Last Thursday evening, as new restaurant and music spot Morgan's Pier held its preview opening, a summer wind came blowing in from across the Delaware River. The venue's design touches say a lot about its personality: a steel bike rack that goes on for days, eco-conscious composting services and the use of reclaimed materials such as pallet wood and wire-spool tops. As the breeze rustled through Morgan's handsomely landscaped shrubbery, it seemed to announce a new day for the long, wide strip along Philadelphia's waterfront known as both Delaware Avenue and Columbus Boulevard, an area once infamous for its cheesy mega-nightclubs and techno-music bars.
After all, just down the street, the Live Arts/Fringe Festival will be opening a year-round home for forward-thinking theater. Under longtime producing director Nick Stuccio, Live Arts has agreed to purchase a space that will double as a permanent festival performance hub and bar/restaurant at the old fire hydrant pumping station — unofficially called the "pump house" — at the base of Delaware Avenue across from the new Race Street Pier.
"We're really excited to fill this niche of presenting a robust year-round series of experimental performance presentations," says Stuccio, adding that the citywide aspect of September's annual festivals won't change or be diminished. "This new space of ours is an additive," says Stuccio of the soon-to-be-built 225-seat theater, office space, box office, rehearsal studio and 2,000-square-foot restaurant/bar. "We've demonstrated that there's an audience that wants to see this type of work more than two weeks a year. We're confident in that." Confident enough to have purchased the property from the city. Confident enough to spend an estimated $5 million to renovate the building.
Avant-garde theater. Hip music. Foodie-worthy menus and good beers. This isn't your father's Delaware Avenue — the one predating the fist-pumping Jersey Shore phenomenon, with its notorious mix of mainstream dance music, steroid-sucking boys, gum-popping girls and their wife-beating tank-top fashions. Throw in steel-drum-loving Parrotheads, Zima-swilling white reggae enthusiasts, Macarena-dancing goofs and way too many rum promotions, and you've got the Delaware Avenue of the '90s.
That financially successful scene began officially when KatManDu opened in spring 1991, followed by Rock Lobster (the space that now holds Morgan's Pier) in 1992, and the indoor mega-nightclub Egypt in 1993. There were other Delaware Avenue nighteries such as Aztec, Amazon, the Beach Club, Maui, Planet Rock/The Warehouse and Asylum, among others, clubs that eventually catered to the lowest common denominator as the lounges of Old City grew more popular by the minute.
"Think of that old Delaware Avenue like a shopping mall," says Barry Gutin, the onetime co-operator of Egypt and now an owner of GuestCounts Enterprises (Cuba Libre, 32 Degrees, Square Peg) with Larry Cohen, Egypt's original partner. "There was no manager or quality controller when things went off the rails and certain clubs started to fail. There was no one to shut something down when it had to cater to the wrong crowds with cheaper promotions."
Sadly, Delaware Avenue's list of infamous clubs also includes Club Heat, the Pier 34 space that collapsed on May 18, 2000, causing three deaths and dozens of injuries to club patrons, and unofficially destroyed the good-time vibe of Delaware Avenue in the same way the murders at Kent State and Altamont abruptly ended the Summer of Love. Since that time, Delaware Avenue has been in limbo, a holding spot for a few leftover — no, make that stale — bars that seem out-of-joint with Philadelphia's now-happening status. But can a few intrepid folks be the first wave in changing that?
Named after construction worker George C. Morgan, who helped build the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and then became the first person to cross it, Morgan's Pier would not have made much sense on the Delaware Avenue of the 1990s. It'll feature live and DJ music from the booking stables of R5 Productions' Sean Agnew and Making Time's Dave Pianka, both partners in the Morgan's operation. There's a wide beer garden, local craft beers, a gourmet-picnic menu created by David Katz of Mémé fame and green design elements from Groundswell Design Group, which created the look for Talula's Garden.
"We make places that are comfortable and relaxed," says Avram Hornik. His Four Corners Management (FCM) team is responsible for Drinker's Pubs across the city, the large live-music room Union Transfer, and recent acquisitions such as Ortlieb's Lounge in Northern Liberties and the under-construction Boot & Saddle on South Broad Street. Says FCM partner Mark Fichera, "I think we know what people like by this point."
