It’s the End of The Gallery as We Know It (and That’s a Shame)

Once hailed as the cornerstone of a Philadelphia renaissance, The Gallery has come to be viewed as a failure (though it really wasn't). As its owners prepare a massive renovation, a look back at the region's most divisive mall.

Bob Laramie/Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

Easter Bunny rides the escalator between events during the Easter parade at The Gallery in 1985. | Bob Laramie/Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

THE GALLERY DIDN’T have a Santa this year. It didn’t decorate for Christmas, either. I felt an odd sadness.

When I was a kid, my mom took me downtown every year on Black Friday. We’d stop at her offices at ARA Services, now Aramark, and then explore downtown. We went to the light show at Wanamaker’s, A Christmas Carol at Strawbridge’s and the Enchanted Village at the old Lit Brothers.

But the main attraction for me was The Gallery. I loved it — and not just because I’d usually come home with a new Lego set that day.

Of course, I say “when I was a kid” as if my mom and I didn’t go to The Gallery on Black Friday last year, too. (There’s no longer a toy store in The Gallery, so I didn’t get any Lego bricks.) But something was different this year.

Along with the missing Santa and decorations, the stores had started to close. Sure, tumbleweeds had been blowing through the upper levels of The Gallery for years, but now they were barren. And as the new year began, more places started to go.

The newsstand where a group of SEPTA employees hit Powerball vanished. One day I rode the escalator up to visit two of my favorite sneaker stores on the third floor — and they were gone. FYE had a huge liquidation. A Dollar — the best dollar store in the city — was a 75-cent store, then a 60-cent store, then a 40-cent store, then an empty space. A different food court location appeared to be shuttered every day.

Yes, it’s the end of The Gallery.

Photo | Dan McQuade

Photo | Dan McQuade

PREIT AND MACERICH, who jointly own The Gallery, have not said much about its future except that a massive renovation is coming.

They’ve even been tight-lipped with tenants: Talking with store owners over the last few months brought more questions than answers. None of them knew much about the mall’s future. Most weren’t even sure when they were going to close. Tenants said the mall would be closed, starting with the eastern half, over a 1- to 3-year period.

An employee at FYE mused on the mall’s future before the store closed: “They’re going to move the food court to the second floor,” he said. “And they’re going to split this store in half: It’ll be half Gucci, half Armani. They want to make it fancy.” Only a few stores remain. The mall will soon be closed.

At the International Council of Shopping Centers convention recently, PREIT and Macerich unveiled posters for the Fashion Outlets of Philadelphia at Market East. My beloved Gallery is going to become FOPME.

Not that I mind too much. An outlet mall sounds great. The first one added to the Gallery, Century 21, is my new favorite place to shop.

But I will miss The Gallery. It’s not just the trips I took with my mom. I live in Wash West, and I go to The Gallery regularly. The Dunkin’ Donuts in the food court was once the best in the city, with workers who seemed to know your order before you did. I will have to change so many of my routines! I grew up in Northeast Philly and went to high school in Bucks County; The Gallery was a mix of the suburban mall experience in the ’burbs and the vitality of city life. On our trips into town, we’d ride the El to 11th Street to clown around in The Gallery. Once, I made a special trip on a weekend to buy a shirt my girlfriend had ogled earlier that week. When I gave it to her, she cried. I felt like the most thoughtful boyfriend in all of Philadelphia.

Let me tell you how much The Gallery has improved my romantic life: Many a relationship of mine has been extended by purchasing flowers for a woman at the fruit and flowers stand (now closed) near Market East Station (now Jefferson). One of my first dates with a woman was a trip to The Gallery’s food court with her and her friend; we dated for several years. Late last year, I took a woman I’d been out with a few times to the 2 Street Cafe — The Gallery’s bar — after picking her up at the train station. A waitress greeted us with a question about what we should do with ISIS. We laughed. We bonded.

The Gallery is just a mall, and an incredibly dated one at that. But it has been a place I’ve been going my whole life, and that’s true for a lot of Philadelphians. Something better will likely replace it. But we should pour out a Rolling Rock from 2 Street Cafe when it’s gone. Which we’d  do if 2 Street — one of the best dive bars in Center City in everything but “operating hours” — hadn’t closed a week ago.

