The Creative Archive: Philadelphia Edition – The Oldest Emerging City
The real reason I was attracted to checking out Philadelphia was part nostalgia, part because of the boutique Yowie. You may ask why I would be willing to go all the way to Philadelphia for one store, which in turn ended up being closed when I was there, but the biggest draw was what the store represents to me.
Taking two steps back for a little history lesson, Philadelphia is touted as a historically significant city because of its role as the “Nation’s capital” up until 1800. If you are interested in seeing a bit of that history, make sure to take a stroll down Ellfreth’s Alley. Dating back to 1703, this alley is said to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited residential streets in the United States. For me, it was an intriguing reminder of the choices we make in our preservation. Philadelphia bears the marks of redlining with very evident shifts from one neighbourhood to the next. In spite of this, there is a strong bottom-up culture movement in this city, giving space for emerging tastemakers to make their own marks.
If you do find yourself in the Ellfreth’s Alley area, also known as Old City, make sure to leave yourself time to gallery hop and shop the block. On my last visit, I popped into Pentimenti Gallery to see the works of Emily Weiner and discovered some amazing American artists along the way. Of note was the beaded artwork of Chelsea Kaiah.
Also in Old City is Paradigm Gallery + Studio – a stalwart supporter of the arts in Philadelphia and beyond. Housed in a multiple storey building on N 3rd St, Paradigm’s mission is to “keep art accessible, champion small business and emerging and mid-career artists.” Their focus on “meaningful, process-intense contemporary artwork from around the world” is evident in the artists they represent and exhibit. I have been wanting to see a Drew Leshko piece in person for some time and was able to make that happen thanks to Paradigm. I also discovered the material artwork of Ulla Stina Wikander, which I am now deeply obsessed with.
The nostalgia I mentioned comes to play in this next Philly landmark. When I was in my late teens I travelled to Philadelphia with one of my closest friends to visit a faction of her extended family. We stayed in South Philly and made a visit to the Philadelphia Magic Gardens. The artistic legacy and on-going project of local artist, Isaiah Zagar, the Magic Gardens are a completely mosaiced art environment that has acted as one of the catalysts to the revitalization of this area. An ode to the power of art in creating community and place.
Also in South Philly is the aforementioned shop, Yowie. What started as a gift shop is now a full fledged design hotel, complete with a coffee shop and a new home for the boutique. While I wasn’t able to check out the project on my last visit, following along the journey of its creation has been extremely inspiring to my own creative practice. Add Wim Cafe to your list of places to work from or meet with clients and make sure to pop in to Yowie to support small business and local makers.
While in this neighbourhood, make sure to check out Moore Street Vintage Archive for an amazing selection of designer vintage, and Moon & Arrow for home-furnishings, decor, and apothecary. It would not be a trip to South Philly without a visit to South Philly Barbacoa (of Chef’s Table fame). Honourable food mention goes out to Hardena, as well – a solid no-fuss Indonesian meal worth the trek further south.
Last stop on the South Philadelphia portion of the adventure is the BOK Building. A former school, built in 1936, and converted in 2014 to a creative hub housing a wide variety of Philadelphia businesses. Home to fashion brand, All Caps Studio, fabric mecca Fab Scrap, and ceramicist Rider Ceramics, amongst others. Check the tenant list and open your eyes to the wealth of creative talent in this city. Post up at Two Persons coffee for a day of work and soak up the energy buzzing through this place.
Heading back towards downtown, make sure to check in on the Fabric Workshop & Museum, dedicated to the “creation and presentation of innovative works of art.” They host an artist residency, and on this visit were showcasing the result of Henry Taylor’s time at the program. Nothing Change, Nothing Strange, is a strong visual commentary on the historical persistence of oppression. Should you be ending your day here I strongly recommend making a reservation at Giuseppe & Sons for excellent Italian fare.
In Chinatown North, the Asian Arts Initiative holds space to continue their mission to “use art as a vehicle to explore the diverse experiences of all communities which include Asian Americans” The space hosts exhibitions, performances, artist residencies, youth workshops, and a community gathering space. On this visit the much talked about Erotic Project was on display. This ongoing collaborative multimedia art project was created in Philadelphia in early 2020 to “explore inclusive, accessible eroticism as mutual care for our holistic healing.”
As you can read, Philadelphia has a plentitude of spaces to create and showcase creative endeavours. A growing market with its own identity and community supporting its local talent. Book yourself a night at the Yowie Hotel and tell them I sent ya. Oh and take lots of photos so I can live vicariously through you until I can make my pilgrimage there.
Amy Peebles is a curator & producer residing in Hamilton, ON.
Urban planner by education, treasure hunter by choice, and always energized by the act of discovery. Amy is the founder of creative studio Regional Archive and considers herself a child of the world.