Five years that changed Philly forever

Old City Arts 1975-1980 shows how artists shaped the city of Philadelphia

4 minute read
Members of the original Old City Arts coalition march in 1978. (Photo by John LeFont.)
Members of the original Old City Arts coalition march in 1978. (Photo by John LeFont.)

What was happening on South Street in the 1970s? What does that have to do with First Fridays in Old City today, and nightly crowds of music-, theater-, and concertgoers on Broad Street? A history effort through Philadelphia Dance Projects (PDP), titled Old City Arts 1975-1980, connects the dots and spotlights the artists who set their sights on the future.

About two years ago, PDP, with funding from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, launched its project to document an unusual five-year period in the history of Philly’s arts scene. From approximately 1975 to 1980, Old City Arts (OCA), an amorphous collaboration of individual artists in a variety of fields, created a vibrant and exciting arts scene in what, up until then, had been a decaying industrial neighborhood due for demolition and development.

Creative combustion

PDP’s history project, headed by PDP director Terry Fox (with the help of Jeff Cain, Ishmael Houston-Jones, and a host of other artists from that period) seeks to document that period of time between the decline of South Street as an arts hub in the 1970s and the general renaissance of the arts in Center City in the 1980s.

In the ’70s, a lot of artists had taken up residence in Old City, mostly because of exceedingly cheap rents. At the time, the neighborhood consisted of a lot of run-down or unused warehouses and industrial buildings. At about the same time, South Street was losing some of its luster as a center of the arts, with commercialism rearing its transformative head. So, as often happens with urban artistic trends, certain factors came together—mostly artistic drive, coupled with cheap rents—and a creative combustion occurred.

Enter the Planning Commission

What is not generally known is that, at the same time, Philadelphia’s Planning Commission was eyeing the neighborhood. After a successful transformation in Society Hill, the commission had set its sights on Old City. The plan was to demolish most of the neighborhood and erect more new high-rise residences. According to one artist who lived there at the time, the result would have given the area a “Miami Beach skyline.”

The artists and other residents of the neighborhood wanted none of that. So between 1975 and 1980, these artistic pioneers and mavericks of OCA showed the city that old buildings could be repurposed and that neighborhoods could be revitalized without being demolished.

More than nostalgia

PDP’s history project about this effort was formally unveiled at a public symposium and panel discussion held at WHYY on February 23. In attendance were many of the artists involved in the project, most of whom were residents or creators who participated in the original OCA events.

At first glance, to outside observers, a project like this might seem like little more than an exercise in nostalgia. And while misty-eyed views of the past were certainly in evidence at the symposium, it’s important to remember the impact OCA had on the region, both in the development of the city’s arts scene and how the city approached neighborhood development.

Philly arts and culture landmarks like the Painted Bride (itself now destined for an uncertain future), the Wilma, and FringeArts owe a lot to OCA. And the preservation of the neighborhood has allowed for the subsequent development of a vibrant art-gallery scene, which Philadelphians enjoy in droves every First Friday. Additionally, Old City has become a hub for fine dining and nightlife. It is doubtful that any of that would have happened if the Planning Commission had gone ahead with its original plans.

Urban pioneers

History often lends valuable insights on how events of today will shake out. This history project helps us see how South Street led to the current incarnation of Old City, and how Old City led to the contemporary Avenue of the Arts. We see that artists are often urban pioneers, and how essential the arts are to the creation and maintenance of vibrant, satisfying, and, yes, lucrative city life.

The Old City Arts 1975-1980 project is ongoing. Eventually its leaders hope to have an archive to house the copious ephemera they’ve collected, as well as a website for those interested in learning more about this unusual period of Philly art history, and how it changed the course of life in our town.

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