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Cornerspotted: The Chestnut Street Transitway

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We had a flurry of correct answers on this one—in part because of some nimble Google-fu on the part of guessers and in part because how could Philadelphians not remember an experiment in urban planning that went so awry? The intersection is Chestnut Street between 12th and 13th, and Alex Feldman is our winner. "I work for a firm that developed Milkboy at 11th and Chestnut so I mostly recognized it from spending a lot of time walking down that block," he writes. "It's amazing the amount of vacancies that exist today compared with when the photo was taken."

And therein lies a tale, of course.

From 1976 till the late ’90s, Chestnut Street between Seventh and 18th streets was closed to traffic except buses and emergency vehicles. The back of the postcard from which our Cornerspotter image was taken described it this way: "Fine shops, flags and benches line this manicured street." That makes it sound like it was La Rambla in Barcelona, a broad passageway where people stroll, take the air, shop, chat with neighbors. And to be sure, there was some of that; there are those who still remember when it was fashionable to take an evening constitutional and see and be seen. Well, for about five minutes.

The inspiration was indeed European. Frank Lewis, writing for City Paper in 1997, talked to famed city planner Ed Bacon about it:

Inspired by the "elephant trains" found in several cities in France, Bacon proposed closing Chestnut to vehicular traffic and turning it over to light, canopy-covered electric cars that would shuttle workers, shoppers and tourists quickly and efficiently from river to river. Needless to say, that's not quite how it worked out. "The idea was adopted," notes Bacon, "but it wasn't really what I had in mind. Nobody really understood [the overall plan for Chestnut], so it got made into something that was not a pedestrian walkway and not a street."

Tthe traffic patterns just didn't work. It's hard to stroll when buses can run you down, and it's hard to bring visitors when a main Center City artery is unavailable to cars. So it wasn't really walkable and it wasn't really drivable. What had once been a corridor of independent businesses simply didn't thrive. Many stores were forced to close and make way for unappealing chains like Gino's (now KFC), which lasted because no one can resist crispy fried chicken.

The idea to ditch the Transitway and bring cars back was seen as a kind of Hail Mary for the street, but Chestnut still suffers, as Lewis said it did in ’97, from "multiple personality disorder." There are significant signs of life now, though—enough to bring boutique retailers like Knit Wit to Chestnut from Walnut on a block that includes DiBruno's, Beans, several clothing boutiques, and Sephora. Whatever takes Daffy's place will be a significant indicator of what the street's identity is going to be.

As for the late Transitway, there was a time when it seemed bold enough to serve as a tourist photo on a postcard.