Friday, December 7, 2012

Last Call for Gritty Philly?

As the blogosphere buzzes with the promise of Avenue of the Arts improvements and a revived Gallery at Market East, Philadelphia's most dedicated architecture and development nerds have taken a peculiar interest in a neon clad corner of Center City, a relic of the days of disco and debauchery that mysteriously lingered into the 21st Century.

The Forum Theater's presence at 23rd and Market Street managed to anger its new neighbors in the luxury condos at the Murano, while standing as little more than wallpaper, virtually unseen by tenured Philadelphians in the surrounding neighborhoods and universities.

The Forum Theater before its closure, under the luxury condo building, The Murano

But why is the closure of the Forum Theater relevant? This little porn palace opened in 1975, an era in Philadelphia's history both reviled and beloved for the same reasons. The grit.

If you're not old enough to remember Center City before Liberty Place pointed its middle finger at William Penn, take a look at the opening of Trading Places or the famous jogging scene in Rocky. Neither montage is the product of poor film quality. The 70s and 80s really were that dirty.

The opening sequence from Trading Places shows another Philadelphia.

The reason the Forum's existence blended into the background for lifelong Philadelphians is simply because, relatively recently, adult bookstores and porn theaters occupied prominent real estate. Before a Marriott occupied a block of Market East, a large theater stood in the shadow of City Hall. As recent as the Convention Center's expansion, two adult bookstores managed to find customers on Arch Street. The Full Moon Saloon's sign branded 13th Street next to a swanky wine bar until only a few years ago.

While a number of seedy bathhouses, theaters, and porn shops can still be found in Center City, either in the shadows of narrow streets in the Gayborhood, or as niche boutiques catering to drunk frat guys on a South Street drinking binge, the tide has clearly turned.

While the pre-90s urban economic climate allowed nearly any business model to modestly profit and urban renewal successes have elevated our storefront expectations, the internet is an equally obvious blame for the Forum's closure. But there are other factors at work.

Imagine a remake of Adventures in Babysitting if you want to see how the new urban experience has influenced our larger cities and who that experience caters to. Elizabeth Shue wouldn't find hookers on the streets of Chicago. She'd find families pushing their strollers through Millennium Park and late night shopping on Michigan Avenue.

The new city has spread across the country. It turned Times Square into a family-friendly Mall of America. And, despite Center City Sips and a humble condo boom, the Forum's closure signals its final arrival in Philadelphia.

The Full Moon Saloon was a strip club on 13th Street. The sign remained next to Vintage wine bar until a few years ago. Danny's adult shop still remains, largely as a novelty boutique.

Of course the closure of these businesses hasn't eradicated the market for smut. Porn still accounts for the vast majority of the internet. The new urban experience is simply a farce, home to hypocrites who plead, "Please, think of the children!" on message boards while flirting with old high school boyfriends on Facebook.

It allows self proclaimed liberals to exercise their prejudices under the guise of responsibility, while patting themselves on the back for being tolerant enough to raise their kids in the Gayborhood. It gives the "socially responsible" enormous power over businesses as unsavory as the Forum, but also as benign as local bars.

The fire of urban renewal was sparked by an eccentric crew of diversity. Artists found cheap spaces to work, gay communities created enclaves of acceptance, and a large population saw a canvas of unappreciated architecture and history. Perhaps the only thing that the first wave of urban pioneers had in common was a blind eye to their neighbors' private lives. That's tolerance.

Signatures, a well known strip club at 13th and Locust, is now home to the upscale daycare center, Nest, and Green Eggs Café.

The Forum's closure was not without its own missteps. The owner is allegedly in debt and the property is simply worth too much to much to justify its presence amongst pricey condos and apartments.

But whether of not you would have ever set foot in a place as insidious as the Forum Theater, it's closure - at least in part - is an indication that the real urban pioneers have reluctantly passed the torch to the suburban refugees standing in line outside Green Eggs Café, a Benetton billboard that equates driving a Prius, donning an Obama button, and having one "gay friend" with tolerance an diversity, applauding themselves for revitalizing their community by closing businesses that cater to those that made the city the uniquely gritty and colorful place that it is...or was.

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