What to Do About South Street

As other parts of the city boom, South Street lumbers along, directionless. Can anything save the hippest street in town?

Buildings along the 300 block of South Street. Photography by Jeff Fusco

Mike Harris is standing in the middle of the street with his feet in first position and his arms out wide, like a dancer waiting for the music to start. He’s positioned his body in just this way, in just this place, to show me where the new curb for his new Headhouse Square plaza will begin. You’ve never seen a guy get so excited about a curb. He continues to talk, totally unfazed by the drivers who have to swing out wide to avoid him. Actually, they’re just proving his point. “This intersection isn’t safe,” he calls over to where I’m standing, out of harm’s way. “We’re going to fix that!”

For the past six years, Harris has been the executive director of the South Street Headhouse District, the business improvement organization (the second oldest in the city, after the Center City District) that’s charged with keeping South Street functioning. With a backpack dangling off one shoulder, chinos, and a mop of salt-and-pepper hair, Harris, 54, looks more like a grad student than the steward of a neighborhood known for bong shops.

I squint my eyes and turn north to where Harris is motioning. I try to look past the crumbling median, the bike-share station, the cars parked at an angle as if this is the airport short-term lot, and focus on the stately Headhouse Shambles. I’ve seen the updated renderings for the new plaza. The original vision has been scaled back greatly — that’s what community feedback in this part of town will do — but I begin to see what Harris sees: stone walkways, grass, benches where people can drink iced lattes after filling up their totes at the farmers’ market. When I look back at Harris, though, the reality is rather bleak: Behind him is the charred brick facade of Bridget Foy’s — all that’s left after a recent fire. To his left, the entire north side of South Street — from 2nd Street all the way to 3rd — is vacant except for a Rita’s, which, this being winter, has the gates pulled down tight. Not even a rendering by Monet could make this scene appealing. South Street has seen better days.

While this corner is particularly harrowing, the rest of the street, from about 9th to Front, isn’t exactly thriving, either. There are dozens of ground-floor vacancies, some of which have been empty for years, and plenty of storefronts in desperate need of a paint job. There are the places that give South Street its edge but don’t add much modern appeal: tattoo parlors, the Pink Pussycat Boutique, Fat Tuesday, with its sign that says, “No throwing objects off the balcony.” But there are bright spots, too: Stephen Starr’s sexy Serpico; a two-year-old MilkBoy; Totem Brand, which sells $900 Canada Goose jackets; Jim’s Steaks, one of the city’s great cheesesteak temples; Eye’s Gallery, opened by artists/iconoclasts Julia and Isaiah Zagar back when the Grateful Dead were still playing in college gyms.

This incongruent mix of establishments brings in a disparate clientele and gives South Street a Jekyll-and-Hyde quality. During the day, the street feels as sticky and empty as a frat house on Sunday morning, despite the fact that the neighborhoods it bisects, Society Hill and Queen Village, are filled with life. At night, especially on the weekends and especially in the summer, South Street turns into something else entirely: It’s swarmed with teens and 20- and 30-somethings from across the city — black, white, everybody, really — who are barhopping and meeting up with friends. It can feel like one huge block party. But this is their South Street, too, a place to have a good time.

I’ve lived one block off South Street since 2008. When I first moved to Philly, I became captivated — grit and all — by what it brought to the city. It reminded me of St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, my favorite cut-day destination in high school. South Street’s mishmash of history, stores, smells, characters and, well, weirdness was exactly what makes cities like Philadelphia — cities with a past — so special. You couldn’t build something like South Street today no matter how hard you tried.

It’s why almost everyone from Philadelphia has a story about South Street. Maybe you watched Morgan Freeman perform at the Theatre of the Living Arts in the ’60s, danced at the Black Banana in the ’70s, bought purple hair dye at Zipperhead in the ’80s or saw Nirvana at J.C. Dobbs in the ’90s. The Orlons pronounced South Street “the hippest street in town” all the way back in 1963 with their legendary song, and it held true for decades.

Today, unfortunately, that legacy seems like the only thing that’s keeping the street alive. It’s become the old rocker who still insists on wearing leather pants. South Street is Keith Richards.

