| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter RSS Feed


Filling the Void: Could a huge central lot go from eyesore to arts market?

Could this be the site of our next gem?

The empty lot at Broad and Washington

Could this be the site of our next gem?

The long-empty corner of Broad and Washington

It's a chilly December morning near the south side of Passyunk Square, in one of those supremely cool little coffee shops with plenty of vegan options and a dog or two among the artfully coiffed patrons. Local creative director Elisabeth Garson sits down on a rickety wooden chair, and fills Flying Kite in on her big idea for one of South Philly's biggest eyesores. 

"To us that live here…we don't even see it," says the Upper Darby native and longtime South Philly resident, referencing the barren 4.5 acre lot on the northeast corner of Broad and Washington. "It's been here so long and vacant for so long, it's literally like your eye doesn't even notice it." Many Philadelphians simply know it as "the old Cirque du Soleil lot" from the famous troupe's past visits.

But one day, after walking blindly past the site for six or seven years, that changes. "I noticed it," she recalls. A veteran of nearby Capitolo Playground's flea market fundraisers, Garson had an idea. What if she could bring several hundred creative vendors to the site in a seasonal weekend extravaganza to rejuvenate the long-dead space?

The vision for the Philadelphia Arts Market was born.

A freelance writer, designer and branding maven, Garson enjoys going to flea markets, but often doesn't find what she's looking for. 

"Everybody is doing antique markets, which I can't stand," she explains. "It's expensive tables, and it's expensive stuff. I like the good old-fashioned flea market" — crammed with interesting things in the average person's price range — "things you can't find anywhere else."

She tested her ideas several years ago at those Capitolo markets, incorporating interactive elements like live performers to create a festive feeing, but her goals never really came to fruition. She hopes this time will be different.

Her multi-faceted plan that would involve 300 to 500 paying vendors manning a Saturday/Sunday flea market from March through September. The proposed arts, culture and commerce mecca would have several components for an interactive, all-ages appeal.

"The Philadelphia Arts Market combines a flea market, a craft fair, a farmers market, recreation programs and free concert performances," the plan reads; something "fresh, fun, new and culture-defining for our city."

That means a venue for artisans from Philadelphia and beyond, plus vintage sellers like those at Philly's popular Punk Rock Flea Market, and everything from an outdoor tattoo parlor to bouncy castles for the kids. A new large-scale farmers' market would offer fruits, veggies, pastries and other treats (there has been interest from people like Farm to City program manager Matt Weiss). There's also a craft beer bar in the works.  

A performance stage is slated for the lot's Washington Avenue side. It would feature free, curated shows from quality local artists, including talent from the Philadelphia School of Rock and institutions like the University of the Arts, just up the street. 

Kids' activities would include face painting and craft stations, while the City of Philadelphia's Parks and Recreation Department could also claim space for things like martial arts or yoga classes with a small admission fee. Meanwhile, a hefty line-up of invited food trucks and a dedicated picnic area would line the lot's east side. 

Garson is working on the financials, and while it's too early to release an official budget, she plans for the bulk of the initiative's funding to come from local and national corporate sponsors who will get premium space for advertising displays -- with the stipulation that they have a creative or interactive approach for the crowd. 

Vendors' fees will also help support the market, with slots available for seasonal or daily rental. The latter would cost from $25 to $50 per day, depending on booth placement and the type of goods for sale. 

Garson knows that one of the biggest challenges will be getting the right to use the land, which is currently owned by New York-based Hudson River Capital. It's hard to figure out how to say, "Hey, can I borrow your huge, million-dollar space?"

Generating a groundswell of community support is part of that effort; a Facebook page and website petition exist for those who want to get involved. The South Broad Street Neighborhood Association, the Newbold Neighbors Association and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society are all supporters. 

Garson has also been networking her way through City Hall, getting the ears of 1st District Councilman Mark Squilla and 2nd District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. 

"The Councilman was supportive of the concept," says Steve Cobb, Johnson's director of legislation. Gauging neighbors' response is crucial to any initiative, and local enthusiasm was evident at meetings the councilman and his staffers attended. "We think it's a great idea to have an arts market on a vacant lot."

"I did a rogue thing, and I posted signs on the lot," says Garson of her latest tactic: a banner hung on the chain link fence, inviting passersby to visit the project's website and sign the petition. 

Her enthusiasm is warranted — awareness of the project has reached as far as the U.S. House of Representatives, where Congressman Bob Brady of Pennsylvania's 1st District has voiced support. Rep. Brady called Garson's project an "advantageous" move for the site, and one that could lead to productive long-term development for the stubbornly vacant corner. 

The lot "is owned by an organization that'll probably just sit on it forever," he adds, unless the community takes action. "I'll help her in any way I can. She's got a great program…It's a heck of a lot nicer than having a vacant piece of ground there." 

Knowing that nabbing her dream space is by no means a guarantee, Garson is expanding her options, looking at the smaller lot across the street (on the northwest corner of Broad and Washington), as well as space closer to the waterfront on Columbus and Reed, or Columbus and Oregon.

For Garson, an idea that was originally tied to activating a particular area has become something much bigger. 
"If I can just start it there, it's such a perfect spot [that] I can get the following of people to understand what it is and that it can move," she says.

"I imagine something that would be so cool and so unique to Philadelphia," she finishes, calling the market, which she hopes to launch as early as spring 2014, a "destination point" within the city. "I believe that it would be a funky, interesting thing that Philadelphia right now doesn't have."

ALAINA MABASO, a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist, has landed squarely in what people tell her is the worst possible career of the twenty-first century. So she makes Pennsylvania her classroom, covering everything from business to theater to toad migrations. After her editors go to bed, she blogs at http://alainamabaso.wordpress.com/. Find her on Twitter @AlainaMabaso. 
Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts