There is an art to cities – in the way they are planned, in the way they are built, in the manner in which they develop both intentionally and organically, in the way they respond to unexpected internal and external forces, in the way they confront and respond to age, in the way in which the residents live their lives in relation to these urban plans, changes and vagaries. Some cities become fine works of art, others do not; some become both, consecutively, alternately, moving forward or backward, often repeatedly so, as the fates, citizenry and city fathers allow. The art-ness of cities is fluid, and can vary from block to block, decade to decade, administration to administration.
It is hard to tell if Philadelphia is a work of art now, on the way up or the way down. For the most part, its central core has seen much construction and advance, and especially impressive and comforting growth of those things that attract tourists, young people and empty nesters: music, theater, museums and galleries, restaurants and shopping. It benefits from the great number of single-family homes and apartments right in the heart of the Center City area and immediate in-city surrounding neighborhoods; it is a place that never has suffered that deadness of a downtown that empties after work hours. There seem to be a lot of bars and bistros feeding off the disposable income or the credit-card debt of hordes of twenty- and thirtysomethings, as well as Boomers and expense-accounters.
It is also a city of staggering poverty, of disturbing and frequent violent crime, of acres of empty lots and decrepit housing in rundown sections out of sight of the more bustling and cosmopolitan center. There is the natural tension where the two worlds of Philadelphia – the poor and the better-off – meet, along borders, in rapidly gentrifying areas, pushing the edge of the inner edge city, where abandoned factories and remarkably cheap housing entice artists and pioneers and the brave, threatening the turf and tax bills of the longtimers. There are also places in the downtown area where that poverty and decline pop up and encamp, as a sort of movable blight, creating surprising and dismaying stage sets in a kind of street-theater conceptual art that lacks aesthetics but instead is deadly serious doings. Market Street is one of those stretches.
As one could safely guess, Market Street – or what has now been labeled as Market East – has been a commercial corridor at least from the time of Philadelphia’s earliest settlers, as their ships docked along the Delaware River shore and unloaded merchandise, which was then distributed on carts and in shops popping up and moving westward from the water, following the spreading population. Within living memory, the seven blocks of Market between 7th Street and City Hall were home to seven department stores, as well as dozens of shops of all sorts. Market was never the fanciest shopping street – parts of Walnut were more high-tone, sections of Locust were oddly exclusive – but it drew customers, and it was a family strolling street, going from Wanamaker’s to Snellenburg’s, Gimbel’s to Lit’s, Howard’s to Robinson’s, and to Strawbridge & Clothier. It was a street of rites of passage and city lore: here is where hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians went to see Santa, where they had their first grown-up restaurant meal, where they would go to the Grand Court at Wanamaker’s and hear the daily pipe-organ concerts and meet at the Eagle. It was more than a shopping street, or a destination – it was the stage set, a place of memories and where one became part of the great continuity that is city life.
Starting around the Sixties, Market Street began to change noticeably. The better stores disappeared, to be filled with t-shirt and sneaker shops, and low-end retail; whole rows of stores were demolished to make way for office buildings and parking garages. Lately a convention hotel has been built, and a landmark high rise has been converted into a hotel, as well. Stores vanished when the idea for an in-town mall came to fruition, and the Gallery – appropriately named, in this discussion about art and the city – like malls everywhere, became a big-box magnet and category killer. There are amenities for tourists and conventioneers, but not many.
And where once there were seven department stores, now there is one. It has gone through three name changes and, as a Macy’s, no longer has any hometown lineage, and except for the organ and eagle, no local DNA. Snellenburg’s died and departed long ago, as did Robinson’s and Howard’s; Gimbel’s has been a street-level parking lot for decades, and the site of dashed developers’ dreams for just as long. Strawbridge’s and Lit’s have been converted into office buildings, with a smattering of retail at ground level.
For one who works in one of those buildings and who exits onto Market Street five days a week when the sun is similarly making its exit, the art of the city is difficult to interpret, and certainly to appreciate. The street surface is filthy, foul odors emanate from a sewer system overtaxed by the flushings of shoulder-to-shoulder multi-story buildings, a deadening darkness pervades the streetscape as shops – those that are not vacant – close early or roll down their metal grates over the windows of their unlighted businesses. It is by no means “Blade Runner” but it is a vista that resonates with several layers of failure and many more layers of tolerance for what should be intolerable.
So much for the set - now for the actors. A walk up Market Street more and more seems like a stroll down a byway in a third-world country, with the lame and beggars lined up, trying to snag some change from passing tourists and dayworkers headed home. These are people in dire shape and straits, and they are not to be ignored; but, not too long ago, there was a campaign by a local group with the poster tag-line, “The more you give change, the more things stay the same,” and that is the philosophy we follow. But we all play our roles: they ask, we politely decline, and that’s that. Some passersby behave as if these people do not exist, not acknowledging their presence. Very few of us actually give, and these are often visitors from other countries. But there is almost a dance of request and rejection, and both sides know their lines and, really, know how the scene will end. Indeed, some of the panhandlers ask for things – a dime for a meal, a quarter for coffee or a bus ticket – that are so patently ridiculous on the face of them that they are bound to lead to the failure that is predetermined even if their “pitch” were better. But there is, in that walk up Market, an element of danger, of some fear, of the possibility of a confrontation or an accusation, and then violence.
Market Street, once a benign place of commerce – not the city’s liveliest, or best, but certainly one of its most solid – has become emblematic of a changing urban “theater,” one we no longer wish to be in the audience of. We all, in the city, put up with too much to get what we think we need. When one no longer gets that, nor gets it in a way that is satisfactory – when one realizes that there is no reason to put up with so much unpleasantness, that one no longer wants to take it anymore, that what we believed to be the city’s placeness is mutated or gone completely – then it is time to say that this city as art is no longer to our taste, and that it’s time to direct our gaze elsewhere.