In the past 15 years, I’ve watched in awe as areas like Midtown Village, East Passyunk Avenue, Frankford Avenue and Fabric Row (which sits just a block from South Street, at 4th and Bainbridge) have been reclaimed. But South Street just lumbers along, directionless. Why the area can’t get it together in an unprecedented era of urban renewal is complicated, though at the core are fundamental issues of identity and purpose. While those other born-again streets have clear mission statements, South Street’s is a little trickier to write. “We don’t want to homogenize the district at all,” Mike Harris tells me. “I know there are streets that I don’t want to be like. You want that sweet-spot mix of engaging entertainment that looks attractive and that will make people walk away and say, ‘That is great.’”

But pulling that off, Harris knows, is easier said than done. In many ways, South Street’s future hinges on one big interconnected question: Can it return to being the neighborhood-serving retail corridor it once was … while still acting as an entertainment destination for all Philadelphians … while somehow maintaining the boho identity that made it special in the first place?

“I’m optimistic,” Harris says over breakfast one morning. “But I’m not blind to the challenges we have.”

I’ve walked by Eye’s Gallery about a million times but have never actually gone inside. The windows are filled with colorful tchotchkes — geometric paintings, mini figurines, hand-painted plates. The stuff sold there always reminded me of what you’d find at a booth at a festival — not my thing. But today, I walk in. And I was wrong; it’s pure magic.

Scene from South Street

Julia and Isaiah Zagar opened the store in 1968. Isaiah’s famous mosaics make the outside and inside — from the arched interior walls to the exterior storefront — glitter. With no makeup, a full head of dark hair, and a spirit as flowy as her dress, Julia, 78, is behind the counter, chatting with customers; she’s just returned from a buying trip to Guatemala and has new treasures.

Fifty years after it opened, Eye’s Gallery still sells goods made by crafters in Latin America. (I couldn’t resist a flower-embroidered dress for my two-year-old.) The inside is more museum than store, with Frisbee-size paper flowers filling up floor baskets, silver jewelry and Day of the Dead dolls piled on shelves, and mirrors hung on every inch of the saffron walls. The Zagars were doing fair trade before fair trade was a thing.

For a frustratingly chilly Tuesday afternoon in March, the store is surprisingly crowded. “Today we’ve had people from Omaha, from Michigan and Wisconsin,” Julia ticks off on her fingers. A young couple with green hair and cameras are speaking German nearby. “We get tourists. They read about us, but I also have longtime customers from South Jersey, South Philly, Society Hill. It’s a steady group because we’ve been here for so long. It’s not what it was — but I’m existing.”

The Zagars, still here, are emblematic of the quirky, countercultural South Street that most Philadelphians think of fondly. But the street’s roots go back well before that. Once called Cedar Street, the thoroughfare was part of William Penn’s original 1680s grid. Its proximity to the river and the fact that it was situated between two different jurisdictions (one being Quaker Philadelphia) made it a natural location for bars, restaurants and seedy nightlife. It was considered a “bright lights” district centuries before Fat Tuesday served its first frozen daiquiri. In the early 1800s, the street became a hub for African-Americans, and toward the end of that century, when Washington Avenue Pier was checking in scores of immigrants, the area evolved into a shopping district serving Southern and Eastern Europeans. By the 1900s, you had all those fabric stores, as well as lox being served at Famous 4th Street Deli.

This is when the street’s history becomes relevant to its present. In the late 1950s, the government, all big into building superhighways for a ballooning car culture, announced a plan to essentially turn South Street into an eight-lane expressway connecting I-95 and I-76. (Picture the Vine Street Expressway, but on the south side of town.) The idea was met with plenty of opposition, and the dispute would drag on for more than a decade — but the very notion was enough to decimate what had been a thriving neighborhood. Business owners closed up shop, residents moved out, and properties fell into disrepair.

But sometimes there’s water in the bottom of a well. On the east side of South, pioneers like the Zagars, plus other artists, musicians and free spirits enticed by cheap rents, began to open galleries, restaurants and coffeehouses. Among them was the TLA, then a repertory theater, which debuted in 1965 and became a symbol of the area’s bohemian resurgence.

