Friday, April 19, 2013

History Lost in a New West Market

The Friends of the Boyd brought to light a significant building slated to be demolished as part of the closure of West Market's Porno Palace Row. Unfortunately this strip's notorious reputation caused most people to turn a blind eye to the actual buildings, even the historical community.

As older Philadelphians move out and newer ones move in, many are beginning to forget the dramatic transformation that took place on West Market Street following Broad Street Station's closure. It's easy to look at West Market's skyscrapers and assume it's always been our Central Business District.

In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. Albeit close to our cushy Rittenhouse Square, West Market came to life as a gritty corridor lining the "Chinese Wall" carrying Broad Street Station's passengers in and out of the city. It's truly evolved as much as any part of the city, at one time serving the train station with hotels, followed by a bevy of theaters, and eventually, following the station's demolition, a growing Central Business District.

However that growth has taken more than fifty years. Our city's first modern high rises crowded around City Hall and slowly expanded westward. For much of the second half of the twentieth century, the westernmost part of Center City's West Market was lined with many of the same flop houses and theaters that lined the Chinese Wall.

The ambitious endeavor of branding a new business center peaked when the city allowed for the construction of Liberty Place, followed by several other skyscrapers surpassing William Penn's hat. But after that, the corridor faced the same struggles as many other new city centers. With office space amply accommodated in one central location, the remaining properties struggled with an identity crisis, begging the question, "What do we do after five?"

Only recently have developers taken the chance of attempting to redefine a district that is about as exciting and livable as downtown Los Angeles. Luckily they realized that the density of Philadelphia proved that to be false, and new apartments and condos are springing to life along West Market.

While it's great that the real estate on West Market is becoming more diverse and staying awake after the rush hour ends, the impression many hold of West Market is as a work in progress, with real estate not defining our skyline simply waiting to be replaced by a glass cube. That notion is burdened by the fact that so few Philadephians know the history of this street and why these old buildings exist.

It's hard to say when Philadelphia's West Market "Red Light District" emerged. Many will tell you the 70s simply because the heyday of disco and debauchery is a worthy scapegoat for anything catering to sex and drugs. The truth is it's probably rooted much earlier in the flop houses that lined the Chinese Wall, a gritty blight that kept rent low and real estate undesirable.

The city has hosted many pockets of deviance, West Market Street, the Tenderloin and Chinatown, Franklin Square, and although you can uncover various stories talking to older Philadelphians who remember another Philadelphia, very little is ever documented of these districts in any city. They try to hide from the public eye, and likewise, the public eye simply doesn't want to see them.

Demolishing the Chinese Wall was as much an unofficial crusade on the part of the city to eradicate West Market's sleazy reputation as the construction of the Convention Center and the Market East rail lines. And the best way to make people forget about these less than reputable businesses is to wipe them from the face of the city.

It's no mystery why little history is preserved in these pockets or even documented. What's most unfortunate in these redevelopment efforts is the collateral damage that comes in a blind loss of architectural infrastructure.

The seasoned Philadelphian eye sees 2132 Market Street and sees a porn palace, ignoring the carved friezes that adorn its fa├žade. It will likely meet fate with the wrecking ball, and that isn't necessarily the worst thing that could happen.

West Market is finally coming to life with residents and shoppers creating their own new neighborhood. While these dens of inequity deserve a place in the history of our city, much of that history is in how they find themselves constantly searching for the next little pocket to hide. The real shame is in how we demonize a building because of its tenants, erasing it physically and replacing it with a parking lot simply to quell the anxiety of its neighbors.

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