Not surprisingly, the tenants of the new Delaware Avenue would like Philadelphia to forget the old Delaware Avenue, with its sordidness and gunshots. All that is "ancient history," says Hornik emphatically. "Its heyday was 20 years ago. It was a nightclub district then, and we [at FCM] are, by far, not about nightclubs."
Both Hornik and Live Arts' Stuccio talk up the Race Street extension that will connect the riverfront to the rest of Philadelphia as well as a brand of smarter entertainment and food/beverage/biking options that's perfectly au courant for the area's creative class. And they're both quick to credit city and state officials and the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation for forward-thinking planning. "We couldn't have done this 20 years ago," says Hornik. "We've piggybacked on the city's most recent plans of development down here.
"You and I remember the bad things and the cheesier elements of that strip because we're older," laughs Hornik. "It's a new day. The old Delaware Avenue was a generation ago. The kids who are 21 and over now barely have a clue of what was down there."
Sean Agnew never went there. He was too young. "I was certainly aware of it and the perceptions of the types of people that were hanging out down there during its heyday," says Agnew, who, along with Bowery Presents, is responsible for booking national acts for Morgan's 250-person music space as well as for Union Transfer, making sure the events don't compete or conflict with each other. "From the start, everyone here has been very vocal and upfront about providing an experience that's unlike any of the past Delaware Avenue clubs," says Agnew. "It's 2012. I think Philly's ready to have a nice waterfront place that falls outside of the infamous Rock Lobster business model."
But at the beginning of the '90s that model made sense to developers such as Lance Silver and Stuart Harting. "When the real estate market went bust in '89, Silver and Harting, like every other developer, were scrambling to do something," says George Polgar, who, along with Tyler Ward, runs GT Marketing, the firm that aided and abetted those developers in opening KatManDu. "Amazon opened quietly a couple of years before us, seemed cool and didn't look that hard to do, so we made a good opportunity out of a bad situation and opened KatManDu," says Polgar with a laugh. No one else was developing the piers, and for about $1 million, an entrepreneur was able to get in on the ground floor and make a huge, instant hit of a riverfront nightclub. Polgar and Ward not only did the marketing, promotions and front-of-house business such as hiring security and gathering each night's receipts for KatManDu; they also did the talent booking with a then-ambitious slate of reggae and world-music shows and DJ bookings.
"We pushed DJ culture and the live world-music thing and made them palatable to mainstream tastes," says Ward. "Multiracial couples and kids were comfortable there — everybody was. We served the suits at happy hour, the adults at 8, and by 10 their kids were there to party," says Polgar. "That all made us look hipper than we actually were."
It was all in the timing. In the '90s, Delaware Avenue was like the Wild West, and marketers like Ward and Polgar at KatManDu and the guys of Egypt were the first successful settlers.
" At the time, there were very few true nightclubs on the waterfront," says Larry Cohen, who, with partner Joe Grasso, took over a former sports bar at the corner of Delaware and Spring Garden. "Seasonal outdoor nightlife was growing in popularity, but there was nothing year-round."
Cohen and Grasso, eventually along with Gutin, ran Egypt as a premiere nightclub, evidenced by what Gutin says was a Philly first — the bold move of charging a $10 cover for entry. "I don't know if we get the credit or the blame, but it was pretty impressive nonetheless," laughs Gutin.
The clubs along Delaware Avenue during the '90s were successful due to synergy and proximity, not unlike Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Easy parking was available. If you were ambitious and semi-sober, you could walk from club to club and sample each venue's wares. "That made the clubs stronger as a whole than they were individually," notes Gutin. "Like a shopping mall."
But unlike a mall, there was no manager to fix things when the good times ceased and the big money stopped rolling in by the late '90s. Gutin points out that when weaker links in the Delaware Avenue chain couldn't stick to their original business plans with their intended clientele, they devolved, catering to problematic crowds with cheap promotions. As Delaware Avenue became a less-desirable place to hang, most of the people who ran the original hot spots left the block, as did Gutin and Cohen. Clubs closed and re-opened as lesser versions of themselves. Hooters — the laughably offensive house of cheap brews and ample breasts — showed up. "High check averages went down, and each club on the strip became too much the same as the other," says Polgar. "When [the] ... pier tragedy occurred — that was the last straw."
