On Fabric Row, Signs Of A Paradigm Shift

 

Paul Brothers Drapery, store from the 1940s | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

“Fabric Row” on South Fourth Street below South Street still has fabric dealers tracing back to the turn-of-the-20th-century, when it was the center of the commercial life of Philadelphia largest Eastern European Jewish immigrant neighborhood. The street swarmed with peddlers, fishmongers, produce men, egg wholesalers and the like, and shoppers representing the neighborhood’s rich polyglot.

In the 1940s Fourth Street became a wholesale fabric center, a status that it’s held on to amidst several upheavals–including an Urban Renewal-inspired attempt to move the industry to Fourth and Spring Garden in the 1960s–since then. Today, some 25 textile related shops survive amidst 95 retail spaces from Bainbridge to Christian, 14 that are vacant.

Unused and underutilized storefronts on Fabric Row | Photo: Joseph G. Brin, 2012

The high number of vacancies is consistent with the poor health of South Street’s retail trade, but with rents lower on Fourth, some new merchants see an opportunity to evolve the street into a branded design district.

“The addition of galleries, design studios, boutiques, pet shops, vintage shops and bicycle shops has only enhanced the street,” says Elena Brennan, owner of Bus Stop shoe boutique and marketing chair of the South Street Headhouse District. “It will continue to do so as more businesses open up. Fourth Street is a gem of a find for anyone who stumbles across it!”

Of course, Brennan doesn’t want it hidden for long. Following the example of other such districts in other cities–from Barcelona to Seattle–a Fourth Street/Fabric Row design district would become a destination all its own. This is a key advantage: Fourth Street already attracts professional designers and DIYers who use it a central marketplace for textiles and supplies.

But taking an existing place fraught with its own history and considerable number of moving parts and turning it into an important source of services, employment, food, commerce, education, and inspiration–a mini-city with an emphasis on the arts and design–will be a challenge. (The folks at the South Street Headhouse District can attest to the difficulty of creating a a branded identity.) Given the many moving parts–from the dozens of building and shop owners to residents to the real estate market–strong local leadership will have to emerge.

Opening at Paradigm Gallery | Photo: Jason Chen

Enter Jason Chen and his partner Sara McCorriston, both recent University of the Arts graduates who are the owners of Paradigm Gallery + Studio, a small, white-walled, track-lit space lined with art in a variety of media (Chen is a photographer, animator, and filmmaker and McCorriston is a fiber and installation artist and a costume designer). The pair have ambition to create a community arts space with shared studios, connect with other merchants, and expand their own space and the idea of what Fourth Street can be: a design district the city hasn’t ever successfully created.

“We’ve spoken to many neighbors about it,” says McCorriston, and it sounds like many people are actually pushing for it in various ways. We all need to join together to make it happen though–there is so much passion. And really no reason not to: the spaces exist, the customers exist, and the first half of the businesses needed to make it happen already exist, but we need to make it worth it for businesses to want to be in this neighborhood.”

“Fabric Row & Paradigm Gallery” | Photo: Joseph G. Brin, 2012

“Fourth Street is definitely evolving,” says Brennan, a Londoner who opened Bus Stop in 2007. “I have seen the street change a lot since I opened over 5 years ago.”

Gary P. Steuer, who runs the City’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, told me that Philadelphia doesn’t yet have a structure for creating official design districts. But rather than discouraging such activity he suggests that the opportunities are wide open.

The Bus Stop shoe boutique sign | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

McCorriston agrees. “I rarely depend too much on things like this evolving organically, there has to be some community action/push for it, especially considering the great number of inactive businesses and vacant storefronts that have extreme potential. It’s absolutely happening on its own, but at this rate, some of the businesses depending upon the district evolving to a more sought out destination may not last the test of time waiting. Many of the available storefronts seem to be requesting a much higher rent than the current condition of the space is worth.”

Still, says Brennan, who has recently expanded her business into a new space, “grants are available for store front improvements, the rents here are very affordable, compared to other neighborhoods such as Old City, Rittenhouse, etc., and the neighbors would embrace a design district.”

Plus, there is the legacy. “That’s one of the reasons that Fourth Street was so enticing to me,” she says. “I love the old with the new, the history of the fabric shops, some of them are over a 100 years old, and the new blood on the street. I see the street to be very diversified. If you walk up and down the street that is so evident. Also, a lot of the establishments support the arts and local artists by hosting 4th Friday events to showcase local art.”

Says McCorriston, “we have the people that own and operate their businesses smiling to say hello as you walk down the street, just happy to have you as a neighbor. I’d love to see that embodied in the name of the district somehow, which I think would also attract the businesses we need.”

 

About the author

Joseph G. Brin is an architect, fine artist and teacher based in Philadelphia. He writes on architecture, design and culture for Metropolis Magazine. Brin has just completed a graphic novel entitled "Capone!" His architecture website can be seen HERE and his writing is featured HERE.

Send a message!



Comments are closed.

Recent Posts
Illegally Built Apartments Point To Another Failure From L&I

Illegally Built Apartments Point To Another Failure From L&I

April 24, 2015  |  Morning Blend

Off-campus Temple apartments raise yet more questions as to the purview of L&I, highlights from the Indego launch, derelict East Falls home being demolished, Japanese culture on display on the Hill, and Postgreen to celebrate at open house for new South Kensington project > more

Photography Exhibition Captures The Spirit Of Kensington's Sacred Places

Photography Exhibition Captures The Spirit Of Kensington’s Sacred Places

April 23, 2015  |  Buzz

Nineteenth century neighborhood churches share the spotlight this Friday in Joseph B. Elliott's photography exhibition, "Preserving the Story: An Event to Celebrate Kensington’s Sacred Places" > more

Toward An Inclusive Revival Of Mayfair’s Frankford Ave

Toward An Inclusive Revival Of Mayfair’s Frankford Ave

April 23, 2015  |  Morning Blend

A bottom-top approach toward a BID, developers to explain their Spruce Hill mixed-use to residents, PHL expansion deal reached with neighbors, and life on Elfreth’s Alley > more

With Council Introducing Gallery Redevelopment Bills, We Examine PREIT's Plan

With Council Introducing Gallery Redevelopment Bills, We Examine PREIT’s Plan

April 23, 2015  |  News

What's the economics behind the outlet mall concept? Will the Gallery remain a public place? Is PREIT offering transformative architecture? Nathaniel Popkin examines the project and files this report > more

Philadelphia’s Blooming Roofs Are Booming

Philadelphia’s Blooming Roofs Are Booming

April 22, 2015  |  Morning Blend

The advantages of green roofing, 52nd Street reaches back to its former vitality, a high-tech bench for Independence Mall, and a look inside Indego’s HQ > more

Getting Wise To Watershed Waste With <em>One Man's Trash</em>

Getting Wise To Watershed Waste With One Man’s Trash

April 22, 2015  |  Vantage

Today is Earth Day and Bradley Maule has a bone to pick with Philadelphia. He just spent 52 weeks picking up our litter in the Wissahickon Valley and his collection isn't pretty. His evocative environmental art installation, One Man's Trash, opens today, April 22nd, at the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center. HC co-editors Michael Bixler and Maule caught up to get into some trash talk. > more