost triple what they cost a decade ago.) In fact, there might not be a city anywhere better suited for pop-ups to take hold, considering the number of blockades that need circumventing here. And as it’s happened, while these entrepreneurs were doing their best with smaller budgets, crazy spaces and creative thinking, some pretty amazing ideas have come to pass.

Now that we’ve seen the potential, perhaps it’s time we aim to realize some of that potential, you know … permanently. I know it may seem sinful to expend an iota of thought on pop-ups while our schools circle the drains and our roads literally crumble beneath us. But maybe our obsession with popping up is a symptom of the disease afflicting those schools and those roads: We’re living moment-to-moment in an era that demands some foresight.

I wonder, sometimes, what earlier generations would think of this blink-and-you-miss-it world we’ve cultivated. If the ghosts of Ben Franklin and Ed Bacon materialized today, what would they say about a society that rewards ephemerality over stick-to-itiveness? Would they shake their heads at our lack of long-term planning? Or would they just marvel at our indifference to legacy, then float on over to that PHS garden on South, in a hurry to get a beer before they — and the garden — disappear into nothingness?

IN THE CASE AGAINST pop-ups, arguing semantics might seem like a nitpicky route to take, but consider: The summer’s (world’s?) best pop-up wasn’t actually a pop-up. As it happens, Spruce Street Harbor Park will almost certainly be returning to us next year.

And not only that, says Jodie Milkman, vice president of communications and programming at the DRWC: The idea here was never actually about popping up and then disappearing. “In fact,” she says, “we’d really rather people think of it as a seasonal park.”

So why is everyone calling it a pop-up? The DRWC hopped on that bandwagon for a few reasons, Milkman says, one of which was just savvy marketing. It wanted to convey the sense of excitement “pop-up” has undeniably become shorthand for — the notion that there’s a time factor involved. Also, she says, like many pop-ups, the park relied on almost no advertising: Word of the project spread via social media and sidewalk chatter. And finally, Milkman points out, “Call something a ‘pop-up’ and you manage expectations.” Sure, the Blue Anchor — the park’s burger stand — might be run by the Jose Garces Group, but it’s pop-up Jose Garces: less pricey, more casual, more fun. Jose Garces in flip-flops.

Milkman says plans for the park go beyond next summer in scope: This glorious oasis is part of a wide-ranging long-term vision to transform the waterfront into a series of glorious oases. (Indeed, Washington Avenue Pier opened nearby last month.) Spruce Street Harbor aims to “show the potential of what this riverfront could be” to investors and developers who will, it’s hoped, witness the magic, see the long game, and work with the DRWC to create more of a riverfront fixture. It is, in essence, a semi-permanent phenomenon with a far-reaching goal. (You can see why they went with “pop-up” instead.) It doesn’t feel fleeting or capricious. It feels sensible.

The pop-up as dry run and/or investor bait has worked before — there was Talula’s Garden, for one. You can also look at the Porch at 30th Street Station. That’s Paul Levy’s example, anyway, of popping-up done right. The founding CEO of the Center City District and civic planner extraordinaire points to the “relatively low-cost test cases” (beer gardens, mini golf, various performances throughout the year) that helped the University City District see what people wanted, and what worked, and thus plan lasting improvements to the once-barren site.

“I think it would have been very hard to convince a lot of skeptics about the potential had they not seen it done,” Levy says. “Pop-ups can work really well as a means to an end.”

But what of all the pop-ups that are an end in themselves? The many, many one-night stands we see on the regular? Could they have any lasting legacy in this city beyond the usual shtick of “raising awareness” and some lively Instagram feeds?

“Sure there’s a lasting impact,” says Josh Dubin. He’s the executive director of both the great newish (and permanent) Paine’s Skate Park and South Street’s annual beer-focused festival Bloktoberfest, and one of those guys who always seem to know what the city wants a beat before we know we want it.

“Some of these pop-ups are actually becoming traditions,” he points out. “Philly is discovering new traditions through them.” Just look at Night Market, he says. The Food Trust’s wildly popular one-night culinary fests started popping up in different neighborhoods in 2010 and have garnered a massive following. “Some pop-ups might be temporal in some ways,” Dubin continues, “but they’re institutions in other ways. We’re starting to cross the line here, finding the tipping point of the pop-up identity and tradition.”

It’s a good observation, and the notion that pop-ups themselves are evolving makes me certain that we should evolve along with them. The first step in the right direction? Let’s tamp down on the need to call every single thing a pop-up. It no longer sets something apart, no longer promises the buzzy and experimental cool that it used to. Once mega-brands like Nordstrom and Kate Spade started doing pop-ups as part of their global marketing strategies, it became like the moment Tostitos started calling its chips “artisanal.” The word has lost all meaning.

For accuracy’s sake alone, it would be nice to move on. Seasonal is seasonal. And — like Christmastime, or the onset of sweater weather — it should be celebrated as such. Annual festivals? Not pop-ups. Food trucks? Also not pop-ups. Neither are any regularly scheduled events, concerts that have been planned for months, or catered food tables set up at a party.

But hey, you can’t fight the zeitgeist. Evolution takes time, and some things just have to play all the way out. One co-worker of mine laughingly suggested that the trend won’t really hit its apex until the guy who’s sold breakfast sandwiches for the past decade from the tiny metal trailer in front of our office labels himself a pop-up.

You can see it now: He’ll add some microbrews to the menu, artisanal chips, and suddenly the line will stretch around the corner. Then you’ll read on a foodie blog that he’s shutting down the sandwich cart, and you’ll be sad, but not for long. The next month, he’ll launch another pop-up: Same cart, same corner, only this time with vegetarian dumplings and $7 whiskey cocktails.

For a limited time only. Of course.

Originally published as “Pop-Up City” in the September 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.