BEING THERE: Exile On South Street

South Street, 5:31 pm yesterday, by Dave Brown

PREVIOUSLY: 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. MORE