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Sound Effect: How A Music Venue Can Lift a Neighborhood

Music venues can have a tough time earning approval in Philadelphia. There seems to be an unwritten assumption that a venue in your neighborhood means more noise, parking woes (one of Philly's third rails) and rowdy fans. There is decidedly less talk about the good that a venue can do.
Because of that resistance (and space constraints), venues tend to open in out-of-the-way neighborhoods or on commercial corridors in need of a boost. They often take on the roll of urban pioneer. Whether it's neighborhood stalwart Johnny Brenda's in Fishtown, Union Transfer on Spring Garden or the upcoming Boot & Saddle in South Philadelphia, these places can often be the first sign that a neighborhood is evolving.
Won't You Be My Neighbor?
Nine years ago, when Johnny Brenda's re-opened under new ownership at the corner of Front and Girard, Fishtown was still on the cusp of rapid-scale development. While renovating the space, co-owners William Reed and Paul Kimport (who also own Northern Liberties favorite Standard Tap) saw that there was potential for a small-scale music venue upstairs. Of course, realizing that opportunity was not as simple as installing a PA and tossing open the doors.
Fishtown has long been notorious for its complicated zoning process and outspoken neighbors. "There's a quite a bit of bureaucracy and layers of stuff you have to go through, applying for special assembly permits," explains Reed.

"[The reaction] was both highly positive and highly negative, split along familiar lines of the old guard being very negative about the idea of having live music. All they thought about were the worst of the clubs that were open on Delaware Avenue. Those were legitimate complaints against those clubs, but they didn't seem to be able to conceive of live music as a positive thing for the neighborhood, or for anybody (laughs)."

Reed and Kimport hoped that their track record at Standard Tap would help win over the skeptics. In addition, they both owned homes nearby and were intimately involved with the day-to-day operation of their businesses. "We showed that a tavern can be more than just selling the cheapest beer to the largest number of drunk people," says Reed. "It can be sort of an unofficial living room for the neighborhood—it can really bring people together. And I feel the same way about live music."

But they continued to face vocal resistance. "For me, if you don't want the bad stuff, you have to say yes to some of the good stuff," says Reed. "There are appropriate places in the city to have live music venues. It bugs me at times that the 'no' voices seem to be listened to more than support. If one person stridently opposes a project, that can carry more weight than a whole neighborhood being generally in support."
Six years after opening the upstairs venue, Johnny Brenda is a neighborhood anchor and one of the best places in town to catch a show. Their presence was certainly one of the first steps towards the revitalization of Girard Avenue. And there's a good chance that many recent Fishtown transplants probably first visited the neighborhood to see a band or grab a bite downstairs at JB's. 
New Kid on the Block
The largest local venue to open in recent memory is Union Transfer, a joint venture of R5 Productions, Four Corners Management and The Bowery Presents, a New York-based promotion company. Taking over the old Spaghetti Warehouse building at 11th and Spring Garden, the refurbished space sits at the nexus of a few neighborhoods -- there is West Poplar to the north, the area-to-be-named-later (is it Callowhill? the Loft District? Eraserhood?) to the south and the nearby Broad Street corridor. As Sean Agnew of R5, the city's top indie music booker, jokes, "There always seems to be real estate slang to make an area seem 'cooler' (a.k.a. more expensive) than it already is. I just tell folks it's in Center City or near Chinatown." 

The post-industrial neighborhood has long been a haven for large music venues -- Electric Factory and Starlight Ballroom are tucked in among the low-slung buildings -- but the area also has a growing residential population. The Union Transfer team worked extensively with the local community to make sure they would be a good neighbor. "You have to respect the character of a neighborhood," says Four Corners' Avram Hornik. "It's why you want to be in that neighborhood in the first place."

Hornik and Agnew had experienced disappointment before: Their effort to rehab the Jumbo Theater in Fishtown (at Front and Girard) was a failure, due in large part to resistance from the local community. So, instead of becoming a large restaurant and music venue, that century-old architectural gem was fitted with a new facade and became a dollar store.
The team at Johnny Brenda's were never able to iron out a written operations agreement with their opponents (they eventually earned zoning approval without it), but Union Transfer's management has signed a "Community Benefits Agreement."  

"We had very good dialogues with the West Poplar Neighborhood Advisory Committee and the Callowhill Neighborhood Association," says Hornik. "We outlined the responsibilities we're going to take as operators and kind of addressed their concerns in a proactive way. I think we ended up in a much better spot than if we had never gone through that process."
As the city invests in the Spring Garden corridor -- greening efforts and bike lanes are two examples -- Union Transfer hopes to become an integral part of the neighborhood's fabric. They maintain regular meetings with the community, and have joined the nascent Neighborhood Business Association. "[The space] brings foot traffic," says Agnew. "Generally people coming to the venues will eat and drink before and after the show which is good for local businesses, which in turn helps the neighborhood." 
After less than a year in business, Union Transfer is already a boon to local bars, in particular Prohibition Taproom a gem of a gastropub on 13th Street just south of Spring Garden. "It's been a blessing from the gate," says Chris Moorev, part of the management team at Prohibition and its sister establishment, Cafe Lift. "We were kind of the first set of people that came into this neighborhood and tried to do something -- lit up the street with signs and things like that. So to see a big venue come in and be used appropriately, it kind of makes our jobs easier." Prohibition often runs local ads in conjunction with upcoming Union Transfer shows and their general manager is in constant contact with the box office about ticket sales so they can anticipate the inevitable uptick in business.
Bringing Music to Broad Street
Hornik has recently set his sights on another commercial corridor in need of a little boost. The Boot & Saddle, an erstwhile country-western club on South Broad at Ellsworth, has been vacant since the owner passed away a decade ago. Its iconic sign has fallen into disrepair, but it still beckoned Hornik and his Four Corners Development team. "Boot & Saddle is a treasure," he explains. "It's a time capsule in there. Everything in there is perfectly preserved—the tin ceiling, the stage, the original bar, hardwood floors. It's just a gorgeous space." 

He was not surprised when they experience some push-back from neighborhood groups. "It's hard," says Hornik.

"There's no way for a neighborhood to know, when a liquor license placard goes up, what kind of effect that use will have on their neighborhood. We very carefully choose commercial corridors for uses that are appropriate. South Broad is a very commercial area, but off Broad are residences. We would never put a small (we're talking about 100-person) live music venue, restaurant and bar in the middle of a residential block.... We want to be part of the neighborhood. To do that, it's a matter of a dialogue and working out a compromise."

That compromise was recently reached: On April 25 the new Boot & Saddle earned zoning approval. Agreements reached include soundproofing and a 12:30 a.m. curfew for live music (which will be booked by R5, Hornik's partner in Union Transfer.)

Hornik has learned a lot from his recent efforts opening music venues in Philadelphia. "Development is not monolithic," he explains. "A young professional who bought their house three years ago might have a different view of what's positive for the neighborhood than someone who's lived in their home for three generations. It's really about balancing those interests. I think for Philadelphia—in terms of development, attracting young people and keeping the city vibrant—live music is the way to go. I think Philadelphia has tremendous potential to be a live music mecca on the East Coast, with the right push."

Boot & Saddle hopes to open in early 2013.

LEE STABERT is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. Send feedback here.


Union Transfer

Sean Agnew of R5 Productions

Union Transfer

The Boot and Saddle - Broad Street

Will Reed - Johnny Brenda's

Johnny Brenda's

Johnny Brenda's


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