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Old City’s arts community finds its way amid a sea of change

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As the neighborhood grows, local art institutions must decide whether to stay put or close up shop

Old City, experiencing a wave of new development, has the most art and design spaces per capita in the city.
Courtesy of Flickr/wyliepoon

When Ruth and Rick Snyderman close their Snyderman-Works Gallery at the end of July, they’ll be leaving behind a very different Old City than the one they knew when they first moved to 303 Cherry Street in the early 1990s.

Except for a smattering of artists who had begun squatting in or renting big spaces in the 1970s at low rates (some as cheap as 40 cents per square foot), the neighborhood was mostly a derelict industrial area and a wholesale kitchen district. According to Rick, “You could roll a bowling ball down 3rd Street without hitting anything.”

Unfazed, the Snyderman’s proceeded to turn the ground floor and basement of their recently purchased building into the new home for their American crafts-focused gallery. They also turned the upper floor a lofted apartment, their home.

Together with the small band of other arts businesses that had begun flocking to the large spaces and more affordable price tags of Old City addresses, the Snyderman’s promoted their new neighborhood and initiated programs such as First Fridays, transforming a hodgepodge mix of visual artists, performers, and designers into a veritable arts and design district.

Fast forward 25 years, and Old City—Philadelphia’s city center for its earliest two centuries—is a different place. “We have the most art and design spaces per capita of anywhere else in the city,” says Job Itzkowitz, executive director of Old City District. And it has plenty more residents than the 80 listed in the 1970 U.S. Census.

303 Cherry Street from 1965 to today.
Photo by © Jeff Fadellin

The district’s current population of 3,500 (going on 5,000, Itzkowitz adds) expects more than the subpar living conditions willingly accepted by the artists who first moved to Old City. To cater to these demands, the area is experiencing a wave of new development. The recently completed Bridge at 205 Race Street, an 18-story mixed use building with 146 apartments, is expected to begin occupancy this summer. Meanwhile, construction has begun on The National at 130 N. 2nd Street, which will add 192 residential units next door to Elfreth’s Alley.

But what will this mean for the established artists, who once moved to Old City looking for big spaces on the cheap?

For some longstanding residents, such as The Clay Studio, it will mean moving to more affordable quarters. The ceramic arts-focused nonprofit was born in Old City back in 1974, founded by artist Ken Vavrek and four of his students from Moore College of Art & Design. They initially met on the third floor of Vavrek’s rowhome near Cherry and Orianna Streets, but quickly outgrew the space and moved four times before ending up with a 30-year rental lease with generous terms at 139 N. 2nd Street.

Their landlord, Harry Caplan, owned many nearby properties (including The National) and was dubbed “the mayor of 2nd Street,” says Christopher Taylor, president of The Clay Studio. “I think [Caplan’s] genius was, ‘Look, if I can get a group in here to improve this clunky property and give them a low enough rate to invest their cash into the building and bring human beings around, then all the property values will go up and all the activity will rise’.”

The Clay Studio may have done too good of a job. Their lease expires in January 2019, and with the increased property values in the area, they can’t afford to stay. The 2016 average rent per square foot in Old City was listed at $24.07, among the priciest in the city.

Snyderman Works-Gallery will be turned into an interior design studio.
Photo by © Jeff Fadellin

Artists and galleries go where property is affordable, moving to Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and Kensington (including The Clay Studio, which will be building a new home for itself at 1425 N. American Street). And some of the older galleries that came to Old City early on—such as Snyderman-Works Gallery and Rosenfeld Gallery—are closing altogether as their owners retire.

In order to maintain the artistic focus of the neighborhood, Itzkowitz has spoken with commercial brokers to try to recruit large, New York-based galleries to open showrooms in Old City.

But overall, the creative community still wants to be in Old City, if it can afford it. Arch Enemy Arts, a contemporary art gallery, opened in Old City in 2012 and its co-founder and director, Patrick Shillenn, is also active as a board member of Old City District.

And 303 Cherry Street, which has been home to Snyderman-Works Gallery for the past 25 years, will soon house the local interior design firm Kelly Mericle Design. “After exploring different neighborhoods in Philly, we chose Old City for a number of reasons,” Mericle says. “We love that Old City has a strong sense of community, and it’s inspiring to be surrounded by like-minded individuals who have a passion for design and the arts.”

Ruth and Rick Snyderman are staying in the neighborhood, too. “In moving out of our building, we didn’t want to look anywhere else but Old City, because it’s really like a little village,” Ruth says. “Many times, when you walk out and just want to go to the mailbox on the corner, it takes a half an hour because you see so many people to talk to, that you enjoy.”