If my Riverwards neighborhood is a microcosm of Philadelphia, then the city is in trouble. “Trouble” in this case means the radical diminishment of venues and places to go at all hours of the day and night, or the end of what makes a cosmopolitan city.
New York may have been the city that never sleeps, but pre-pandemic Philadelphia wasn’t far behind.
Today, it’s a slightly different story on many different fronts.
As I walk through my Old Richmond neighborhood (bordering Fishtown), I look with dismay at what has occurred. The Rite Aid that was built here over a decade ago that used to be open 24 hours, now closes at 11 pm. Citizens Bank in the Fishtown Crossing Shopping Center, which once had generous pre-pandemic weekend hours, is now open 7 hours a day. Another bank, WSFS (formerly Beneficial) that also used to have generous hours extending into the weekends, now closes its doors everyday at 5 pm. (WSFS also closed its ATM access to bank customers because the homeless were breaking into its enclosed ATM foyer and using it as a shooting/sleeping barracks. )
Meanwhile, the nearby CVS near York Street has managed to keep its 24 hours open status thanks to armed security guards who stand by the front door as you enter, reminiscent of the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. Self-checkout has helped this store survive. Most of the employees still there seem to be security guards.
Old Richmond, once a quaint Philadelphia version of Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesberg, Ohio,” is now a booming site for redevelopment and real estate exploitation. Tall, out of scale condos have forced their way into this rowhouse community, creating an “open sore” architectural rupture.
At night the neighborhood dies, which was not the case fifteen years ago when there were a variety of restaurants, including a Hi Sai Gai Chinese restaurant with a raw and Martini bar, a famous hoagie shop, and pizza places with salad bars that stayed open beyond 5 p.m. These have been replaced with pet supply stores, a nail salon, dollar stores with supply chain issues, an auto tag business. Oh yes, a Nifty Fifties restaurant was thrown in as a consolation prize for those suffering from fits of nostalgia.
Another brushstroke to this bleak canvass is the fact that late at night one only sees dog walkers and the vagabond homeless walking the streets here, the latter walking back and forth to the Wawa on Aramingo Avenue, the highest grossing Wawa in the state, where they often fight and argue with security guards over their right to panhandle and hold the door for customers.
Walk along the edges of the Wawa parking lot and you’ll see cars parked for hours with their headlights on, or homeless scrappers raiding the nearby Rite Aid’s locked dumpster area, a treasure trove of (needlessly) thrown away “expired” food items like chips, soda, cookies and sometimes never used non-edible products that seem perfectly fine.
The amount of thrown away products in these dumpsters is mind-boggling, as I discovered during one conversation with a scrapper who had broken into Rite Aid’s locked dumpster site where he had just acquired a pile of gleaming products he was about to sell in the street.
Another scrapper I encountered had a shopping cart filled with unopened, perfectly sealed and presentable products all thrown away in a Dollar Tree dumpster in the Fishtown Crossing Shopping Center. He told me he can always count on coming back and feeding off these momentous piles of “waste” that don’t look like waste at all.
When Old Richmond’s Rite Aid scaled back its hours, some believed it was because the store was one of the 1,932 Rite Aid’s purchased by Walgreens in 2019-2020 after a planned Rite Aid-Walgreens merger failed to get the approval of the Federal Trade Commission. Although Walgreens did purchase nearly 2,000 Rite Aid stores, the Old Richmond Rite Aid was not one of them.
I spoke with a Rite Aid manager last year who told me that he was requesting a transfer out of the city because he was tired of having to look up from the counter and seeing a gun in his face.
Ironic, when you consider that when this particular Rite Aid opened it was staffed by parochial school-educated Polish girls and “first job” freckle-faced Irish boys. But once New York developers scoped out Old Richmond, the formerly “secret neighborhood” that not even developers were interested in became a new kind of urban jungle.
A painting comes to mind regarding this change: Paul Rubens’ ‘The Rape of the Sabine Women.’
Nationally, the pandemic — and everything that came with the pandemic, like shoplifting — was responsible for the closing of some 63 Rite Aid stores in New York City, although Rite Aid President and CEO Heyward Donigan denied that the closures had anything to do with shoplifting.
In fact, the official excuse for the closures of these stores was attributed to cost reduction, something called “downsizing trends” and “profitability.” According to New York magazine’s “Curbed” blog, a CVS spokesperson, referring to CVS closures, maintained that “product supply challenges are currently impacting most of the retail industry.”
Shoplifting was not given as one of the causes for these closures and in fact was dismissed as “anecdotal” when presented as evidence. “Shoplifting is not reported well by victims as well as the police,” a researcher at the University of Florida Loss Prevention Research Council stated.
Certainly, the changes made in the Rite Aid store in Old Richmond, such as locked glass cabinets for cold and pain medications as well as specialty cosmetics, has everything to do with shoplifting.
A September 2022, Fox Business headline, “Rite Aid exec: Impossible to stop NYC store thefts” says it all.
This is the reality behind the “profitability” smokescreen, but why the lie? One Rite Aid in Hell’s Kitchen, in fact, reported the theft of $200,000 in store goods in a couple of months. We’re not talking dumpster “waste” or expired products that get thrown in dumpster piles, but pricey shelf items.
Post-pandemic Philadelphia is a different place than what it was in 2019. No matter where you go or what you want to do—from visiting a café to attending the theater—you will see permanent scars left by the lockdown that affected and destroyed so many businesses.
The Inquirer recently published a piece, “Why there’s nowhere to hang out at night in Philly anymore.” The article pinpointed the disappearance of all-important third spaces, like cafes, where people used to spend time between home and work. This game changer has affected restaurants, as witnessed by this headline I came across that referred to another city: “Sorry, night owls—restaurants are closing early….Since the pandemic, restaurants have been cutting hours and closing early.”
Few coffee shops in Center City stay open past 5 p.m. As for the once popular all-night diner, they are also a thing of the past. What’s left is an occasional Wendy’s, but even fast food joints are disappearing or cutting hours.
The rule of thumb in 2023: Forget late-night bites; your only recourse is to make a dinner reservation at 6 p.m. What is this if not the death of spontaneity, when everything down to the last detail has to be planned and orchestrated like the details on an architectural blueprint.
A 2023 restaurant data platform, Datassential, reported that US restaurants’ weekly operating hours are down 7.5 percent on average compared to 2019.
Then there’s the safety issue.
An April 2023 Inquirer report proclaimed that Center City “is remarkably safe compared to the rest of the city as a whole.” The report went on to say that Center City “is way far ahead on [foot traffic] compared to other cities.” The report stated that although foot traffic has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, this makes rising homelessness and drug traffic all the more visible which then inspires a perception of danger.
“Sensationalized television news coverage and ubiquitous fearmongering, context-free videos shared on social media may be driving perceptions that crime is also out of control downtown,” the report continued.
Conversely, much of the fear-mongering about the pandemic in 2020 that helped keep people away from the city by having them work at home, avoiding public transportation, or going anywhere without a mask, came from those same social media outlets, aka the establishment media, including The Philadelphia Inquirer.
The lingering effects of this fear-mongering are still very much in evidence, especially in the city’s theater world, where in many cases traditional opening night receptions have been eliminated to protect against “the pandemic,” while the real reason, now that the pandemic is over, has more to do with what Rite Aid calls its “profitability.”
The pandemic brought to light the astounding fact that a lot of money can be saved by canceling many of the good things we took for granted in 2019.
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York and Frontpage Magazine. He is the author of fifteen books, including ”Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest“ will be released in May 2023.