The expressway was officially killed in 1972, and afterward, South Street continued to evolve as a revolutionary place. Essene, a natural foods store, had just opened; Giovanni’s Room became a mecca for the gay community; later, there was a punk scene — the Ramones played at Stephen Starr’s Ripley Music Hall in 1983. The street had an international reputation, drawing in tourists from near and far. It made Philly cool.

This part of South Street’s story is special, but it’s not entirely unique. Such a sequence has played out in lots of places. A neighborhood hits rock bottom, so the rents drop, so the artists move in, which makes the neighborhood interesting again, which is enticing to real estate developers, who buy up properties and bring in high-paying tenants like national chains and restaurants with liquor licenses.

And so it went for South Street. In the ’80s and ’90s, the area became home to a Gap, a Tower Records, a Blockbuster and a TGI Fridays. Many of the locally owned shops left — and took their idiosyncrasies with them. The hippest street in town had, essentially, turned into a mall.

Mike Harris

Mike Harris, a St. Louis-area native with a civic and operations background who married a Philadelphian, is mapping out this story for me over French toast and small-batch coffee at the new Ants Pants cafe on 4th Street. He’s drawing a circular timeline on the back of a sheet of paper. “Then in 2008, everything crashed,” he says.

Harris’s version of South Street’s past ends with the recession, but the truth is, the street might have faced troubles even without the economic collapse. By the 2000s, some chains had started to leave, and South Street became a bizarre mix of things that didn’t quite serve the neighborhood but were no longer unique enough to create a true destination. Many of the restaurants weren’t notable. The bars were a little out of control. (South Street can’t shake its reputation as the site of the 2001 Mardi Gras Riot, in which upwards of 40,000 people jammed the street and looted storefronts.)

Still, Harris insists that maybe we’ve romanticized the past — and the present isn’t necessarily as bad as everyone thinks. “When people talk about South Street, they all have this vision of when it was good,” Harris says. “And I always ask: Tell me when that was. Tell me your definition of good. I think there are a lot of long-held perceptions, and I think a lot of them are wrong. What we try to do now is emphasize the great gems and the hidden things.”

South Street’s modern history may be part of a normal cycle — that’s why Harris drew a circle — but somewhere along the way, it got stuck. Things haven’t gotten bad enough for rock bottom — the street still pulls in a million visitors a year — but that’s one of the biggest challenges to enacting change. It’s hard to fix something that’s not entirely broken.

Philadelphia is experiencing a retail-corridor renaissance. In the early 2000s, Tony Goldman, with a bullish vision and a step-by-step plan, turned what was one of the shadiest neighborhoods in Center City into Midtown Village. Vince Fumo saw what Goldman was doing and applied the same logic to East Passyunk Avenue. Yes, the senator landed in prison, but his vision was carried out to near-perfection. Comeback stories like these have something in common: Those streets had bottomed out. Frankford Avenue, the west-of-Broad side of South Street, Brewerytown, Spring Arts — property values in all those places had become so low that developers or neighborhood business improvement districts could amass a significant quantity of buildings and install the types of businesses and services they believed would boost economic activity in the neighborhood. (That formula usually starts with creative capital: artists, start-ups, cool bars and up-and-coming chefs. Sound familiar?)

Mike Harris has his own vision for what will revitalize South Street, and it begins with more stores and businesses for nearby residents of Society Hill and Queen Village. One of the ironies — and complexities — of South Street’s situation is that the street and those neighborhoods have evolved in opposite directions over the past several decades. As South Street went from the hippest street in town to the city equivalent of a desolate suburban mall, Society Hill and Queen Village thrived, with new residents and families moving in and housing prices soaring. “You had this phenomenon, I think by the early ’90s, where people on either side of what used to be a neighborhood-serving street were saying, ‘I’ll never go to South Street,’” Center City District head Paul Levy tells me. “And it kind of became like putting two magnets together the wrong way.”

