A different city, then: Looking back at Philadelphia’s transformation for the 2000 RNC as it readies for the DNC

In Republican circles, the “Warehouse Party” is legendary.

During every Republican National Convention (RNC), John Boehner throws a four-day party in a secret location somewhere in the host city. It began in 1996 and continued in 2000 with “The Best Little Warehouse in Philadelphia”—a play on the musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Who would have expected such a racy rager from Boehner, a socially conservative Catholic from Ohio who would later become Speaker of the House?

But, according to Terry Holt, a former Boehner staffer who was the communications director for the Republican National Committee’s Victory 2000 campaign, it was “probably the best party in Philadelphia.”

Besides live music, fine cigars and free-flowing top-shelf liquor, the party’s main draw was it’s edgy, urban setting. “John and some friends wanted to hold a party at the convention, but wanted to take it off-site,” said Holt. “To get a little bit of the grit of the city under their fingernails.” The idea was “to find some place that has a little bit of the city to it,” instead of the monotonous glamour of yet another Ritz-Carlton ballroom. Somewhere “off the beaten path.”

Holt had a little bit of difficulty getting to Philly’s Warehouse Party. “I got in the back of a cab, coming from downtown, and I gave the address, and my cab driver said, ‘You don’t wanna go there.’”

So where was this gritty, remote, dangerous part of town?

Northern Liberties. 

The warehouse is still there. In 2000, it faced a trash-strewn vacant lot, and stood behind a looming pair of underused warehouses. Now that lot is a series of luxury rowhouses, each assessed over $400,000, and those tall warehouses are luxury apartments.

A lot has changed in Philly since it last hosted a national political convention. While the city’s population did not start growing again (after decades of decline) until 2006, the 2000 RNC in many ways set the stage for Philadelphia’s renewal, which began in Center City during Ed Rendell’s time in City Hall and has slowly emanated out to surrounding neighborhoods in the two decades since.

The 2000 RNC was the catalyst for a number of major projects aimed primarily at revitalizing a moribund tourism industry. Perhaps most famously, bulldozing a seedy belt of strip clubs and one-hour motels along the Admiral Wilson Boulevard that served as the city’s gateway  to make way for a park along the Cooper River. New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman spent $45 million on the project, which finished just weeks before the convention.

Other projects promised to be ready for the RNC didn’t quite make it. SEPTA’s Market East Station didn’t have bathrooms before the RNC… and it still didn’t until shortly after the elephants paraded out of town.

Another sprucing up project that only finished after the guests had gone: Independence Visitor Center and the Liberty Bell’s new home. (The National Constitution Center didn’t begin building until after the RNC, opening in 2003.)

The city also hoped it would be able to proudly showcase an ambitious new indoor amusement park that would completely revitalize Market East: DisneyQuest. Instead, RNC delegates and TV crews found the DisneyHole after financing for the doomed project fell through just as its foundation was being dug. In the end, the trench was paved over for a parking lot that sits there today, while construction all around it suggests that, 16 years later, Market East’s renaissance is upon us.

DisneyQuest was a fail—Disney abandoned it completely in 2001, shuttering the only one it built, in Chicago—but probably not as big a failure as an aerial tram over the Delaware River to connect Penn’s Landing and Camden. The first concrete pillar of that project, which Ed Rendell promised to have ready by New Year’s Eve 1999, still stands today at Penn’s Landing, a $17-million hulking memorial to colossally bad ideas.

Pi at Penn's Landing for the unbuilt aerial tram
Pi at Penn’s Landing for the unbuilt aerial tram

Even without a gaudy gondola to gawk at, the GOP visitors had their fair share of waterfront entertainment. The Ben Franklin Bridge’s lights got a $7 million upgrade. On the other side of the river, the Battleship New Jersey arrived at its permanent berth just days before the RNC began. The RNC and various lobbyists held parties at Penn’s Landing, on the Spirit of Philadelphia, and down at the Navy Yard, which was still years away from its rebirth as an urban office park.

