Is Philadelphia the Next Great Art & Entertainment City?: The Hits and Misses Amidst Philly's Cultural Ascent

-Joe Pitts (@headtowall

Photo by Taylor Galloway for Cult Classic | Modeled by April Nowacki

Photo by Taylor Galloway for Cult Classic | Modeled by April Nowacki

This summer marks the 10 year anniversary of Jessica Pressler’s 2005 New York Times article on the trend of New Yorkers (Brooklyners mainly) moving to Philadelphia for plenty of reasons, most of them boiling down to straight cash. Today, the average home price in Philadelphia is still 3 times cheaper than in Brooklyn. This longstanding trend has sparked a surge in young creatives coming to Philadelphia to perfect their crafts in a major but affordable city. But does Philadelphia have what is necessary to solidify itself as a great art and entertainment hub?

City flux conversationalists have been asserting Philly as the “sixth borough” for some time now, a moniker supposed to signify the city’s apparent quest for upward mobility in the annals of the media-manufactured American metropolis sparring saga. Maybe one day the birthplace of a nation will be seen as a suitable challenger to those established industry cities, and we can all be assured the match will be broadcasted with the blogosphere’s now streamlined sarcastic sensibility:        

Like mustard on a soft pretzel, Philadelphians would be so lucky to wake up every morning to wry quips about our city disseminated by our Coastal Overlords

Like mustard on a soft pretzel, Philadelphians would be so lucky to wake up every morning to wry quips about our city disseminated by our Coastal Overlords

The media’s gaze is becoming increasingly fixed on Philly; while I was writing this piece, Stereogum dropped a cover story on Philadelphia’s wild music scene, specifically pertaining to its eclectic collection of buzzing rock outfits: “Philadelphia has more exciting young bands in one place than any town in America”, Michael Tedder explains. Additionally, HuffPost hopped on the bandwagon with a whitewashed list of the 21 reasons why the city is the greatest in America right now (note: ‘city’ here means Center City and some other hip pockets; never mind the plethora of economically depressed neighborhoods covering all corners of the city, a major city issue I'll get to). 

So we get it. It’s trendy to talk lovingly about Philly now—the developed, creative hubs, that is. We’ve got the buzz. But if Philadelphia wants to establish a firm reputation as being a great incubator of the arts, progress must continue to be made in pursuit of that vision.  My proposed critical ingredients of the arts and entertainment cocktail involve an environment that: 1) attracts young and innovative creative types, 2) facilitates a burgeoning night life scene and 3) offers amenities for the high-elite as to encourage them to spend time in Philadelphia as a destination city, not merely the stop-over before heading back to the traditional industry havens. 

Pressler’s NY Times article argues Philadelphia satisfies that first requirement, facilitating itself as a new destination for mobile creative types and millennials (call them Yuccies if you're onto that buzzword) for about a decade now:

U.S. Census Bureau data provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts

U.S. Census Bureau data provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts

When I use the loose term “creative types” I mean the young artists and organizers who have been facilitating a vibrant underground culture of art, fashion and music in Philadelphia for years. A few months ago I did an in-depth editorial on one of the many underground art and music events that are becoming increasingly popular in the city. I was also happy to help with Philadelphia artist Dessie Jackson’s debut solo art exhibition Femme-Enfant last October that saw a coming together of the young hip art crowd and the older, more embedded figures in Philly’s creative class.

But Pressler’s Next Borough article closed with an honest critique of the opportunity structures in the city:

But Mr. Lowy, of Portico gallery in SoHo, is skeptical about the long-run chances for young artists: “The quality of life is pretty good but many of those artists probably won’t stay. Can you get an art dealer to come to your studio when you’re in Philly? Sure, you have time to make more art, but there’s no one to buy it.”

For the creatives, artists and musicians trying to make a name for themselves in Philly, the above economic reality still applies today. In terms of money pouring in and opportunities coming to fruition, Philadelphia has yet to have been able to really compete with the big industry cities, but let us consider the recent changing conditions in Philly improving the environment here. A plethora of innovations are currently happening or being developed that are coalescing to facilitate Philadelphia’s pursuit of becoming a contender for America’s next big Art & Entertainment depot. At the risk of this piece dwindling into a spiral of list-lusting click-bait material—I promise to offer at least some attempt at genuine insight—here’s my collection of the positive shifts happening in Philadelphia that are helping improve the city’s reputation as a great creative hub:

 

Transportation

The Broad Street and Market Frankford Lines are now open all night on weekends for good. Photo courtesy of madaboutthemural.wordpress.com

The Broad Street and Market Frankford Lines are now open all night on weekends for good. Photo courtesy of madaboutthemural.wordpress.com

Septa’s new all-night subway service experiment for weekends is now permanent. Though the service is only available on Fridays and Saturdays, ensuring public transportation into the wee hours of the night is critical for growing Philly’s entertainment and nightlife industries. Philadelphia should continue to develop its late-night offerings: expanding the service to weeknights as well as to the regional rail lines would be beneficial for boosting Philly’s late night industries. 

