21. More Commerce? No, More Fun

Rendell understands: Create excitement, and the money will follow.

The stranger appeared to share my enthusiasm for the Keystone Band’s New Orleans-style version of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” a warm-weather· Saturday afternoon freebie at Chestnut and Broad. When men of a certain age gather there to tap their feet, recall Sweet Emma at Preservation Hall and enjoy the Avenue of the Arts at curbside, they’re often grateful to the extent of placing a five-dollar bill in the hat. It’s the best summer entertainment buy in town.

During the break, the fellow Center City resident and I chatted, the talk drifting to Christmas. I noted how pleasant it was (that year) to be able to walk to what promised to become a new seasonal tradition, Hansel and Gretel. But my companion replied, “Philadelphia is dead at Christmas. I always leave.” So this year, I determined to pay more attention to late December’s entertainments, especially those without charge.

My family lives in a tight little Wash West enclave that regularly produces two holiday parties that bring together three generations of people linked by seven-foot streets and the camaraderie of the resulting propinquity. We theorize that when streets become wide enough to permit even a single row of parking, it must take longer for people to know one another well enough to encourage the year-’round schedule of visiting, suppers, street sales and festivals we enjoy. We pity those separated by real traffic as well as parking, and we wonder how neighborliness can exist where front doors are more than 20 feet apart.

But what’s available for those without neighborhood parties or tickets to Into the Woods? I long ago came to terms with the convergence of pagan, Christian, Judaic and commercial traditions that produces in Center City a wealth of sometimes remarkable entertainment for the price of simply walking a few blocks.

Starting with the obvious: Reading Terminal Market seems like a festival 12 months a year, even when there are no free performances. At Wanamaker’s, the crowds of children sitting on the floor seemed as engaged as ever watching the 35-year-old light show, and their parents seemed as prone as ever to recall being brought a generation ago to watch the Sugar Plum Fairies twinkle above. The Strawbridge windows and the Dickens display continue to draw crowds, as do the revived Lit Brothers figures next door at the Enchanted Colonial Village.

At Liberty Place, a dozen and a half string musicians played familiar classical treats in what is certainly the handsomest galleria created in this century. Later, a brass ensemble showed off the acoustics in a pleasant counterpoint. It was enough to make you believe. If not in Santa Claus, perhaps in the free lunch everyone claims is nonexistent.

On the final Wednesday before Christmas we organized our evening so as to enjoy the four string bands, which, courtesy of the Center City District, played and marched in circuits frequented by shoppers and diners. While the music was free, we dutifully shopped at The Nature Company, had a drink at the Warwick and supped Upstairs at Varalli’s.

My usual complaint about Mummers was easily corrected. Anyone who believes, as I do, that Mummers never seem to play enough only had to follow one or more bands around until satisfied. The performances constituted a very civilized touch, seemingly a surprise to most pedestrians who encountered them. If this tradition-in-the-making is repeated for a few years, it should draw its own crowds and elevate the image of both Center City and string bands.

My annual favorite, however, is a remarkable tour de force that unites children from scattered corners of the city in an exquisitely commercial event. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, when retailers need that extra jolt, thousands of kids and parents line up at regional rail and Market-Frankford stations to catch the “Santa Expresses” to the Gallery. In every packed train, SEPTA volunteers hand out red and green balloons and kazoos while costumed seasonal figures– Mrs. Claus, the Gingerbread Man, Frosty, etc.- pose for pictures and small bands play snappy holiday tunes. ‘This rolling cacophony is timed so that the trains simultaneously discourage tooting, balloon-toting tots, producing a climate controlled parade from rail to mall. It is a treat children will recall 35 years from now. Like the Wanamaker’s light show, it wouldn’t exist without seasonal commercialism,

Jim Rouse, then head of the company that developed The Gallery into America’s first downtown indoor shopping mall, said something important about urban revitalization 20 years ago that was then considered offbeat. “Cities must be fun,” insisted the creator of Baltimore’s Harbor Place at a time when other developers were focused on how to produce one more (often) boring office building. Jim’s notion carried important economic undertones: A critical force in filling office buildings is the appeal to employees of the amenities near the workplace. And the 60,000-plus Center City residents are here in large part because they enjoy the thousands of entertaining events close at hand.

Could we use more? One hopes that street entertainment will entice Convention Center attendees to leave that vast new space and enjoy the city beyond. Like the Wednesday night entertainments, Center City will need more of those civilized touches- Mummers, jazz performers and others- free to the public and shrewd investments by the private sector.

Cities can’t have too much fun.

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