Center City Philadelphia at Christmas: how our city and yours can do it better

Photo by Ronald C. Saari. See more at RonSaari.com.

It’s Christmastime in the city.

U.S. center cities of all shapes and sizes can expect a wave of traffic, from the exurbs, the suburbs, the neighborhoods and outside the region. They come for shopping and sightseeing and, really, the setting that your city will create, with lights, decorations, atmosphere, a tree and cheer.

So, on Christmas Eve, why not figure out how we can do it better.

Center City Philadelphia, downtown Chicago and midtown Manhattan are the densest urban business districts in the United States. So there can’t possibly be better places to take your family, significant other or holiday shopping list. Other cities and towns can learn from where they succeed and where they fail.

Philadelphia, where I live, lags behind the other two. The reason is people.

I have heard Philadelphia described as being either too big for its own good or the biggest small town in the world. One of the more popular urban self-descriptions is being a “city of neighborhoods.” Screw ’em. Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods. So, those neighborhoods create their own identities and celebrations. The circle of power is small, and these other collections will quickly convince you this city of 1.5 million couldn’t have more than 8,000 residents.

Because of these small clusters, there isn’t the same push from within the city to Center City. Families from the Northeast, northwest, south, north and west need to be drawn in. The Center City Business Development Corporation, like any central location for a region or city, needs to be valued as a *thing people – families, couples, friends – do in the holiday season.

Where’s your hub?

Where does a family’s holiday tour through your center city begin? In previous years, this is something Philadelphia struggled to develop.

Today is the end of the debut of the Christmas Village, a collection of small, outdoor shops next to City Hall that has been open daily since the day after Thanksgiving. In this economy, sales were unsurprisingly sparse, but if the German-themed village, which came at no cost to the city, can become an annual event, Philly might have its home.

This summer, word came that a huge grant came through for Center City development, some of which could be used to develop a skating rink next to the city’s municipal services building, across John F. Kennedy Blvd. from the current home of the Christmas Village, on often desolate Dilworth Plaza.

That is the beginning of a hub of holiday visits, which really helps develop that holiday spirit in a city.

What’s there to do?

I am a big believer in giving families something to do for free. They’re bound to spend money anyway, but then they feel like there’s reason for them to come. Families, in turn, give a sense of wholesome safety for other people. The more people, the more eyes on the street – to allude to Jane Jacobs – the safer your center city is.

Philadelphia has a long history of businesses following this model and another turned out this year.

On Thanksgiving Day at 10 a.m., in the lobby of the Comcast Tower, now the tallest building in the city, telecommunications giant Comcast debuted a 15-minute family holiday show. Say what you will about the Philadelphia-based company, but I saw the show, which runs through the end of 2008, and on the lobby’s enormous screen, the display is mesmerizing. What’s more, it’s free, and brings hundreds of families north of JFK, if barely, every hour on the hour. Someone tell me the last time any family has walked north of City Hall, not on the Franklin Parkway, on purpose.

Comcast joins legends of Philadelphia Christmas history.

Understand that in the middle of the 20th century, Philadelphia was the capital of U.S. retail via the new department-store trend and Market East was their proud promenade. While Strawbridge & Clothier, Lit Brothers, Wanamakers have all since shuttered, their famed Christmas displays live on.

Macy’s (admittedly a big New York City flag on Market East showing which city won the title of U.S. retail capital) now displays the Dickens Village of Strawbridge fame and the old holiday light show from Wanamaker’s Grand Court. Now, parts of the Enchanted Colonial Village from Lit Brothers is displayed in the Please Touch Museum.

These are traditions like seeing Santa or having tea at the Bellvue before seeing a performance of the Nutcracker at the Acadamy of Music (the oldest opera house in the country).

On Dec. 17, all of the Avenue of the Arts first launched the lighting of its famous South Broad Street strip – at no cost to the city. If City Hall – the country’s largest municipal building – could become a bit friendlier, like it seemed when lit two years ago, there would be a splendid nexus of holiday fun, my friends.

Of course, the city’s Christmas tree, this year appropriately placed back in the City Hall courtyard (after alternately tried at Love Park, as seen above, and on Dilworth Plaza), still isn’t the display it should be. Either more decorating, more people or otherwise more action needs to happen around it. If Christmas Village can expand and develop, perhaps have portions of it in the courtyard to keep traffic around it.

Conclusions

All the lights in the world won’t create a holiday environment that will bring families and other visitors. People and lights will. Wrangle corporate involvement into offering shows or displays – I’d like to see lots more in Philadelpha, in window displays and shows from every skyscraper in Center City. You should be able to answer what is the center of your city’s holiday environment?

Then, let them come, spend money and watch the entire cycle build on itself.

Merry Christmas.

“Christmas in Philadelphia” produced by Emile D’Amico. Vocals by Jack McDade.

Top photo courtesy of Ronald C. Saari.