THE GALLERY AT Market East came out of Ed Bacon‘s two-decade tenure as head of the City Planning Commission. (He wrote of the mall in his 1959 essay “Philadelphia in the year 2009.”) The idea was to transport the mall shopping experience downtown — attracting not only city residents but those from the suburbs. “It was the very first regional shopping center built in a downtown post-World War II,” Center City District president Paul Levy said.

The prospects weren’t great, but Mayor Frank Rizzo pushed for it. Walter D’Alessio, then CEO of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporationtold the Inquirer in 1991 that “we had double-digit unemployment, double-digit inflation and double-digit interest rates. To do a downtown mall at that time was heresy. Retail stores were moving to the suburbs.”

Bacon faced obstruction, too. “They said, ‘Look, there’s not enough demand for retail in this area to use up one level, let alone three,’” he once told WHYY. Future mayor John Street and his brother — future perennial mayoral candidate Milton — picketed The Gallery to protest the money and attention given to Center City businesses. The Streets wanted money to pay for housing instead.

Gallery I, between Eighth and 10th streets, was constructed with a private-public partnership: The city’s Redevelopment Authority owned the land and paid for two-thirds of construction with federal urban renewal funds. The Rouse Company paid for the other one-third and operated with a 99-year lease on the mall; the city was hoping Rouse would do for Philadelphia what it did for Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston. People were worried. “Initially, not many merchants wanted to be there,” Rouse VP Scott Ditch told Forbes in 1979. “They thought it would be a disaster.” Leasing the space took 30 percent more time than a suburban mall. The $105 million mall opened in 1977 after 30 months of work, with Strawbridge’s and a relocated Gimbels as anchors. (Mayoral candidate Lynne Abraham lists the Gimbels move as one of her accomplishments on her website.)

Get this: It was successful from the start. “In a shopping mall, to gross $100 per square foot is average, $150 is considered a hot property, but we have three that gross over $250, and one is The Gallery,” Scott Toombs of Rouse told Progressive Architecture magazine in 1978.

That magazine, which put The Gallery on its cover that year, gushed over the design:

“The Gallery has something none of the other malls have. It has been planned and designed to make use of the most important attributes of both suburban and urban shopping. Like the suburban shopping center, it offers on-site parking, separate (underground) truck access and unified architectural treatment. Also, like the suburban centers, it provides the requisite skylights, large indoor plants, and fountains, but in this case with a real difference. The skylight atrium isn’t just a glass-topped hall but a mammoth, glass-enclosed court surrounded by four levels of restaurants and shopping. In places, the interior is a forest of 40-ft trees (real trees planted in the ground, not in pots); in other places vines hang from the roof. The fountain is huge, with a high waterspout that can be turned off during the frequent classical music concerts that can be, and are, enjoyed from the terraced seating around the reflecting pool.”

Yes, The Gallery once had a fountain in its atrium.

Forbes called it a “smashing success.” The New York Times raved. “Though once boycotted and picketed by residents demanding more housing aid for their neighborhoods and angry over the use of Federal funds,” the paper wrote in 1980, “the Gallery is now on the list of nearly every exponent of what Philadelphians like to call their renaissance.” By 1983, UPI reported The Gallery was “a close third” among Rouse’s most valuable properties. It was making somewhere around $300 a square foot.

It was so successful an expansion happened quickly, funded similarly to the first. Gallery II — the stretch between Gimbels and the old Reading Terminal — opened in 1984 with 90 shops. After another furor over funding headed downtown, the city worked with minority leaders; 22 of those shops were owned and operated by minorities. But the new Market East Station — part of the $325 million Center City Commuter Connection that linked the old Reading and Pennsylvania railroads — opened well behind schedule. “They forgot the customers,” shop owner Vincent Bright, who owned the fruit stand Adam’s Apple, told the Associated Press not long after the Gallery II opened. “I don’t think the train is going to be that much of an answer,” Carroll Thomas, who operated Deck the Halls, also told the AP. “I don’t want to depend on commuters.”

The train wasn’t the answer. The gloss of The Gallery I and II wore off. Suburbanites didn’t like paying for parking. A subsidiary of British American Tobacco, which owned Gimbels, put its stores up for sale in 1986. Stern’s took over the Gimbels locations in Philadelphia. It was a disaster. Stern’s pulled out of Philly in 1988.