This stretch of Desolation Boulevard wasn't the sort of place that Avram Hornik and Mark Fichera wanted to work on. They weren't club guys. They were coffee-klatch operators who became neighborhood cocktail shillers almost overnight when Old City became a burgeoning go-to location in the mid-'90s.
Hornik and Fichera opened North Third Street's Quarry Street Café in 1994, Custom House Café in 1996, the still-running Lucy's Hat Shop on Market Street near Third in 1998, SoMa Lounge on South Third in 2001, and the ever-popular Tom Drinker's Tavern at 124 Market in 2002. They moved their offices to Rittenhouse and took over the nearby Bar Noir and built Loie. As Kensington and Fishtown expanded and gentrified, Hornik and Fichera began sniffing around up north, eventually settling on the old Spaghetti Warehouse on Spring Garden.
"When I began playing guitar again six years ago, I started going to more shows in New York City and finding out that there were so many great bands that wouldn't play Philly because we didn't have the proper-sized rooms to accommodate them," says Fichera. First FCM built the industrial Union Transfer in partnership with Sean Agnew's R5 and Bowery Presents, then set their sights on the more intimate Ortlieb's Lounge.
No sooner had FCM bought Ortlieb's then they got a call from Brandywine Realtors about looking at a property on Delaware Avenue. It wasn't something Hornik would have ever considered — the strip being what it once was. But all areas have a history. Even the nouveau-riche Washington Square used to be a graveyard. "We made the mistake of taking a look at the old Rock Lobster space, and became immediately enthralled," says Hornik, citing the impressive view of the sky, the bridge and the water as one singular vista. He was sold.
So was Nick Stuccio, who like Hornik, was once a part of the Old City renaissance. His Fringe Festival started in 1997 and used Old City exclusively for its offices and makeshift performances. After his group raises another $400,000 to start construction, which should take about seven months, the new Live Arts home will be a big industrial beauty with no support columns to get in the way of sightlines for the black-box theater. "We're also able to use Old Race Street, which is adjacent to the building, as outdoor public space," notes Stuccio.
The Live Arts/Fringe Fest folk have ventured to the waterfront before. Oddly enough, the first time was at the now-shuttered Egypt for 2010's late-night Festival Bar and cabaret setting.
"'Oh no' was what I first thought when we got to Egypt," says Fergus Carey, the owner of Fergie's, who has long donated his services to the Fringe/Live Arts' ramshackle vision of a post-show saloon. "The first time we did it on Willow Street, it was in an empty warehouse with me and two unemployed pals of mine pouring beers from a jockey box on a makeshift bar with a kids' swimming pool full of ice with kegs in it," Carey says in one breath. "It was fun, and I made myself un-fireable by giving them all the money." Carey jokes that this is why he continued to run their Festival Bar up through that Egypt era. "It was a strange time there. I kept thinking that I didn't want to be down there with all those motorcycles popping wheelies and those goofy makeshift gangs — until we did it and was pretty great." Now as a consultant to the new Live Arts space's beverage setup, Carey chuckles over the upcoming venture: "Mixing food and drink with theater is complicated. It might be that one feeds the other. But it'll be a far cry from a kiddies' pool full of ice, I can tell you that."
Stuccio always wanted a permanent home for his organization's cultural activities. "It was part of the plan from the start and increasingly necessary throughout our time," says Stuccio. "The idea of being nomadic every year became unsustainable — it wasn't reconciling with our desire to grow and serve the public in a broader way."
Like Hornik, Stuccio was struck first by the beauty of the riverfront location. "Walk out onto Race Street Pier — to the end where you can stand out over that body of water — it's absolutely breathtaking, a very powerful and beautiful place to be. ... It's seven-plus miles of raw potential that's there for the next wave of intrepid developers, and we want to be there."
After so many promises about the riverfront from honchos in and out of City Hall, there is now the whiff of a progressive waterfront that caters to Philadelphia's smartest and hippest. Yet George Polgar notes that the old Delaware Avenue didn't start its reign wanting to be the Parrothead/guido/muscle-head nightclub death pit it turned into. "It wasn't necessarily what we wanted," he admits. "If you position Delaware Avenue from the start as a center for the arts and alternative music — and make it more inclusive — then it won't be 'trendy.' It will be sturdy. That's the normal progression of nightlife. But," he adds with a note of caution, "anything can happen."