The Real Story of the Gayborhood Revival

Don't let the New York Times fool you: It took a village to raise Midtown Village.

“We love 13th Street!” proclaim chef Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran on their website.

It clearly shows: The pair, partners in business and in life, have branched out from a lone home goods boutique at 107 South 13th Street in 2002 to six thriving businesses at the epicenter of Midtown Village, including the nucleus of the 13th Street restaurant row. These businesses, according to the site, “helped transform the once-desolate neighborhood into trendy Midtown Village.”

Yes, Midtown Village’s main drag is truly “A Philadelphia Street, Transformed,” as a New York Times travel section slideshow proclaimed this past Sunday. And judging from that slideshow, Turney and Safran pretty much pulled it off by themselves, with just the merest assist from Stephen Starr, a cigar aficionado and a high-tech beer garden.

And so it goes when a reporter and a photographer parachute into town and start taking notes and pictures. Had they bothered to stay a while, they would have learned why Turney and Safran said their business empire “helped” with the transformation of 13th Street, for the street’s journey from sin strip to adult playground had many parents.

For starters, there’s the late real estate developer Tony Goldman, who arrived in Philly in 1999 fresh from having brought New York’s SoHo and Miami’s South Beach back from the dead. He saw the same potential in seedy South 13th Street and bought most of the buildings that now comprise Midtown Village’s heart. Skeptics abounded when he began his effort, but he proved prophetic in the end.

He proved a better judge of real estate than shaper of identity, though: His effort to rebrand the area “Blocks Below Broad,” or “B3,” flopped. Enter two more of those parents, James McManaman and the crew at what was then the Gyro Worldwide advertising agency, led by Steven Grasse. Along with Turney and Safran, McManaman was one of the pioneer business owners who set up shop in one of Goldman’s storefronts; Gyro was one of Goldman’s first office tenants, moving its headquarters from Society Hill to the upper floors of a building that housed a gay porn palace on its street floor (and still does). Like Goldman, McManaman also believed the 13th Street strip needed a new identity to break its association with vice in the public mind. He and the brains at Gyro got together and came up with “Midtown Village.” Though this effort too had its critics, it ultimately proved successful, and the Times photo essay offers fresh evidence of that success.

And Stephen Starr was actually the second restaurateur to occupy the former bank at 13th and Sansom. Before his El Vez, there was the ill-fated Trust, whose demise was no doubt hastened by a scathing no-bell review from Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan.

The secret to Midtown Village’s successful transformation was Goldman’s ability to spot potential in real estate and sign up enterprising small business owners like Turney and Safran, McManaman, and Gyro. All remain on 13th Street, though Gyro now does business as Quaker City Mercantile, and the thousands who flock to 13th Street today are a tribute to the savvy of all of them. Turney and Safran are merely the biggest business owners on the block; the company they keep played an equally important role in the street’s remarkable turnaround.