PHILADELPHIA – A touristy shopping strip is battling the economic crunch by turning over vacant storefronts to artists, hoping the creative community will again breathe new life into a neighborhood it brought back from the brink in the 1970s.
The plan is to establish a "creative incubator" on the South Street corridor by giving artists nearly free rehearsal or work space, they pay utilities but no rent, in a high-traffic area they couldn't otherwise afford — giving their endeavors a wider audience while enlivening a barren building.
More than 200 applications have been submitted from musicians, dancers, artists, graphic designers and photographers vying for roughly a half dozen empty storefronts, mainly along five blocks at the eastern end of the strip.
"Almost all those storefronts were filled a year ago," said Bill Curry, a South Street business owner and an organizer of the project. The sagging economy, along with a yearlong construction project that chased away crowds, provided a one-two punch that flattened many businesses, he said.
The hope is that art galleries, dance studios, design firms and other shoestring endeavors will develop into successful, rent-paying businesses that re-ignite South Street's artistic energy in the process.
The first five storefronts are slated to open by March. No-rent leases will be signed for two months, with month-to-month renewals, and new empty spaces will be found for the artists if their studio finds a paying renter.
"We never imagined we'd have so many takers for the spaces," said Stephen Giannascoli, an agent for one of South Street's property owners. "People are very excited about this."
The initiative, called Arts on South, is the work of property owners, businesses, residents and the neighborhood civic organization.
Although many cities and towns have taken to putting artwork in blank store windows, far fewer offer the space itself as a long-term, rent-free home base.
The western Massachusetts city of Pittsfield has one of the most successful such initiatives. Its 7-year-old Storefront Artist Project brought in a variety of artists to live and work in some two dozen empty storefronts, paying only utilities.
More than half of those original properties are now home to new restaurants, galleries and shops. The project itself has spread beyond its original boundary into new neighborhoods and buildings.
In Philadelphia, the South Street corridor was a thriving business and entertainment district before being largely abandoned amid demolition plans — later halted— for a 1960s proposal for a crosstown expressway that would have buried the neighborhood under an eight-lane highway.
It began developing into a bohemian enclave in the late 1960s as young creative types moved in to take advantage of the cheap real estate, when run-down storefronts could be had for as little as $75 a month. As the counterculture colony took shape, curious tourists and suburbanites soon followed — and spent their money in South Street's then-fledgling stores and restaurants.
By the 1990s, many of the quirky, artist-run stores, cafes and bookshops that lined South Street during its heyday left as rents increased. The national retail chains and fast-food restaurants that took their place are largely where the now-shuttered storefronts now stand.
Curry, whose Copabanana restaurant is among a small number of establishments remaining from South Street's renaissance some four decades ago, believes that returning to its eclectic roots is what South Street needs to succeed.
"I think we're seeing what will be a second renaissance for South Street," he said. "We have a sense of community here, and we're fortunate to have some forward-thinking landlords."