Philebrity’s Joey Sweeney Gets Real About the Gallery

It's pretty hard to write about the Center City shopping center without mentioning race.

Bye Bye, Big-K! Photo courtesy of Google Street View

The Gallery’s Big-K, now defunct.
Photo courtesy of Google Street View

I’m a little behind on my philebrity reading, so I’m only just now getting to the post titled “A Small Request: Will You Please Stop Talking About The Gallery In Wincing Tones Just Because Black People Shop There?” It’s a response, of sorts, to Inga Saffron’s latest Changing Skyline column about the Gallery, which was refreshing in its characterization of the urban mall as a thriving center of commerce but oddly devoid of any mention of race, which could be seen as progressive (it’s a post-racial America!) or simply evasive.

I’ve lived in the city since the Gallery was built, and the patrons and the attitude about those patrons have shifted considerably over the years, in the same way the conversation about South Street has changed. Which is to say: white people were perfectly happy to go to both locations and see them as reasonably successful until African-Americans started to go there as well. In 2006, Philly photographer Steve Ives, “an unashamed patron” of the Gallery, wrote about the mall for Philly Skyline:

If Chris Rock were a Philadelphian he’d call [the Gallery] “The Mall White People Used To Go To”. It seems that much of downtown, which heralded the promise of what The Gallery would bring to Center City, now see it as an embarrassment, as a liability, something to deter tourists from and deny the existence of to new Philadelphians.

Sweeney wrote about the racism inherent in criticism of the Gallery back then too. I wrote about the issue so long ago, you can’t even find it online. And I lived it. As a kid, my friends and I spent entire weekends there. As I got older, adults cautioned us to avoid it. At some point, as the number of minority groups increased, the white-people party line changed to the Gallery has gotten scary.”

Sweeney says that when “we” — white people — talk about the Gallery, we do so in code, and I think that’s largely true. If a major “problem” with the Gallery, according to economic development experts, is the class and race of its patrons, let’s talk about that. I’m not sure we can get anywhere by talking in code — unless, that is, we’re talking about zoning.

A Small Request: Will You Please Stop Talking About The Gallery In Wincing Tones Just Because Black People Shop There? [philebrity]