BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR THE CITY PAPER Forty years ago, South Street was doomed, left for dead by city planners who had scheduled the street for demolition to make way for a proposed Crosstown Expressway that would connect I-95 to I-76. South Street then was nothing like South Street now — a funky post-hippie/post-punk/post-cool amalgam of shops, bars and fooderies, aka Philly’s Haight-Ashbury, a land-locked asphalt boardwalk where teenagers from across the tri-state area flock to see and be seen (and stage the occasional flash mob).
Back then, South Street was hardly a jewel in the city’s crown; in fact, it wasn’t even considered part of Center City on officially drawn tourist maps. Likewise, the demographics of the street were radically different. South Street’s eastern end was made up of Jewish delis and synagogues, while the western end was dominated by African-American-owned businesses, soul food restaurants and jazz/R&B venues; in the middle was a string of bridal shops. All of these suffered a long, slow decline thanks to the death sentence that had been hanging over the street’s head ever since the Crosstown Expressway was first proposed by city planners in the 1930s. Banks redlined the street and the city refused to issue building permits to property owners foolhardy enough to want to shore up the street’s crumbling infrastructure. As a result, property values plummeted, and many buildings stood empty and boarded up.
Enter a small ragtag volunteer army of artists, hippies and assorted misfits — initially drawn by the edgy repertory theater staged at the Theater of the Living Arts — that took a shine to the street’s über-cheap rents, shockingly low mortgages and the fact that everyone knew this was nowhere. It was a place where like-minded bohemians could establish a safe harbor from the stifling social mores, groupthink mentality and profit-driven motives of polite society.
First came the Zagars — Isaiah and Julia — who set up a shop called Eyes Gallery on Fourth and South to sell the Peruvian folk art they had amassed from a recent stint in the Peace Corps. In South Street’s creation myth, the Zagars would play the role of Adam and Eve in a hippie Eden built atop a blighted urban wasteland, bringing to bear the community-building skills they learned in the Peace Corps. Then came the Snydermans — Rick and Ruth — who opened The Works Gallery, which also specialized in global folk and ethnographic arts and craftwork. With the freak flag firmly planted, more soon followed, drawn by South Street’s burgeoning rep as the place where the ’60s were putting down roots and flowering in Philadelphia, all believing they could change the city’s mind about building the Crosstown Expressway with a mix of grassroots activism, street theater protests and by building a thriving community and proving the street was worth keeping.
Slowly but surely, boarded-up buildings were replaced with thriving coffeehouses, gourmet restaurants and artisan retail shops. In the process, these South Street revivalists would unwittingly sow the seeds of the city’s currently flourishing dining, shopping and nightlife scenes. Meanwhile, a coalition of community activists, pro bono lawyers and sympathetic urban planners banded together to fight City Hall head on. Though it took years, the city eventually relented, the Crosstown Expressway project was killed and, in a textbook example of poetic justice, the federal dollars earmarked for the project were funneled into SEPTA. Last month, this first wave of South Street revivalists, who dubbed themselves the South Street Renaissance, staged a reunion to mark the 40th anniversary of the strip’s rebirth. City Paper took the occasion to interview some of the key players and assemble this first-person oral history. MORE