Broad Strokes

A few years after college, in multiples of 40, I took every fifth grader in the five boroughs to Philadelphia to see Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, men sleeping on grates, Betsy Ross’s House, the Bourse (for lunch), the Mint (the U.S. Mint, not the Franklin Mint, which no longer seems to exist in three-dimensional space), Franklin Court,* and the Franklin Institute.

There was only One Child Left Behind out of thousands. It was the chaperones’ fault. Anyway, he was still there when we went back for him.

Over the three decades since, I’ve dropped in regularly. The Third (now Sixth) City hasn’t become second-nature to me the way that New York, D.C., and Baltimore have, but you might say I feel a brotherly love.

One of my sisters lived there and a cousin still does. That’s enough of a familial connection for me to detest the “With Love, Philadelphia XOXO” advertising (“Con Cariño” in the Spanish version) that for several years has been disfiguring billboards, magazines, and social media.

Visit Philadelphia—also the source of the Uwishunu blog and the slogan “Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay”—is very proud of the so-called love letter campaign, but it seems particularly unsuited to a town with…maybe not style, but taste. A noisy marriage of insincerity with ugliness, it reflects, I would guess, the tourism leadership’s impatience with the undemonstrative civility of the place (under which lurks, just to make things interesting, a certain amount of Mummerania, Balboa-tude, and other native traits).

A product of the to-thine-own-self-be-true school of tourism (my actual school of tourism was the New School for Social Research, as it was then known), I’m not big on reconstructive surgery. Whether you are Queens or Queensland, the less you affect to attract visitors and import to impress them, the better off you are in the long run, economically, socially, and—yes—competitively.

Those of you hanging on to your zip line for dear life, raise one hand (after checking that your harness is secure).

When I considered writing about Broad Street, Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts, as a case history of an operation that was successful though the patient died, I hesitated. Do I know Philadelphia well enough to make this call? (Maybe not.) And by doing so would I be harming a city I care about? (Not much of a worry given that my readership is a small subset of my Facebook friends.)

Then, Googling around, I found something called Liberty City Press, “an independent weekly newspaper distributed by the Philadelphia Multi-Cultural News Network whose members include Philadelphia Sunday Sun, The Philadelphia Gay News, Al Dia, The Jewish Exponent, The Metro Chinese Weekly and The Metro Viet News.”

Here’s an excerpt from a July 15 editorial in Liberty City Press, “Wherefore Art Now Part 1,” with the subhead “Black clouds along the Avenue of the Arts”:

The avenue, which runs from Broad to Lombard, hosts the Prince Music Theater, Kimmel Center, Merriam Theatre, Wilma Theater and Suzanne Roberts Theatre. And there can be little doubt that [former mayor and later governor Ed] Rendell’s vision transformed South Broad Street, perhaps not into the Great White Way of Philly, but into a catalyst for residential development in center city. The question now is whether the Avenue of the Arts is sustainable. Recent signs of trouble among the art institutions that anchor it make this question one city leaders need to address sooner rather than later.

We are not talking about the 900-pound gorillas on the avenue — the Kimmel Center and its tenant, the Philadelphia Orchestra. They are to the Philadelphia art scene what the school district has become to our education scene: unsustainable economic models perennially in need of greater public largesse. They have become too big too [sic] fail.

No, we are talking about the small theaters that transformed South Broad from the Academy of Music to, well, an Avenue of the Arts: one at the northern end, the Prince Music Theater, the other at the southern tip, the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.

(Part 2, published July 22, has the subhead “History Museums Sucking Wind on Independence Mall.” You think I’m provocative?)

To put the situation in the terms of last week’s post, “Edited Bunker in New Haven,” since 1993, when the nonprofit Avenue of the Arts, Inc., was created, several of Philadelphia’s cultural attractions have been extracted from their former neural pathways and transplanted to one—South Broad Street—that, despite a major upgrade, seems too weak at present to support them in their enlarged state.

Remember symbiosis? The plan, I’m sure, was (a) for the cultural organizations to benefit the Avenue by occupying existing buildings or building new ones on designated sites to which their current audiences would now be drawn, (b) for the Avenue to benefit the cultural organizations by raising their profiles and putting each near others with similar current and target audiences, and (c) for all to benefit from the economic activity generated as their audiences expand and “Live. Learn. Work. Shop. Play. Explore.”

It’s one thing, and by no means a sure thing, for a cultural organization to follow its dream (sometimes it’s the dream of a deep-pocketed board member). Examples of death by overreach are easy to point to in my own Baltimore backyard: the City Life Museums (d. 1997), Opera Vivente (d. 2011), the Contemporary Museum (d. 2012, reb. 2013).

(It usually takes much more than overreach to bring down a major institution such as, recently, New York City Opera, San Jose Rep, and the Corcoran.)

But what if an institution is the victim not of its own ambition, but of the ambition of a city’s political, corporate, and philanthropic leaders? In Baltimore, two nonprofit theater companies have recently relocated and expanded their operations to serve as cultural components of economic development plans.

Everyman Theatre went from 170 seats in an Off-Broadway-type space in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District on North Charles Street (just north of Mount Vernon—see “Table at the Stable,” two posts ago) to 250 seats in a long-vacant 1910 vaudeville-burlesque-movie theatre and sometime parking garage in the Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District west of downtown. (Nice how they didn’t have to replace the E on the façade, which originally stood for Empire. And smart to increase the seating by half instead of tenfold.)

On September 20, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, formerly based a dozen miles from Baltimore in Ellicott City, will hold a grand opening gala in its new downtown home, the 1885 Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Company, most recently a nightclub. (From a Baltimore Sun article on the Velvet Rope club: In February of last year [2010], some 300 people tried to storm inside after a promoter oversold a Yo Gotti concert, attracting some 50 police officers and a helicopter to control the scene.)

I wish them both the best of luck, but if they do not survive, perhaps they should be considered collateral damage of Baltimore’s—and Maryland’s, in the case of Everyman—destination-building.

Definition review: A destination is place with a name connected to images in the minds of prospective visitors, accessible 24-7, and more than the sum of the attractions—gated experiences—it contains.

Philadelphia is a destination, and within it are others: Rittenhouse Square, Society Hill, South Street, Old City, Northern Liberties (Not For Tourists guide: Northern Liberties might be getting too hip for its own good–and it doesn’t help when people call it “NoLibs.” The post-hip yuppie types are moving in and rents are going up up up. Don’t let that scare you, though–it’s still a great ‘hood.)

But is an avenue of cultural bunkers, University of the Arts buildings, and hotels a destination? Don’t get me wrong. Downtown Philly is looking great these days, much better than most of downtown Baltimore, but I’d rather hang out on Chestnut Street than South Broad.

Most of us wouldn’t butt-surf from one performance to another even right next door on the same day (Tyler Perry at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad, at 3 p.m. on Saturday, October 4, then Brandi Carlile in the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad, at 8). And there aren’t so many simultaneous performances on the Avenue of the Arts that you can decide what to go to when you get there.

(Will TKTS fold up when we’ve all got an Apple Watch and Google Glass? Will physical space become optional, as it is for the Franklin Mint?)

One of Philadelphia’s art museums, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, is on the Avenue of the Arts, but on North Broad, on the other side of City Hall. Rather than go there, let’s plan to head west next week on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway—a bunker line-up every bit the equal of South Broad—for a date with a goddess.

* See post No. 9, “America: It’s Like Britain, Only With Buttons.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s