Philadelphia’s Ongoing Self-Perception Problem

Last week Philadelphia’s Mayor Nutter presented a new plan for reviving Philadelphia’s waterfront to packed audience at the Museum of Natural History. I didn’t make it to the event, but have been eagerly awaiting some of the response. As per usual, Philadelphians are pretty down on their city. But now they’re picking on the block where I work (seen at right in earlier days)…

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Last week Philadelphia’s Mayor Nutter presented a new plan for reviving Philadelphia’s waterfront to packed audience at the Academy of Natural Sciences. I didn’t get a chance to make it to the event, but have been eagerly awaiting some of the responses online. Harris Steinberg from PennPraxis wrote up a piece on about the pros and cons of Nutter’s ideas, but more interesting than Steinberg’s piece were some of the blogged responses to it. Apparently one user by the name of Argonne was appalled by the 1300 block of Walnut Street — which happens to be where Next American City’s offices are.
Here’s a sampling of what the user, Argonne, had to say:

Posted by argonne 02:35 PM, 06/22/2008
Thanks for the good laugh renderings but why doesnt Philadelphia fix what it already has instead of wasting its time pretending about this pipe dream. I was in Center City today and there are giant weed stalks growing all over the deteriorating Chestnut Street ,South Street,and Walnut Street Bridges between Univ City and Center City. If the city doesnt have the pride or cant even pay a guy $10 an hour to maintain the landscape,and patch up the bridges of Center City why should anyone believe they can pull this mammoth project off. Get real people.If somebody blindfolded you and dropped you off on the 1300 block of Walnut Street you would think you were in Camden,Detroit or Chester not the supposed Next Great City. Take care of the basics first and then get back to me about this billion dollar Delaware Ave fairytale.

Later Argonne writes:
Take a good look around center city. The 1300 block of Walnut Street looks like a stage prop for a bad ghetto movie out of the 70’s.Its a depressing 1/10th of a mile mix of vacant buildings ,grungy stores, and filth covered cages + grates. Its horrendously bad.Much of the blocks of Chestnut(east of Broad) resembles the 1300 block of Walnut, Market East is worse than East Chestnut if that possible. The Ben Franklin Parkway has turned into a homeless encampment. Nutter needs to stop wasting time on this Riverfront fantasy and go get some developers and tenants to revive the blocks of Market,Chestnut and Walnut. The forefathers gave this city some great bones, work on rebuilding them so the riverfront will be an easier sell for the next generation..

Indeed, the 1300 block of Walnut isn’t anything great — there’s some vacant stores across from my building and the Holiday Inn is outrageously fugly. But turn the corner down 13th street and you have some kickass Mexican food at El Vez, Capogiro gelato, a very groovy looking ad agency called Gyro, a paper store, a baby store, a home store, the Grocery, etc. Empowered by the Gayborhood sensibility and a very savvy business owner (who owns Grocery, Bindi, Lolita, etc), these stores are beautiful examples of the kind of commerce that Philly can attract and sustain. The question of why the 1300 block sucks so hard is one that needs to be asked of the stingy property owners and perhaps of the permitting process in the city. Why do owners let their stores go vacant for months at a time? What kind of businesses would do well here? I’m not sure, but I can tell you what’s on my wish list: a juice bar, a soup place, a cafe where I could take magazine contributors to talk about their work, a really good vintage clothing store, a bookstore, one of those places where you can get your teeth whitened, Thai take out, a hardware store, you get the idea.

What Argonne and a lot of Philadelphians seem to forget or not realize is that Philly actually has a terrific environment for small businesses. In my native city of New York, almost every block features some kind of chain store — usually a bank branch, sometimes a Starbucks, other times a chain pharmacy. Philadelphia’s businesses are diverse and independent — something that’s remarkable in 2008. There’s also a ton of amenities in Center City all within a one-block radius of 1300 Walnut—an eye glass place, an art framer, a Mediterranean restaurant, a luggage store, a pharmacy, a deli, a nail salon, etc. In New York you’d be lucky if you could find all this in any neighborhood. These days most blocks have the above-mentioned chains and then only fancy restaurants or boutiques. In my old neighborhood of Ft. Greene Brooklyn there were many expensive conveniences stores and a handful of restaurants — there’s not a decent grocery store and the Atlantic Mall serves up the only source of day-to-day shopping at places like Office Max and Target.

We need to keep Philly independent, and at the same time we need to reinvest in some of the shabby stores and fill vacancies. Mayor Nutter needs to help property owners and business owners work together. A good start would be to follow a program like Commerce Design Montreal, where businesses are encouraged to improve the design character of their establishments. This program has a record of increasing visits to these businesses and the program makes the urban landscape a livelier, more enjoyable experience.

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Diana Lind is the former executive director and editor in chief of Next City.

Tags: philadelphiaurban planningurban designbrooklynmichael nutter

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