Since the mall’s sheen wore off less than a decade after it opened, it chugged along. Strawbridge’s was sold in 1996; the store closed in 2006. Clover opened in the old Stern’s spot in 1995. “This is a one-of-a-kind store because of the two levels and the [foot] traffic situation,” a manager told the Inquirer. It didn’t make it two years. A Kmart — specifically, a Big Kmart — opened in 1997 to much fanfare. The store played a special Kmart version of “Downtown” as then-mayor Ed Rendell and then-City Council president John Street praised the new retail outlet. “Big does not refer to people who are big or on the heavy side. All the thin people,” Rendell said, pointing to Street, “are also welcome at Big Kmart.” The Kmart lasted until April of last year.

Photo | Dan McQuade

Photo | Dan McQuade

PREIT ACQUIRED THE original Gallery in 2003 from the Rouse Company and got Gallery II the following year from the state’s Public School Employees’ Retirement System. It also acquired 901 Market and 801 Market, the old Strawbridges. Last year, PREIT sold a 50 percent interest in the Gallery complex to Macerich.

The mall went un-refurbished. It remained walled-off on Market Street, failing to interact much with the streetscape. (Progressive Architecture didn’t mention this in its glowing report.) But it remained lively and weird.

In 2005, PREIT installed Mall Ball — a basketball shooting game — where the top shooter of all the malls won $1,000 every week. There was a mysterious movie theater called 9-D Cinema (what were the other dimensions?). A pizza place took the Ray’s name, like it was New York City, and sold $1 slices. Ubiq, now one of the top sneaker boutiques in the country, opened its first location in The Gallery in 2002. That space closed a few weeks ago. Of the top Gallery sneaker stores I ranked in 2011, only Villa remains. JJ Tiziou‘s How Philly Moves mural was painted in an unused store on the top floor before being installed at the airport. And who could forget the weave vending machine?

There were legit reasons people didn’t like The Gallery. In 1987, 37 people were arrested on vandalism charges after looting erupted during a retirement parade for Julius Erving in Market East. The mall closed for three hours that day. “There was nothing we could do, we were caught off guard,” JC Penney’s general merchandise manager Sandra Bryant told the Associated Press. “We were conducting business normally, and all of a sudden it was like a herd of elephants came trampling through the store.” Others reported kids stealing clothes, then throwing them off the balconies.

In 2003, thousands of Chingy fans crowded the mall for a free concert. When it ended, it set off a melee. Police closed the mall. “They were screaming,” a Modell’s employee told the Inquirer. “They were taking their clothes off. They mobbed him like he was Michael Jackson.” (“We want Chingy” and “Hell, no, we won’t go,” they shouted to the rapper, whose last top-10 hit was the same year Strawbridge’s closed. His fortunes have gone downhill faster than The Gallery’s.)

In 2008, an 84-year-old man was attacked in a Gallery bathroom. In 2010, teens spilled out of The Gallery and ransacked the Macy’s down the street.

BY VIRTUE OF its location — on a train line, at the end of two subway stops, next to the bus terminal — the mall was incredibly accessible for all Philadelphians. As the mall fell in stature, stores were replaced by lower-end shops. By the late 1980s, the mall was referenced in DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince‘s “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

“Here, in the gap between the well-to-do areas of Center City west of Broad Street and the emerging chic of Old City on the edge of the Delaware, black people from the neighborhoods ringing Center City and readily accessible by public transport found a comfortable place to shop and congregate,” sociologist Elijah Anderson wrote in his 2011 book The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life. “At some point in the last decade, the transition became complete, and the Gallery acquired a clear and lasting reputation as a ‘black place.’”

A quick scan of reviews on sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor finds multiple reviews that read like this one: “Some of the people at the mall are rather intimidating and the food court should be renamed the Philadelphia Zoo.” Anderson, a professor at Yale, is a respected sociologist who taught at Penn for more than 30 years. He writes primarily about race relations; much of his work centers on Philadelphia. He describes cosmopolitan canopies as “diverse islands of civility where people of different races gather — and for the most part they’re pretty decent to one another. I’m not saying they love each other, but they’re civil.” The Reading Terminal Market and Rittenhouse Square are two of them. But The Gallery is different. In Anderson’s words, it’s more “ethnocentric.” His book chapter on the mall is called “The Ghetto Downtown.”

Anderson says the image of the “iconic ghetto” hovers over race relations not only in Philadelphia but the entire country. If middle and upper-class people — black and white — view The Gallery through the prism of the ghetto, they may stay away. “A few [white people] venture into the Gallery only when accompanied by black companions,” he writes. (I’ve never heard of this happening, but I’ve also never written an ethnography on The Gallery.)