Harris has a wish list of what he thinks can draw neighbors back to the street: “A brewpub, a distillery tasting room, an arcade, more things for kids, like a toy store,” he says. He’s excited by the recent arrival of candy store Rocket Fizz. He’d love to see something great go into the Johnny Rockets space at 5th and South. And of course there’s the supermarket that developer Eric Blumenfeld has been trying to bring to the vacant 200 block for at least five years.

Harris doesn’t believe that such new, neighborhood-friendly places have to push out businesses that already exist. “Eye’s Gallery, Mineralistic, Mutt Airbrush — they’ve been here for decades,” he says. “There’s a tagline in here — come for your old favorites, discover some new ones while you’re here.” He smiles and picks up his pen. “Hmm … I might have to write that down.”

Harris also feels strongly about keeping and promoting the businesses that make South Street a destination. He looks to places like Carson Street in Pittsburgh, Frenchmen Street in New Orleans, Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and the Plateau district in Montreal for inspiration. These main drags have found some balance between what the residents want and what keeps the nighttime dollars flowing in. And that balance is important: Frankford Avenue and East Passyunk are great success stories, but they aren’t necessarily places for all Philadelphians, like South Street has always been.

Scenes from South Street

So what’s keeping this vision from turning into reality? The biggest roadblock is landlords. The critical element of Tony Goldman’s plan for Midtown Village was his ability to gather lots of properties in that neighborhood when the values were low. But the reality on South Street is different. There are dozens of property owners, few of whom seem cut from the Goldman mold; many apparently aren’t invested in the vitality of the neighborhood. “Once you lose the local control, which is sort of inevitable when a market picks up, do you get responsible landlords who are thinking about coordination between all their various tenants?” Paul Levy asks. “I don’t think that thinking was at work on South Street in the ’80s and ’90s.”

One such New York developer, Michael Axelrod, has owned more than 40 buildings on South Street; he started amassing them in the ’80s. (Axelrod’s office informed me that he doesn’t speak to the press.) One of his properties, on the corner of 6th and South — formerly a McDonald’s — has been vacant for almost a decade. It’s hard to understand the economics of letting a commercial rental space sit hollow for years, but because retail tenants sign long-term leases, owners sometimes hold out for the higher-rent option even if it takes twice as long. Such property owners are both impediments to change and banking on the fact that change is coming.

Today, on South Street, the businesses that can afford the high rents tend to be stuff like sneaker shops and cell-phone stores — places that don’t add much appeal to the street. And what isn’t sustainable in this part of town is a generic shopping district.

“Any vacancy is one vacancy too many, but on the other hand, we also want to have a balance in our retail landscape,” says Harris. “It’s open call for investors and people who have ideas or concepts. If someone comes to us, we’re matchmakers — we can help them find the right broker or property owner. At the same time, we’re out there trying to coax people in.”

There’s also the question of the city’s responsibility here. Should it pass laws or create taxes that ding owners for letting properties sit vacant? Should Mayor Kenney be knocking on those out-of-towners’ doors and demanding change? “I remember telling more than one mayor, ‘Walk with me down South Street,’ and they never do,” says Stephen Starr, who in addition to Serpico owns Pizzeria Stella on Headhouse Square. “I think the city should get retailers to come here the way they’re courting Amazon to our city.”

There is a bright spot here: In 2016, Midwood Investment & Development, a sizeable New York-based firm that’s bet big on other parts of Philly, bought 11 of Axelrod’s properties. Locally, Midwood is highly regarded. Ron Bondy, the executive vice president of leasing at Midwood, told me leases on South Street will be reviewed on a “case-by-case basis,” presumably with the goal of luring new shops in.

“I can tell you that food and dining is going to be an important part of the future of the street, and retail that is relevant,” says Bondy. “A cheese shop or a butcher or bakeshop, things that will draw people onto the street on a daily basis.”

But this is why change is slow. When an area is this established, improvements come one store at a time, and that can make progress seem invisible.

“Sometimes residents feel like there aren’t enough businesses on South Street that represent what they want, but candidly, I think that’s a little overstated,” Harris says at Ants Pants. “I think a lot of people in the neighborhood inherently use stuff on South Street, but they won’t say it, for whatever reason. But they certainly go to Bistro Romano or Bridget Foy’s or Cozy Nails.”