 

Legislation

A Photo from one of the Cult Classic late-night parties. Philly wants to party later than current legislation allows

A Photo from one of the Cult Classic late-night parties. Philly wants to party later than current legislation allows

State legislators are contemplating some serious changes to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s historic Quaker ways. Rep. Jordan Harris wants to allow bars to stay open until 4AM, a full 2 hours more than the current 2AM limit. The move would elevate Philly’s nightlife prowess as well as help legitimize an already lively late-night underground party scene in the city that is currently forced to use unlicensed warehouse venues and art spaces for events. While there is a certain prohibition-era allure to entering a Kensington warehouse through the back at 3AM to continue a night of partying, it would also be nice to have the option of staying in a popping club when that 2:00AM hits. 

Additional efforts to bring Pennsylvania and Philadelphia’s archaic liquor laws into the 21st century by way of privatizing the sale of wine and spirits have been met with fierce union opposition; so it goes. 

 

New Amenities (and the Media-Darling Reputation that Comes with It)

Rendering of the new SLS Lux Hotel & Residencies on Broad Street opening 2017 

Rendering of the new SLS Lux Hotel & Residencies on Broad Street opening 2017 

The amenities Philly has to offer continues to expand as the city ushers in a new wave of fine-dining and hip eateries and high-end anchors like the SLS Lux Hotel  & Residencies coming in 2017. SBE Entertainment Group’s 152-guest-room will tower in at 47 stories tall on Broad St just south of City Hall. The new establishment signifies a growing demand for luxury lodging and dining in Philly and should help attract investors to the city. The media-love continues too: Travel & Leisure recently named Philadelphia the ‘next great food city’ while the New York Times has listed Philly as the #3 place to visit in the entire world. The gaze of our Overlords continues to strengthen.

In addition to being featured on more and more ‘best of lists’, Philadelphia is being gifted with some major new coming attractions including a 2,500 capacity Fillmore venue set to compete with the Electric Factory’s dominance in that crowd-size category. The venue will also include a smaller 500 person venue space as well as dining options and a bowling alley. That’s not it for new Philly attractions; the hip fashion elite should be happy to learn Philly is also the home of the brand new Lapstone & Hammer, a premium sportswear and shoe store, which has secured its status as a pinnacle shop. In other words, the up-scale destination will feature sneaker releases that 99% of all other retail locations won’t have access to including coveted quickstrike releases from Nike and other major brands.

 

Philadelphia's Eclectic Event Landscape

Even Pope is hopping on the Philly bandwagon: he'll be here in October for the World Meeting of Families. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Even Pope is hopping on the Philly bandwagon: he'll be here in October for the World Meeting of Families. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

The highly publicized Democratic National Convention coming to Philadelphia and World  Meeting of the Families with Pope Francis this coming fall should put a heightened focus on everything the city has to offer for tourists and locals alike (not to mention how it’s helping a lot of homeowners and renters make some serious extra cash). In addition to these tent pole one-off cultural happenings in Philly, the city got more good news with the recent announcement that Jay-Z and Budweiser’s annual Made in America is here to stay. The city hosts a collection of amazing underground festivals and events too, including the seminal hardcore punk festival of the world: This is Hardcore.

 

Kings of the Underground

More Cult Classic warehouse shenanigans. Photo by Yinka Soda

More Cult Classic warehouse shenanigans. Photo by Yinka Soda

It’s clear the creative class is here in Philadelphia. Take for example the ridiculous underground dance music, event and party scene. On any given night you can find some warehouse rager kicking things into high gear until the sun comes up. To name just a few collectives pushing the boundaries of underground night life: Making Time, Goodie, Stunt Loco, What Scene? and for a little shameless self-promotion, of course Cult Classic’s very own loft and warehouse parties

