Contributed by Mike Gaines
How to bring vibrancy to South Broad Street below Washington Avenue
In my six years of being a resident of Philadelphia I have noticed a lot of peculiarities that have come to define, for me at least, the unique life that is Philadelphia. If you think about this country’s big cities, each one has its own style – New York is the rich, pompous brother; Portland is the hippie/grungy/hipster sister; Chicago is…Chicago; Miami is the gay, Hispanic half-brother; and Philadelphia, well Philadelphia is just the weird, black sheep of the family no one really likes to talk about.
One of my favorite habits is to walk around the city taking note of the architecture and historical elements of the city, but not the History Channel elements, the ones forgotten about and tucked away behind awnings, placards, and faux-facades. Some of these elements, however, are staring down at us every day, but since people are so immersed in their phones and latest iProduct, no one actually looks up to take notice.
This is seemingly evident on South Broad Street, below Washington Avenue, with its long-dormant neon signs. When one thinks of neon, the first thing that comes to mind is Las Vegas. And while any remaining neon signs in Philly are not relegated simply to South Broad Street, this area presents itself as a grand boulevard of opportunity. The current "Avenue of the Arts" stream of culture and entertainment ends at Washington Avenue, anchored by the four "interesting" columns on the corners, the Marine Club, the car dealership-turned-Rock Ballet School, a vacant lot with half a train shed, and another vacant lot that once hosted Cirque du Soleil when it was in town.
Let’s continue the party down Broad Street! Our first stop is the old Boot & Saddle Bar, located at 1131 S. Broad Street, which according to its sign offered country and western music. It has been closed since about 1995 but many remember it being the only country bar in South Philly. One person even remembered that, “it was really weird. Occasionally, they would just play the National Anthem, seemingly for no reason. If you didn’t stand, you would be asked to leave.” How patriotic! There was a reason for it, though, as a majority of the clientele were sailors from the nearby Navy Yard. At any rate, while the sign itself makes rehabilitation efforts limited, there is still plenty that could be done with the building – it just takes some imagination (and the right amount of money).
Just down from the Boot & Saddle is Philips Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge (with air conditioning!), 1145 S. Broad Street, next to the now-shuttered Broad Street Diner. Philips is situated in a gorgeous brownstone but ceased being a restaurant some time ago. I am not quite sure what is in the rest of the building, but it appears that a cluttered antique shop occupies the first floor of the space. With its long and narrow sign and a canopy that comes down the front steps and extends to the street like a welcoming glove, can you not see limousines pulling up and letting its occupants out for a night cap? They could even demolish the old diner and put in an outdoor garden for its customers on the spot.
Next on our tour is Meglio Furs, 1300 S. Broad Street. Again, another shuttered building with very distinctive features. No one is quite certain when Meglio’s ceased operations, but mannequins and advertisements still grace its graffiti-covered display windows. A furrier itself speaks glamor, so converting this space should be a no-brainer!
While I am sure there were several other neon signs along Broad Street that no longer exist, the last stop on our tour is much further south, ending at the Dolphin Tavern, 1539 S. Broad Street. Unlike the previous examples, this place is still in operation. It is nothing more than a dive bar and a place to shoot pool, but it has been a South Philadelphia institution for quite some time. Like the Boot & Saddle, it catered to the Navy Yard set.
With these four examples, there certainly has to be someone out there clever enough to come up with an entertainment district along South Broad Street, something that evokes the glitz, glamor, and gaudiness of Las Vegas. Now that casinos are allowed in Pennsylvania, isn’t it time for Philly to have its own Little Las Vegas?