Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Renaissance Begins

Today I received an email from a friend - and it was a copy of an article that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Halloween of 1982 - spotlighting the development of 13th/Locust Street ... specifically how the hopes of the neighborhood hung on the soon-to-open Hershey Hotel (now the Doubletree Hotel) at Broad/Locust. The article is a good read, especially for anyone familiar with that area:

Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)
October 31, 1982
By George Anastasia
Inquirer Staff Writer

It has been called the "Barbary Coast" and "The Strip."

It has been a haven for pimps and prostitutes, a mecca for the underside of the city's nightlife, a place where bustout bars and strip joints flourished, where sex and drugs were bartered openly, where violent crime was a common occurrence.

Locust Street from Broad to 12th - just "two decent golf shots from City Hall," says one local businessman - has for years carried the well-earned label as the home of Center City's flesh market.

Now, in certain circles at least, it has begun to take on a new image. Quietly, subtly, but most believe irreversibly, the Locust Street strip has turned a corner.

That corner, to most observers' minds, is Broad and Locust Streets, where the 450-room, $40 million Hershey Philadelphia Hotel is under construction.

The Hershey, nearly everyone agrees, will be a catalyst for change. Over the long haul, they say, there is no way a first-class hotel can exist on the same city block with pimps and prostitutes, go-go girls and late-night discos. This is especially true when the hotel is owned by the Hershey people, makers of chocolate bars and candy kisses, operators of an amusement theme park that oozes charm and is an embodiment of the word wholesome.

Would-be developers and local businesspeople have already begun poring over maps of the neighborhood and charting a course to turn that potential into profit.

"There's an intuitive feeling that something's going to happen," said Ned Mitinger, the Philadephia Redevelopment Authority's project manager for the Washington Square West urban renewal tract, which includes a portion of the strip between 12th and 13th Streets.

But because of the uncertainties surrounding the economy and the stigma still attached to the area, any developer or business investor, Mitinger said cautiously, would "have to have imagination and be a risk taker."

Nine months ago George Dunca took the risk when he opened Il Vagabondo, a swank Italian restaurant, at 1305 Locust St. His business is adjacent to a building at 1301 Locust that houses a go-go bar and three late-night discos, the last vestiges of the old Locust Street strip.

"It was a big risk," said Dunca of his decision to leave a restaurant he was operating in Burlington Township, N.J., and move to 13th and Locust. "But I said to myself, 'Let's see what can be done.' For the first four months it was very bad. . . . I would take a reservation over the phone and I would say we were located just 200 feet from Broad Street on Locust. People would get here and they would say, 'My God, it's 13th and Locust.' "

But Dunca said things have begun to improve. He is beginning to attract the theater and hotel crowd from the other side of Broad Street. And he, like nearly every other businessman in the area, is eagerly awaiting the opening early next year of the Hershey Hotel.

"Ultimately our hotel, by its presence, will put pressure on to change things down the block," said Richard S. Verruni, director of marketing for the Hershey Hotel. "The pressure of new development will create an atmosphere that's not conducive to them conducting business as usual. . . . There's dynamite potential here. This could become the hot spot in Center City."

When that happens, Verruni said, it will make sense - as in dollars and cents - for the block to change.

"Why leave in tenants who pay maybe $300 a month when you can spruce up a business and get $3,000?" he asked.

Marvin Factor understands that logic and is hoping to cash in. He is a partner in the Center City law firm of Factor and McCabe, which has purchased Johnny Dee's restaurant on the southeast corner of 13th and Locust. The firm is renovating the once-notorious hangout into commercial offices.

"We intend to occupy the top two floors," said Factor. The first two floors of the four-story building will be rented as commercial space. Factor said his firm had paid $400,000 for the property and intended to spend an additional $800,000 on renovations, which, he hoped, would be completed by the spring.

"It's a growth area," he said of 13th and Locust.

It is also an area rich in history and turn-of-the-century architecture that has been overshadowed by its seamy image.

Two buildings, 1227 and 1229 Locust, which are part of a string of boarded-up properties in the 1200 block, have been nominated for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, according to Mitinger of the Redevelopment Authority. They are next to vacant structures that once housed the Bag of Nails and the Golden 33 Club, two of the more infamous strip joints that operated on Locust Street.

Those four properties are among nearly a dozen the Redevelopment Authority owns along the 1200 block. For the last 10 years, the Authority has tried, with very limited success, to attract developers who would buy, renovate and restore the buildings.