The mall routinely ranks on lists of dead malls. But it’s really not. While those dollars-per-square foot numbers didn’t quite continue with inflation, the mall was still successful: When an activist investor told PREIT to sell its lower-quality malls in October of last year, he wanted the company to hold on to The Gallery. It was making $327 a square foot. It wasn’t quite Cherry Hill ($627 a square foot) but it was in PREIT’s top-5 revenue grossing malls — above average.

And why not? Walk through the Gallery any day and it is bustling. Even last week — when the only remaining stores in the food court were Tiffany’s Bakery, a McDonald’s, and that once-magical Dunkin’ Donuts — the food court was packed every day. Shoppers pored through racks at Modell’s huge going-out-of-business sale.

As the Daily News reported in 2009, less than 1 percent of arrests in the Gallery were for violent crime. “My impression is the Gallery is not that bad,” then-police Lt. George Ondrejka told the paper. “The fact of the matter is, when you have a heavily traveled space like that, there is going to be crime sometimes.”

Anderson explained the draw of the Gallery for Philadelphians of lower classes. “It’s accessible from these various neighborhoods in the city,” he told Philadelphia in an interview this week. “If you have a choice of being on a North Philadelphia street corner versus being in a warm place like the Gallery in the wintertime, you might choose to go to the Gallery. Not only that, but the Gallery is less dangerous and less problematic than some of the streets in some of these neighborhoods. In the summertime it’s cool and in the wintertime it’s warm.”

The Gallery food court developed its own social structure. Anderson explained some of the groups who sit in the Gallery nearly every day: “Black church ladies sit and make their place there, you have men from the communities, men of the old manufacturing economy, men who worked at Budd Company … you have people on Social Security. People on veterans pensions and various other kinds of pensions. They can come there and see their friends and make friends. They don’t always know each other well. And when they leave there, they go back to separate communities sometimes. But the train is right there for them.”

THE GALLERY IS a canopy just like other spaces downtown. “The Gallery can stake its claim as the city’s living, breathing anthropological study,” the Inquirer’s Annette John-Hall wrote in 2003, “a mecca where all of Philadelphia’s cultural ingredients come to a boil in a pot of brotherly love.” But in a way, it is also the last black-dominated space downtown. People who might be hassled at Reading Terminal Market or Rittenhouse Square could sit in The Gallery all day. Anderson called the Gallery food court a “virtual senior center.” And now it will soon close, for a reported two-to-three years. Where are poor people going to mallwalk?

That question isn’t facetious. Center City should be an area for all. To its credit, PREIT and Macerich seem to understand this. “We don’t need different customers,” PREIT CEO Joseph Coradino told the Inquirer’s Inga Saffron last year. “We need more customers.” But the way it has slowly shut down the Gallery has angered many. It has declined all media requests to talk about the future of the mall. Vendors were given little notice that they were being kicked out. “PREIT stole our money,” kiosk owner George Thomas told the Inquirer. (“Greedy pigs,” Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky called PREIT.)

Yes, PREIT and Macerich can’t reveal plans before they’re finalized. On an earnings call last year, Macerich CEO Art Coppola said the company had “numerous development meetings with our partner as well as numerous meetings with city and state officials.” The city has been a partner in this silence, remaining tight-lipped about the future of a large, popular public space in Center City. The Redevelopment Authority still owns some of the land that the Gallery mall is on. Kiosk owners protested at City Council, and Councilman Mark Squilla did work to allow tenants to stay in past Valentine’s Day. PREIT is seeking public financing for the mall renovation, and the city is attempting to give the partnership full control over the mall. (Due to its shoddy upkeep of the space over the years, the city may end up paying to give the land away.)

It’s clear the Gallery is in need of refurbishment. A worker at the Hallmark shop who had been there since it opened told me the mall needed new stores; she sounded excited at the possibility of a transformation even as her store closed. And The New Gallery — or, sigh, the Fashion Outlets of Philadelphia at Market East — will hopefully be as lively a space as the current one still is. But when will we know what it will be like?

The Gallery is the great failure that wasn’t actually a failure. While it didn’t become the downtown attraction envisioned by planners, it was a public space that people from all walks of the city used every day. There aren’t too many places like this in a segregated city like Philadelphia. Whatever the future is for The Gallery, here’s guessing it won’t be the same. R.I.P.