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Philly Tech Week: Can the creative class enliven commercial corridors?

Philly Tech Week

On Monday, I participated in a Philly Tech Week panel in West Philly, just blocks from our original On the Ground space on Lancaster Avenue. It was appropriate, since the topic of the discussion was how the creative economy can contribute to commercial corridor revitalization.

The short version is: it can, it does, it will. But, more importantly, the take-away from the panel (hosted by the People's Emergency Center, Drexel and Keyspot) was that growth in one area of Philadelphia's swelling small-scale, neighborhood-based, tech-informed economy invariably intersects and improves other sectors in exciting ways.

Among the other panelists were Alex Hillman, co-founder of Indy Hall, the buzzed-about coworking spot that has helped shift the character of North 3rd Street in Old City; Henry Pyatt from the New Kensington CDC, a group that has used small businesses and arts spaces to enliven Frankford Avenue (and the Riverward's other corridors); and Gary Steuer from the city's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, a group trying to manage the development of Philadelphia's creative entrepreneurs from the policy side.

Though the conversation veered a bit from commercial corridor improvements, it focused heavily on the intersection of arts, tech and community. How do they inform each other? And can cross-pollination of resources from different fields make it possible for more people to make a living in non-traditional vocations -- whether that's app development, local journalism or screen printing?

With On the Ground, we see how the confluence of a web-only publication and a physical space can augment both. Yes, communities can be built online and, yes, spaces can become community hubs -- but when you have a digital mouthpiece and communication tool to facilitate those IRL interactions, magic can happen.

This interplay extends to entrepreneurship as well, especially for artists and innovators working in developing or niche fields.

"The digital economy facilitates the creative economy," explained Pyatt. "It's really hard to, let's say, make a particular kind of jewelry, because it's hard to find an audience for that kind of jewelry. But when the world is your audience for that jewelry, you can successfully manufacture a very niche product. We have a company named Adorn [by Sarah Lewis]. Adorn is a little tiny jewelry shop on Frankford Avenue. Because of their ability to market online, they can sell all over the world, which enables them to provide decent-paying jobs to folks in our neighborhood."

That theme came up again and again, whether Hillman was talking about bringing in artists to improve the aesthetics of Indy Hall (while also earning eyes for their work, of course), or Aviva Kapust from the Village of the Arts & Humanity, a youth-oriented community organization, was discussing cultivating the workforce through education and an upcoming incubator. No one sector is an island.

"In Philadelphia, there is this almost seamless interaction and integration between the tech, science, arts and creativity world," said Steuer. "So many of the people in these worlds don't see themselves as being separate. They love Philadelphia because they can collaborate -- it's an advantage in not being Silicon Valley on the tech side and New York on the art side. Being a little bit out of that spotlight provides freedom."

Philly Tech Week runs through April 27; click here to see the upcoming calendar.

LEE STABERT is managing editor of Flying Kite.

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