Philadelphia’s Old City is one of the top 12 places for the arts in the country, according to ArtPlaces, a collaboration of national funding foundations and federal agencies tracking and promoting the effects of art activity in urban neighborhoods.
Thirty years ago, Old City was known as a place to avoid at night, rather than a cultural destination. The mostly abandoned post-industrial spaces were large, cheap, and available — which made them attractive to artists.
Its evolution could act as a model for how arts can revitalize a blighted neighborhood.
Rick Snyderman was not among the first wave of artists to discover Old City in the 1970s, but he wasn’t far behind. The co-owner of Snyderman-Works gallery has exhibited and dealt in contemporary art and sculpture since the late 1980s at Cherry Street near Third.
The former international financier says Old City succeeded as an arts district because artists could afford to buy the buildings where they lived and worked.
“This little block of Cherry Street that I’m on, seems unprepossessing. But actually just about everyone on this block lives here and owns their buildings,” said Snyderman in his gallery featuring contemporary painting and sculpture. “So there’s a very stable quality to Old City that isn’t evident just by driving down the street or walking around the neighborhoods.”
Now home to 10 museums, 44 art galleries, at least 100 restaurants, and 160 retailers, Old City is a bona fide success. The Old City District is wooing tech startups to become the next wave of tenants in the neighborhood.
But there is still room for the arts to grow in the fringes of Old City.
“This building is a shell that is a beautiful industrial gem from 1903,” said Nick Stuccio, president of the Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe, as he stood in a 10,000-square-foot box of concrete and steel.
He pointed up to a gigantic steel crane sliding on rails 30 feet overhead.
“This is rated for 20 tons. And we’re right beneath it,” he said. “Pretty cool, huh?”
Striving for a synthesis
The building, a pumping station for the city’s Water Department, was decommissioned in the 1980s. Since then it has sat, unused, at the foot of the Ben Franklin Bridge, at Race Street and Columbus Boulevard. Stuccio is converting this space into a performance venue and restaurant. The $7 million project will include a 250-seat theater, a full bar, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Delaware River.
Stuccio wants to turn Old City’s art experience into a social experience.
“Look at Old City. It’s in two parts, south of Market Street, and to the north,” said Stuccio. “The south part is dense with bars and nightclubs. The north side, a very strict zoning overlay with no new bars or restaurants.
“North side is for the arts, it’s where you go to the Arden Theater, the Painted Bride, an art gallery. And you leave, and you have fun on the south side,” he said. “That’s crazy.”
The new frontier of Old City is the waterfront, separated from the city by I-95. Stuccio is gambling, just like the Arden and the Painted Bride did decades earlier, that people will come if there’s something to see.
The renovation is scheduled to be complete by September, in time for the 2013 Live Arts/Philly Fringe theater festival.