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  • The New Urban Dining RoomSidewalk Cafes in Postindustrial Philadelphia
  • Stephen E. Nepa (bio)

In 1997, Neil Stein learned the wine shop on Rittenhouse Square East was closing. Energized by the success of his restaurant, Striped Bass, the veteran restaurateur imagined for the space a French bistro that would “use the square as an asset.”1 His peers found the space too small to accommodate both a bar and dining room; where would his patrons sit? Unfazed, Stein simply said people would eat outside. This was a radical notion when there were few sidewalk tables in Philadelphia. After Rouge debuted in April 1998, Stein’s gamble paid off. Packed on a daily basis, its black-clad waitstaff pushed through fashionable people mobbing the sidewalk tables, high-line cars cruised by, and pedestrians interacted with those patrons sitting, creating a Felliniesque tableau. Philadelphia Weekly praised Stein’s effort, proclaiming “the people watching is of such high caliber it could provide a distraction from the most mediocre food” and “romance is what Rouge is all about.”2 By offering what Stein defined as “theater on a piazza,” Rouge became the central attraction of (and one of the few sidewalk cafes ever to grace) Rittenhouse Square.3 The following year, the New York Daily News announced Philadelphia’s sidewalk cafe growth reflected its residents’ “falling back in love with their space.”4 Since 1998, nearly 300 sidewalk cafes have appeared in Philadelphia. In block-by-block fashion, these cafes created a new urban dining room, magnetizing neighborhoods from East Passyunk to Northern Liberties and drawing people into a once forbidding postindustrial city.5


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Figure 1.

Sidewalk cafe at South Twentieth and Locust Streets, Rittenhouse Square area (June 2009), photograph by author.

Though not without limitations, Philadelphia’s sidewalk cafes were much more than welcoming spaces in which to dine. This analysis of their origins and recent surge in popularity shows that these cafes emerged as vital components of commerce and civic life in postindustrial Philadelphia. Commercially, they invigorated the local restaurant industry. In a civic capacity, they provided Philadelphians and their visitors a higher degree of cosmopolitanism, a more pronounced feeling of safety, places for gathering, and an appealing way to experience the city. Echoing sociologist Elijah Anderson, Philadelphia’s sidewalk cafes fell under the “cosmopolitan canopy” of busy, yet bounded quasi-public spaces where people could “relax their guard” against urban elements.6 In another sense, the proliferation of sidewalk cafes indicated that for a city long considered provincial and tradition-bound, Philadelphia finally was importing (and embracing) a tenet of European public urban culture. Philadelphia’s sidewalk cafes blossomed in the vertices of political and economic changes, those transformations of the late 1990s that led the city from disaster (real and imagined) to recovery. [End Page 60] Crime rates dropped, jobs were created, tax abatements generated new development, and Center City added nearly twelve thousand new housing units. These improvements led historian Steven Conn to declare in 2006 that, “Philadelphia is now a more exciting, lively, vibrant place than at any time since Jefferson and Franklin were walking the streets.”7

For Conn to classify postindustrial Philadelphia as “vibrant,” he most likely witnessed more than new housing starts and fewer murders; he needed to see people outdoors—interacting and enjoying the city. When measured against waning attendance at parades, the disappearance of “street theater,” and among some scholars a sense that public spaces have vanished from American urban landscapes, sidewalk cafes encourage behaviors that are less politicized and more reliant on conspicuous consumption. The activities practiced within them (dining, imbibing, conversing, people watching, and commercial transactions) provide for owners, patrons, and passersby a form of urban spectacle, one both profitable and pleasantly contagious.8 Sociologist Ray Oldenburg states that in Parisian life, sidewalk cafes’ “openness lends a legitimacy born of visibility.”9 Despite differences between the sidewalk cafes of Paris and Philadelphia—such as size, design, and patrons’ behaviors—their proliferation indicated in both cities a desire to gather and socialize in public view. Finally, sidewalk cafes became devices through which people could experience postindustrial Philadelphia. While its cultural offerings (performing arts venues, universities...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-6832
Print ISSN
1936-0886
Pages
pp. 60-81
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-05
Open Access
No
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