Nor was Philadelphia without a recently completed major transportation overhaul: 2000 was the year that Ed Bacon’s grand experiment, the Chestnut Street Transitway, met its demise. For 23 years, Chestnut Street was restricted to just buses and pedestrians in a failed attempt at creating an outdoor shopping district. The rumbling, smoke-belching diesel buses—required to get federal funds to pay for the road’s reconfiguration—made Chestnut Street as dirty and dangerous to pedestrians as any other street, without the benefit of providing a bit of parking. For the RNC, it simply had to go.

So, too, did the burned-out shell of One Meridian Plaza across from City Hall, where three firefighters died trying to contain a 12-alarm blaze in 1991. After two years and $25 million in demolition costs, One Meridian was reduced to a barren lot in 1999. Ten years later, its replacement opened: the Residences at the Ritz-Carlton.

As for the Ritz-Carlton, the hotel itself opened just days before guests arrived for the RNC, still smelling of paint and drywall. In addition to the Ritz, the Sheraton, Loews, Hawthorne Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, Sofitel, and Courtyard by Marriott were all built in Center City in advance of the RNC, adding 1,950 rooms in total.

The RNC was a banner time for banner makers: over 1,000 new flags were unfurled across the city’s streetlight posts. On South Broad Street, those streetlights were brand new, as was the idea to decorate them with the flags of all America’s states and territories to create an “Avenue of the States”. After years of sitting empty, the poles were bedecked with new flags last week.

Compare all of that to today.

In the run up to both, Philadelphia cleaned, painted, planted and primped. In 2000, elephant sculptures dotted the landscape; today, we have 57 painted donkeys. Again, we’ve put out the bunting, and lit everything in red, white and blue. Boathouse Row got a new set of lights in time for the DNC, not unlike the Ben Franklin Bridge’s own light upgrade, but that had more to do with the set installed in 2005 being faulty more than anything else.

Most notably, Philadelphia didn’t make a panicked rush to complete any major projects in the nick of time, and no one has decried the fact that construction continues on I-676 and I-95 or Love Park and the Museum of the American Revolution, or that construction hasn’t even begun on the Rail Park—Philly’s beautiful enough for visitors, even though we’re still very much a work in progress. While construction sites aren’t the most pleasant sight, they are signs of progress and promise: As nice as things may seem today, tomorrow will be brighter.

Unlike 1998, when the RNC chose Philadelphia to host, Philadelphia was already ready when it wooed the DNC here. When Ed Rendell first pitched the idea of hosting one of the conventions in 2000 to a room full of 120 business and political leaders, “They thought he was more than nuts,” Tom Muldoon, then-president of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the Inquirer. “There wasn’t a single person there who thought we would get either one.”

Backs then our waterfronts were lifeless. In the intervening years the Schuylkill River Trail has grown and a plan for the Central Delaware has driven new public spaces and trails. In 2014 we saw the Schuylkill River Trail Boardwalk, Spruce Street Harbor Park and Washington Avenue Pier all open, helping drive Philadelphia’s placement at the top of various lists of places to live and visit.

Spruce Street Harbor Park hammock grove | Matt Stanley, courtesy of DRWC
(Matt Stanley // courtesy of DRWC)

There were only 69 locations in Center City with outdoor cafe seating in 2001, the year the Center City District started counting. As of 2015, there were 412.

In 2000, Philly spent millions on beautification projects, including $3 million on new decorative lights alone. This year: Just $190,000, plus a little more from the DNC itself.

In the ensuing 16 years, E. Passyunk Avenue went from sleepy street to a buzzing culinary hub. Penn students are no longer told to never cross 40th Street, and Drexel is no longer America’s ugliest campus. Our skyline has changed dramatically thanks to additions like the Cira Center and Comcast Tower—and both have sibling buildings on the way. Beer gardens dot the city like sunflowers in a field, and we have a bike-share system to get to them. Our subways run 24/7. These tangible improvements have fed into an intangible sense of a city on the rise.  

