A forty-year perspective and celebration of South Street East
By Nicole Contosta
Scores of tourists literally mob South Street East every weekend.
Whether it's to eat a cheese steak, relax with a margarita, attend a
musical performance, purchase vintage clothing or other fashionable
threads from its many boutiques, the people who stroll the strip lend
a sense of excitement and vitality that cannot be matched elsewhere
in the city.
Like the goods offered in its retail and dining establishments, the
people who frequent South Street East represent every age group,
economic background, ethnicity and style of dress. From punks, to hip
hop aficionados to artists to musicians, to college students to
sports fans and professionals, the street offers something for everyone.
South Street as the destination for something different, unusual or
even provocative has been so ingrained into the area's regional
consciousness that's it difficult to contemplate the possibility that
had the city planners of the nineteen seventies had their way, the
street as we now know it would not exist. "The street, which was once
a thriving Jewish retail strip, had been doomed for urban renewal and
a cross-town expressway," explains Bill Curry, a former reporter for
the Philadelphia Inquirer and owner of the Copa Banana on Fourth and
With the street slated for destruction, buildings were being sold for
as little as one thousand dollars, while apartments were available
for as little as forty dollars a month. As a result, the area became
flooded with the region's radicals and flower children, as well as
art students from PCA (now the University of the Arts). The
convergence of so many creative minds led to the foundation of venues
catering to the arts and entertainment, as well as groceries with a
health conscious theme. A handful of these, such as the Theater of
Living Arts (TLA) and Essene, still thrive today.
In short, the bohemians who flooded South Street made such a
commitment to its rebirth as a cultural center that "with bulldozers
bearing down in the early seventies, those artists and musicians
planted trees in defiance of the destruction and blocked the
project," Curry explains, going on to add that "They created the
South Street Renaissance that saved the street and arts and
entertainment venues that eventually changed everyone's image of Philadelphia."
This renaissance will be celebrated over the Columbus Day weekend,
October 8th through October 10th, by "reuniting those who lived those
halcyon days." In preparation of the event, a website has been
created with old photos as well as anecdotes, which resonate with
youthful spontaneity, from those who helped rejuvenate the street,
such as Tom Bissenger, the former director of TLA, who went on to
work as a play write in the Playback Theatre with his wife Kim, Julia
Zagar, who owns the Eyes Gallery, Joel Spivak, the street's local
historian and more! To read those stories, go
The celebration will kick off on Friday, at Isaiah Zagar's Magic
Gardens on 10th and South Streets from 5 to 10 p.m., with cocktails
and hors d'œuvres from the street's eateries. The Magic Garden's
Party costs $60 for entrance but "Successful Hippies" will provide
scholarships for those who cannot afford the event. The reunion will
continue on Saturday with Joel Spivak leading a tour of South Street,
and of Zagar's mural's at 2 p.m. (meet at the fountain at 2nd and
Lombard Streets) That will be followed by a schmooze party in the
Copa upstairs from 4 to 10 p.m.
Other highlights of the weekend's festivities include a day- long
celebration at the Painted Bride, 230 Vine Street, from 2 to 5 p.m.
The program is as follows: Original noise and ambient music by
Charles Cohen and Jeff Cain, who have played together since the early
1970s; Terry Fox's screening of the video, South Street Days;
excerpts of Miriam Giguere's Bread Chronicles by the South Street
Dance Company; a performance of Sheila Zagar's, In me a Spirit of
South Street Then and Now; a performance of Brigitta' Herrmann's,
Reminiscent Imprints; and a dance video of Manfred Fishbeck's,
Crossing the Great Stream. For more information: www.paintedbride.org.
For a full schedule of the weekend's events, go to: www.southstreetreunion.com.