Sunday, March 4, 2001
Times are changing - even on South Street
By Nathan Gorenstein
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Years ago, back when hippies were the newest new thing, there was a place
where the rents were cheap and the locals friendly.
It was called South Street. Yes, the South Street that now hosts drunken
and rioting Mardi Gras celebrators.
Then, there were artists, craft stores, freaks and restaurateurs, who,
though lacking deep-pocket backers, created the first Philadelphia
All of which mesmerized then-young baby boomers, which meant crowds and
excitement, which soon lured teenagers and the like from the suburbs and
over the Jersey bridges.
Lots of people who visited used illegal drugs, drank too much, hooked up
with the opposite or same sex. But, as the Vietnam years became the disco
years and then the Reagan era, South Street was no longer the place people
on bus tours went to see hippies. It became a tourist hangout with a
national reputation, Philadelphia's version of some funky French Quarter or
Greenwich Village. It became trs obvious that money could be made on South
Street. And not just by art galleries and restaurants.
Money meant corporations.
As the years passed, South Street ended up with a McDonalds, a KFC, a Wawa,
a Gap, a Tower Records, a Foot Locker, a Radio Shack, an Eckerds and a
Bains Deli scattered among the more untraditional outlets such as
Zipperhead, the South Street icon known for crotchless leather underwear
and giant ants crawling up the outside wall.
The hipsters, however, didn't take kindly to the malling of South Street,
so lots of them fled to Old City or Manayunk, and the hardware stores and
drugstores fell victim to aging owners and five-figure monthly rents.
Meanwhile, the now-older baby boomers got tired of making their way through
crowds of young people.
Suddenly South Street had all the conveniences of a mall - even a two-story
Starbucks shop - but with a hint of the illicit: skin-piercing salons,
condom shops, weird clothes and lots of bars.
Lots of bars.
So once they got their cars, or fare for the PATCO High Speed line, and
particularly once they turned 21, it only made sense for young people who
used to hang in malls to hang on South Street.
Soooo . . . you have bars, a grand party on Tuesday called Mardi Gras, too
many young people with too much energy, multiplied by a touch of youthful
No wonder that by Thursday the manager of Fat Tuesday (that would be a bar)
felt compelled to call a news conference and announce: Hey, Mardi Gras is
our Super Bowl. Yeah, we did start serving at 7 a.m., but we had 70
security guards on duty and we kicked out the drunks once they started
going glassy eyed, and so it wasn't us that got that crowd so liquored up
that they started a riot.
And that gave South Street a black eye in the world media. (Though it was
not as bad as it could have been. That earthquake in Seattle got some
Ah, the riot.
It was the second Mardi Gras melee in two years.
This one was worse than the first, embarrassing to Police Commissioner John
F. Timoney and Mayor Street, who surely did not want to have his evening
in Washington watching the President's budget address spoiled, not only by
those drunks, but by those TV helicopters thumping overhead, broadcasting
live shots of punks breaking up stores and pelting police with bottles.
Which prompted lots of people in Philadelphia to ask the question: Which
came first, the bars or the boozers?
Would that life was so simple.
The fact is, the view from South Street veterans is that the whole country
is less civilized. Why, way back, as they recall it, even the hippie girls
kept their tops on in public.
But South Street's attitude has always been that anything goes, even if the
anything has changed over the years.
To today's skin-piercing crowd, South Street's people are more real than
people on Walnut Street. Though, they'll add, it is lucky the police were
there last week, and the city street crews did such a great job cleaning
up. Couldn't even tell there was a riot. Just like after the first riot,
last year. Not that we want another next year.
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