The city was nearly bankrupt when Ed Rendell became mayor of Philadelphia in 1992. He helped engineer the Avenue of the Arts, which directed money to arts related projects on South Broad Street, including the Kimmel Center. The idea was to use culture to draw people to the city and spur economic growth. The former mayor and Pennsylvania governor spoke with our G.W. Miller III about the results for the winter issue of JUMP magazine in December 2013.
Is it possible to use the arts, and specifically music, as an economic generator for the city?
Arts and culture, including music, shows, opera, dance, those things are an important driver. Probably nothing propelled the city’s turnaround more than the Avenue of The arts.
How did that come about? What was the impetus of the idea?
When I was elected mayor, during the transition, I looked at a lot of different plans. Someone handed me a plan that was by the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation and it talked about making South Broad Street the Avenue of the Arts. I liked the plan. I thought it was one of the things we could to jumpstart the economic turnaround. I spoke to Bernie Watson who was head of the William Penn Foundation, who was doing a little something to effectuate the plan. I went to Governor Casey and got $74 million in state funds and the rest is history.
I’m told that when the plan was first out forth to you, you weren’t really sold on it. You went home and talked to Midge (his wife) and she was the one who was sold.
I won’t say that I wasn’t totally sold but Midge certainly put it over the top.
Why? What did she see?
I think she saw that this type of performing arts district could be extremely attractive to high-end individuals. Remember, we wanted everybody but at that point, most high-end people had already fled the city. So there was no building going on in the city, no businesses in the city, and everyone was leaving or looking to take the first available option out of the city.
It was amazing. Even when we announced the Avenue of the Arts with Governor Casey – even before there were bricks and mortar, that announcement began generating interest in coming back to the city.
We did that in conjunction with a lot of other things. We did the Wednesday Night Out program, the Welcome America celebration. I wanted to make the city a place that was fun, where things were happening, with great entertainment options. The Avenue of The Arts led that.
Nothing does it as well as arts and culture and it’s not just at the high end. For example, our Fringe Festival has been a tremendous motivator. It’s one of the things that young people find so attractive about the city and they’re now coming back to the city in droves as well.
High-end empty nesters and young people choosing to stay and live in the city? Those things have both been propelled in great part because of the arts.
The Avenue of The Arts led to a resurgence of Old City, which led to a resurgence of Northern Liberties and elsewhere, with these arts districts spreading all around. How do you continue this growth?
It was contemporaneous with the restaurant revival. You continue it by continuing to do fun things, festivals on the Avenue, finding new venues. The Barnes was a huge thing for the city’s economic future. Once the Barnes moved downtown, that was the end. Now everyone wants to live downtown. Every high-end person is leaving the suburbs to come in. The visual arts match the performing arts on the Avenue. I think Conde Nast Traveler magazine named us the number one city for arts and culture in the US. That’s pretty impressive to beat out New York and Chicago.
Are there things government can do beyond the Avenue of The Arts, which is the high-end driver? Are there things government can do for artists?
The government, what we did for the Avenue, was generate the important capital dollars and we can continue to do that for new projects like the Museum of the American Revolution, which hopefully will be built. But the basic thing that government can do – and our major foundations should do this too – is get back to giving operating support to arts groups, big and small.
Nowhere in the world can arts groups make it on their own on what they charge for tickets or what they can raise in contributions. There are government subsidies everywhere, around the world. When I was mayor and when I was governor, I always made sure there was money to be given to arts groups – as governor, not just in Philadelphia but in Pittsburgh and other places. You’ve got to understand that places need help.
Is it possible to create more zones, like the Avenue of The Arts? Maybe Frankford Avenue or Passyunk?
You’d have to have some infrastructure. You can have street festivals where you emphasize music anywhere, anytime, and we should do that. The Philadelphia sound is famous. A lot of things started in Philadelphia. We have a great, rich musical history and we should continue to play on that.
Are you a music person?
I try but I don’t have a lot of time to give to it.
As a sports fan, the Avenue of The Arts almost seems a little out of character for you.
I did it because I understood the economic impact that it would have. That, to me, was my most important long-term job as mayor – to turnaround the economy of the city. The short-term job was to eliminate the huge deficit we had and to get the city on sound financial footing. In the long run, none of that would have mattered without an economic revival.
The city’s economy in great part is generated by eds and meds – educational institutions, our medical centers, our drug research – and our arts and culture.
You’re hustling all the time. Is there a song that pumps you up?
A lot of songs get me pumped up. I used a song for all my campaigns, the last five that I won – two for mayor, three for governor (the primary and two general elections) and that was from Godspell, “(We can build a) Beautiful City.” It’s a great campaign song.