But that may be changing. An architect and her sociologist husband have agreed with the Authority to renovate and restore six buildings from 1201 to 1211 Locust, Mitinger said. And a doctor plans to restore the brick building at 1200 Locust and convert it to an office.

But despite those seemingly positive signs, Mitinger remains only guardedly optimistic about the future. There are, he said, too many volatile elements involved to begin touting the renaissance at 13th and Locust.

One lingering element is the existence of the All in the Family go-go bar, an after-hours club called Whispers, and two late-night discos called All Night Disco and Disco 13, all in a low-slung, brown cinder block and brick building that dominates the northwest corner of 13th and Locust.

Although police and local businessmen agree that the clubs have not caused any major problems, their mere existence is considered a magnet for an element of the city's nightlife that lends the corner its seedy image.

Police officer Daniel Faulkner was killed at 13th and Locust a little over a year ago, a crime that reinforced the local perception of the corner as a high crime area. Hookers, pimps and drug dealers have worked the area and, more recently, streetwalkers have clashed with members of the city's homosexual community, which has been expanding in the Washington Square West area.

"It's like a salad out there," says Police Inspector John DiBenedetto. ''You have a little bit of everything. . . . But the bars themselves aren't the problem. It's the people who go there."

DiBenedetto, like several other city officials, said he had already seen the signs of change. He believes that in time a renaissance will take place and the strip will recapture the glitter that preceded its demise.

"Back in the 50s there were some real smart nightclubs in that area," he said. "You had the after-theater crowd. But then we got the strip joints and the bustout bars (where women working for the bar would 'work' the patrons for drinks) and things started to go downhill."

Tony Gentile, who manages the go-go bar and two discos on the corner, remembers when 13th and Locust attracted a better clientele. And he, too, thinks the area can come back.

"If this place gets cleaned up, I'm willing to do my part," he said. ''I'll bring back the bands and make these places nice. . . . But the city's gotta do its part. The Redevelopment Authority owns all that property out here. You seen it? It's a disgrace. Some of those buildings been empty for 15 years. What's the city done?"

Another developmental uncertainty for the area, in fact, is a proposal to add 131 low-cost, subsidized housing units to the neighborhood on property now owned by the Authority. The $6.5 million project, which stems from a 1978 court decision, would involve the renovation of 111 apartment units and the construction of 20 new units, many along 13th and 11th Streets near Locust.

The plan is opposed by the Washington West Project Area Committee, and local apartment owners Salvatore Guzzardi and his son Michael. The Guzzardis contend that low-income housing will further stigmatize the area. Redevelopment Authority and City Planning Commission officials, however, support architect Michael Horn's project.

The Guzzardis also are part of a group of local businessmen and investors who say they have a plan to develop most of the remaining Redevelopment Authority property in the 13th and Locust Streets area.

(note: Mike's brother Bob Guzzardi was in the news recently as the former co-owner of 12th Street Gym - he was pressured to sell his part of the gay-friendly gym after word broke that he personally has given tens of thousands of dollars to right-wing republicans, like Rick Santorum)

Michael Guzzardi talks of a high-rise condominium like the swank Academy House being built at 13th and Locust and sees the area borrowing not just an image but also a name from the nearby Hershey Hotel.

"Maybe this should be Hersheytown or Hersheyville, something like that," he said recently.

But Mitinger cautions that the Guzzardis, who own both the Lenox and Chancellor Apartments on 13th Street near Locust, have not gotten past the ''cup of coffee" stage of discussions with the Redevelopment Authority.

Change cannot come too soon for James E. Mooney, director of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, a grand old institution that has stoically withstood the onslaught of urban decay while sharing the 13th and Locust Streets corner for decades with some of the city's seamiest entrepreneurs.

Mooney, society director since 1974, talks at length of crime and squalor in the streets just outside a Philadelphia institution that houses the largest privately supported manuscript collection in the United States.

The steps of the Historical Society, he said, have been used by the streetwalkers to conduct their business on warm spring and summer nights.

Mooney, like many others, hopes the opening of the Hershey and the other development plans and proposals for the area will eventually drive out the less attractive commerce that remains a part of the block.

But for now Mooney continues to conduct a cultural business in the midst of that wasteland. And so, he said last week, the society intends to to build a fence around the ornate pillars and steps that lead to the doors of the museum. There is no other way, he said, to keep the nightlife of 13th and Locust away from one of the city's finest cultural centers

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