Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Priced out of the Gayborhood

With residential high-rises encroaching from each direction, Center City's hottest neighborhood is inarguably the Gayborhood right now, and it's been no stranger to the causalities of development and rising rent. Just last Sunday, the neighborhood's oldest gay bar, Venture Inn, arguably the nation's oldest, served its last stiff cocktail. 

With the exception of Venture, much of the change has been welcome, to varying degrees. Long vacant storefronts have begun to fill out and 13th Street's strip of hoagie shops were replaced with some of the best restaurants in the region. But the gentrification tipping point in this southeast corner of Center City is coming sooner than later, and it's being pushed by the promise of large chains like Target and a mammoth entertainment and residential complex at 12th and Market. 

Both may mean little to the quaint streets of the Gayborhood, at least to the brick-and-mortar, but they are rapidly eroding the cultural balance between the area's newcomers and those who haven't left. What it does mean is rising property value, which may encourage some business owners to cash out and pressure others to relocate. 

The latest hit came to I. Goldberg Army & Navy, which has stood at 13th and Chestnut for almost a century. With PMC Property Group asking for $600,000 a year for the three story retail space, I. Goldberg will be packing up and looking for a nearby location. 

However, of all the changes unfolding from the "Midtown Village" assault on the Gayborhood, I. Goldberg may be unfortunate, but not exactly surprising. My father, who used to take the West Chester train downtown in the 1950s to sift through the militariana in I. Goldberg's basement, recently payed the store a visit only to say "it hasn't changed a bit." 

What's unfortunate is that I. Goldberg, which is a very unique store for Center City, has been regarded by many New Philadelphians and Millennials as just another Shirt Corner, a ruff-n-ready nonsense store that inexplicably survived fifteen years into the 21st Century. And while the comparison is far from true, part of the assumption is I. Goldberg's fault. 

Nostalgia can't sustain itself on the fact that it exists, and with Philadelphia evolving, I. Goldberg needs to do the same. The store's most unique gadgets - the kinds of things you'd expect to find in a surplus shop - are buried in the basement. It's most marketable products - jackets, coats, boots, and outdoor gear - are upstairs. Meanwhile, the main floor is a crowded mess of oversized flannel shirts and Dad Jeans shoveled behind a security guard. Its first impression doesn't exactly sing the same tune as those renting $1500 a month apartments upstairs. 

What's ironic is just how easily they could. They have some great products. But if I was heading back from a few mimosas at Green Eggs on a cold January day and looking for a NorthFace jacket, I'd have no idea that I. Goldberg sold them, unless I stared at chaotic window display for about fifteen minutes. And even then, I'd probably assume they were second-hand. Plus they close at 5:45PM and don't open on Sundays. 

If they scaled back their inventory, right-sized their space, and merchandized their supply properly, they could easily compete with Center City sporting goods stores, and even still manage to offer a few of the unique products that the hipsters covet, like Soviet era military watches. 

Gentrification may be quickly terraforming the Gayborhood, but this loss is on us. 


  1. Your father's memory is a bit off: the classic I Goldberg store was about a block away and had been there so long that you wondered if some of the merchandise in the nooks and corners might not be decades old. They moved from there in 2002. One the last times I went in to the new store was to look for shoes. Goldberg had been the classic alternative shoe source for punks and vegans but the current shoe area was tiny, understocked, and overpriced. When i found an employee to ask if this was all there was they have shrugged in affirmation. It was a sad moment for both of us. As soon as I got back to the office I spent five minutes on Zappos.

    1. Hey Martin, thanks! I'm sure you're right. It had been about 50 years since my dad had been in there.

      I don't think their shoe selection is awful, not for outdoor wear. It's market price and brands like Columbia aren't cheap. BUT, and you're right, they don't stock well because they don't have a lot of sizes. I tried on a pair of boots that were too big and the employee told me I could stuff some tissue in the toe. He didn't know his product or his market, and that's bad. I also asked if they carried Red Wing and he gave me serious attitude.

      But all that goes to my point: they're not being what they can be. They have a great selection of brand name coats and outdoor equipment, priced to compete with Center City's extreme lack of sporting goods stores and suburban chains, but they don't capitalize on it.

  2. They can probably find a large space in another area of the city and perhaps a purge and regrouping will help keep them in business longer. I do shop there and find the 70s-era shopping experience to be quaint. A loss of local flavor in Center City and a loss of "Old Philadelphia" style that so many of us are starting to miss. This city is over 330 years old and its recent growth spurt is healthy. I. Goldberg is priced out, yet a small Japanese housewares shop opens on Walnut and Camac, replacing an empty salon - will it last? who knows, but it's better that new comes in instead of I. Goldberg just shuts and nothing replaces it.