Saturday, January 21, 2012

Revisting Market East

I was home for Christmas discussing Philadelphia with an uncle from Long Island, who travels to Philadelphia yearly for a convention, staying near Market East. I quickly found myself defending Philadelphia's uniquely local entertainment environment when I realized he was making the point I've been arguing since I first set foot on Market East.

I told him he couldn't judge Philadelphia by the area surrounding the major hotels, that you have to be willing to explore. My knee jerk defense mechanism kicked in when he said he liked Baltimore so much better. After all, talk about a city you have to explore before finding its gems.

Only you can't explore Baltimore on foot. If you're based at Inner Harbor, you have to get into a car and drive across the Badlands to find a truly Baltimorean experience. But that's when I realized, and my uncle validly pointed out, it isn't this native experience that conventioneers and most tourists are looking for. They're looking for what Inner Harbor offers and that is where Baltimore far exceeds Philadelphia.

They don't want the Trading Post or Passyunk Square. Most tourists want to see Independence Hall, a couple museums, and buy a snow globe at a gift shop while dining at a familiar restaurant on their way to an attraction they found in a brochure they picked up in the lobby of their hotel.

Our locally grown restaurants, quirky museums, and obscure historic landmarks do well enough on their own, catering to Philadelphians, suburbanites, and the seasoned tourists accustomed to wandering off the grid. But that leaves a large fraction of our tourism market with nothing to do but hurry past vacant retail spaces, take a few pictures in front of the Liberty Bell, and then retire to their hotel room at 12th and Market wondering why anyone likes Philadelphia.

I'm not sure where this home-grown resistance to commercial progress comes from. Philadelphia is a very proud city, but that same pride keeps visitors from understanding where that pride comes from. When you walk from the Marriott to Independence Hall you're greeted with a vacant mall and a poorly adorned street scape.

It's understandable that our average visitors from Oklahoma might go home questioning our city's historic heritage. While it's true that an illuminated orgy of commerce on Market East wouldn't pay tribute to our city's history, at least not in a conventional sense, it would stimulate the senses and encourage pedestrians to explore. Most tourists will continue to head straight to 5th Street, but they're willing to spend money along the way. And most importantly, a handful will drift north to Chinatown or south to the Gayborhood. This is the experience we want to convey. Unfortunately, because this main thoroughfare offers nothing, no one is going to assume that the side streets do.

While my uncle may be seeking a different source of pride, I want all visitors to be proud of this town. We have enough room to accommodate those looking for the familiar and those looking for something more unique. Market East is a blank canvas dying to offer that.

I want visitors to draw comparisons to Baltimore's Inner Harbor while saying, it's so much bigger, better, and more convenient. I want them to find themselves wandering into our real, local neighborhoods and that starts with a more appealing and convenient Market East fostering foot traffic.

Add to this lively environment the economic benefits of offering the creature comforts to those dying to pay for them and we might find ourselves with the cash to carry this experience to our forlorn Penn's Landing. This diamond in the rough to the locals who use it could be reborn as a destination for tourists and summertime sunbathers who accidentally find themselves there because Market East was so exciting they just didn't want to stop walking.

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