It’s clear in Philly people want a unique nightlife experience that is difficult to get anywhere else—that is, save for maybe the institutionalized nightlife playgrounds like Brooklyn, (if you aren’t paying attention, Bushwick is undergoing a Williamsburgian transformation of major proportion) but can Philly compete with these traditional arenas on the grand scale? Specifically, is the money available in Philly to take these growing scenes to the next level? Where are the sponsorships? Where is the blitzed-out front page media coverage? Sure, the city is getting lots of blog love, but what more can be done to shed light on Philly’s amazing underground creative bubbles that are just bursting at the seams right now? There are a few missing ingredients that need to be thrown into the pot if the industry here is to blow wide open. Brace yourself for another (and final) list:

 

Philly Needs More Outspoken Superstars

Iverson's unrivaled charisma during his tenure here cultivated an attractive atmosphere in Philadelphia for fans, tourists and nightlife enthusiasts alike. Image courtesy of slamonline.com

Iverson's unrivaled charisma during his tenure here cultivated an attractive atmosphere in Philadelphia for fans, tourists and nightlife enthusiasts alike. Image courtesy of slamonline.com

When Allen Iverson was here stepping over forgotten faces in the NBA finals, the city had a palpable vibrancy that made people want to come and spend money here. The oft-troubled Sixers star may have had his fair share of controversies, but it’s hard to dismiss the economic impact he had on the city and the general area: when Iverson was here Philadelphia was gifted with its last and only NBA All-Star game since 1976, which of course was the last time another legendary NBA superstar played here: Julius Irving. Looking ahead, there might be a one word reason Toronto is getting the next All-Star game: Drake. 

The problem with modern sports culture in Philadelphia from the perspective of the city’s entertainment industry is that it lacks a major outspoken figure drawing attention here. People want to party with charismatic individuals, and sorry Chip, but getting rid of two of the Eagle’s most opinionated players may have done more harm for the city than good under this entertainment and industry lens. 

 

The Need for Established Industry: What Happened to Philadelphia's Gatekeepers?

The closing of Sigma Sound marked the end of an important music era for Philadelphia. Now who will the new urban contemporary musicians look up to for guidance?

The closing of Sigma Sound marked the end of an important music era for Philadelphia. Now who will the new urban contemporary musicians look up to for guidance?

It is my hope with this piece, if anything, I have illustrated how there are such emerging creative music, art and entertainment here in Philadelphia, but a critical component of any success story in these arenas is an embedded industry of power players that can take talented individuals to the next level. After the decline of State Property and nearby Ruffhouse Records and the closing of Sigma Sound, there’s been a major gap for opportunity at least with respect to contemporary urban music in Philadelphia. I can write about the amazing artists here all I want, but at some point I have to question if the gatekeepers in the city are doing their job properly. This is a call to all the “plugs” to take notice; the last thing a city like Philly needs—which may collectively be on the cusp of something truly great—is a mass exodus of its most talented creative individuals as a result of lack of pure opportunity. 

 

The Importance of Grassroots Vision and Organization

DJ Quite Hype showcasing the new music coming out of Philly for the Serato head office in New York

DJ Quite Hype showcasing the new music coming out of Philly for the Serato head office in New York

If the older generation of industry keyholders are going to be late to the new Philly party, it’s up to the millennial generation of creatives here to organize on their own. Vision here is key. We need faces of this new generation to speak up and share the stories that are not being told; hell, it's the reason we started the Cult Classic brand almost 3 years ago and the Good News blog shortly after that. It's the reason my business partner Anthony Coleman aka Quite Hype starting DJing less than 6 months ago. By taking the music curation duties into our own hands, we are able to share the music at our events and others that reflect this new creative wave. Moreover, new initiatives like REC Philly are dedicated to reconstructing the city’s music industry in a way that is most conducive to success. Organization in this fashion is critical for the future of the new Philadelphia creative class. But as the old adage goes, this effort is going to take a village. Creative minds with similar goals in the city should seek to collaborate and share resources in order to truly elevate the culture to new levels.

 

Divergent Worlds

Image courtesy of usatoday.com

Image courtesy of usatoday.com

A central problem for the future of Philly and its creative convictions is the issue of its massively divergent worlds. Despite Philly's affordability for millennials, according to a new study conducted by researchers Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander, Philadelphia ranks number 8 on a list of the most economically segregated metro areas in the country. Even more troublesome is the fact that the segregation does not only fall on economic lines but also geographic. Simply put, the rich are separating themselves off—or, rather, walling themselves in—geographically and resource-wise from Philly’s poor. This creates homogeneous enclaves preventing the transmission of culture, ideas, creativity and opportunity across different groups of people and populations. Inhibiting these exchanges is no way to elevate the city’s reputation as the next great center for emerging Art & Entertainment. 


Joe Pitts is Editing Manager and writer for the Good News blog and co-owner of the Cult Classic brand