The bright spots are hard to see among all the vacancies and piercing parlors. Plus, many of the storefronts could use that new coat of paint. The buildings that have been rehabbed, like MilkBoy, Villa, KicksUSA and Serpico, only highlight how shabby other places look. There are more than 400 businesses in the SSHD, crime is down, and there are now fewer head shops than ever before, but perception is a hard thing to change.

Harris has made strides. His cleanup crews are out first thing, and new lights have been installed on Fabric Row and South Street. He’s secured funds for capital improvements on those desperate-for-love storefronts. He recently tweaked rules so there’s no late-night parking on an eastern stretch of the street on weekends, which has cut down on lingering and trash. He created Spring Fest and continues to make holiday celebrations family-friendly — pumpkin festivals with hayrides, Christmas tree lightings with Santa and Frosty. By all accounts, he’s done more in his six-year tenure than anyone who held the position before him.

Harris’s most visible improvement will be the new plaza in Headhouse Square that’s set to break ground this summer. The original decades-old plans were more ambitious. Parking was to be removed entirely; Harris was hoping for a second brick Shambles to be constructed. But after neighborhood and business responses, the plan got scaled back. It’ll be an improvement and make those intersections safer to cross, but it’s disappointing that this capstone project will merely spruce up the area and not transform it. If Philadelphia has learned anything in the past decade, it’s that public spaces — Dilworth Park, the Schuylkill River Trail — can chart a new course for a neighborhood.

Yet even with the bright new places, the ones that have aged into legends, Midwood’s investment and the new plaza, I don’t feel the spark in the air that I did when areas like Frankford Avenue started to pop. Maybe South Street isn’t stuck in the neighborhood revitalization cycle after all; maybe it’s just moving very slowly through it. It could be that with all of the challenges the street faces, the low cycle is taking a lot longer.

Climbing out of that cycle might involve a new generation, one that’s more engaged and more interested in moving forward. That’s exactly what’s happened on Fabric Row. In a few short years, places like Paradigm Gallery, Bus Stop Boutique, Yowie, Hungry Pigeon and Moon + Arrow have opened. Those places have engaged owners and offer unique experiences — which I imagine is exactly what Eye’s Gallery felt like in the ’60s. “I’ve always said the way to change South Street is to sneak up on it from behind,” says Paul Levy. “What’s happening on 4th Street and Bainbridge is exactly that.”

The business owners there aren’t just adding life to the SSHD; they’re bringing fresh voices and ideas and a belief in authenticity and history. “Since I’m on the board, it’s a conversation we’re always having,” says Sara McCorriston, the 30-year-old owner of Paradigm Gallery. “South Street has always been weird, and isn’t that great? Let’s embrace that.”

Preserving the flavor of the area — via fabric stores or tattoo shops or bars — while providing something for the residents is top-of-mind to this new generation. They understand that if you remove South Street’s East Village flair, its fringy history and, yes, the loud revelers who flood the street on summer nights — if you don’t embrace the fact that what makes South Street unique is that it’s a destination for all people — you’ve lost a key component of what makes Philly, well, Philly.

It’s a lesson those of us who live in the neighborhood would be smart to remember. I’ve walked on South Street almost every day for the past decade. But reporting this story took me into shops I’ve never noticed before, had me talking to proprietors I’d never met, and forced me to make eye contact with the people I passed on the street. On any given day, you’ll find all shades and types of them — first-generation store owners, moms chasing kids, punky teenagers trying out new selves (maybe even cutting school). I started to focus on the exciting things: the new candy store; the barbershop that’s been around for a handful of years; Paper Moon, a 1970s magazine shop that was reopened by the original owner in 2011. What I found was a community that’s strange and diverse and totally committed to making South Street the best version of itself. And then I did what a reporter is never supposed to do: I fell in love with my subject, and all those empty storefronts didn’t bother me so much anymore.

Published as “Remember When This Was the Hippest Street in Town?” in the May 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.