Obviously, not everything or everywhere in Philadelphia is better today than in 2000. The laundry list of improvements is all concentrated in the center of town. Too many neighborhoods have only watched renewal from a distance. Our poverty rates rose from 23 percent to nearly 27 percent. Violent crime, while lower, remains unacceptably high. Job growth remains anemic, and while our millennial and immigrant populations surge, the exodus of older residents continues.

And there is one dark cloud that threatens the 2016 DNC the way it rained on the 2000 RNC: Violence. Feverish anti-globalization protests a year earlier in Seattle previewed the violent clashes on Philly’s streets that lead to over 390 arrests and a black-eye for the Philadelphia Police Department, which was harshly criticized for exacerbating the situation with overzealous arrests.

Today’s portends are uglier and more numerous: Baton Rouge, Dallas, Orlando. But the city finds hope in a reformed police department that learned from the RNC, and has received praise in recent years for its diplomatic handling of the protests roiling the nation.

The city has changed, as much psychologically as physically, since 2000. By no doubts, the papal visit last year boosted the city’s confidence going into this camera close up. After all, what’s 50,000 delegates and journalists compared to 800,000 pilgrims?

In 2000, the city approached the RNC with the nervous excitement of a pimple-faced teenager who couldn’t quite believe his pretty date to the prom actually said yes. Philly primped and polished itself as much as it could in a last second madcap dash—renovated spaces, new hotels, fixed lights, new flags, an old battleship, and more—while hands wrung over what couldn’t be fixed up in time, like a Disney-themed attraction, and a dangling tramway over the Delaware.  

Sixteen years later, Philadelphia is now a much cooler, more confident 30-something, who can look back and laugh at its nervous fumbling and frantic freak-outs. Remember when we were super embarrassed about not finishing that gondola over the Delaware? Man, what were we thinking? That thing was dumber than those baggy JNCO jeans we used to wear!

Over the years, Philly’s had more than its fair share of overnight guests: 41 million last year alone. Instead of 2000’s intensive makeover and near nervous panic of last second prep, Philadelphia is getting ready for the 2016 DNC by sprucing up the apartment a bit, hiding some of our unsightly curios, and that’s about it.

Perhaps the difference in our insider tips for visitors between then and now demonstrates this shift best. In 2000, delegates were given packets from the host committee replete with maps, suggestions, and recommendations for navigating our fair city. It’s worth reading the Inquirer’s description of it in full:

One portion of the packet is called Psssssst! It contains “insider tips” for enjoying the city.

It seems Philadelphia 2000 thinks there are at least eight hot “after midnight” spots in town. Two are on the Delaware – Rock Lobster and Dave & Buster’s. Three are in Old City – Continental, the trendy martini bar at Second and Market; Warmdaddy’s, the jazz-blues place on Front Street south of Market, and the Society Hill Hotel’s friendly bar at Third and Chestnut. The others are Zanzibar Blue, the jazz room downstairs in the Bellevue; Egypt, the big nightclub at Front and Spring Garden, and Poly Esters, 1201 Race St., which seeks to resurrect that cultural hiccup known as the ’70s disco scene.

Another “insider tip” is that scenes from the movie Witness were shot in 30th Street Station.

This year, it’s true that some Philadelphians are still recommending Warmdaddy’s, but no one would be caught dead suggesting Dave & Busters. The official DNC 2016 App—yes, technology has also changed a bit—has over a dozen themed lists for food alone, including tours of South Street West, must-try Taquerias in South Philadelphia, and Fishtown.

Fishtown. Remember: in 2000, Northern Liberties was considered no-man’s-land, the site of Boehner’s top-secret party, and now we’re sending delegates to Fishtown for craft beers and vegan treats.

In 2000, Philadelphia scrambled, unsure if we could pull this crazy thing off and impress the 45,000 visitors, plus a nation watching on TV. According to Terry Holt, the Republican operative and repeat RNC-attendee, Philly killed it.

“I think Philadelphia was probably the best convention that we’ve had in the last six or seven since I’ve been involved,” he said.

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