The Gallery finally reopened last Thursday as Fashion District Philadelphia, an ambitious, $400 million-plus replacement for the moribund suburban-style mall that for decades dominated what was once the city’s premier shopping street. Arriving at a time when Center City is stronger than it has been in decades but bricks-and-mortar retail is weaker than it’s ever been, the Fashion District aims to be a new sort of downtown destination — not just a collection of cookie-cutter chain stores, but a place to shop, eat, see a movie, or meet friends, Philly style.
Any attempt to replicate or recreate this city’s distinctive character invites skepticism for good reason; think of the “genuine” Philly cheesesteaks you may have encountered in New England or other unlikely places. But the Fashion District’s “Uniquely Philly” cluster of local businesses, including start-ups by local entrepreneurs, is a reason for optimism. The opening weekend of the complex had a celebratory vibe and attracted an all-ages, all-colors mix of just about everybody. And while about 60 percent of the stores are open, and the eight-screen movie theater and some other attractions are coming soon, folks nevertheless got a good look at what $400 million — including $90 million in public subsidies of one sort or another — can buy: Bold graphics, bright colors, abundant light, clear vistas, and digital displays on a colossal scale.
Speaking of colossal, the presence of a massive, multistory, “interactive” candy emporium across from a shop offering a Beef Jerky Experience may well delight many but seem unlikely to please Mayor Jim Kenney, what with his disdain for sugar (at least in liquid form). But in its brash way, the Fashion District breezily embodies contradictory elements of Philly-ness, and also seems to grasp the evolution of retailing, as well as of public gathering and socializing. This evolution also teaches some useful lessons.
The Gallery mall that opened in 1977 and was expanded in 1982 was all about saving or replacing Market Street’s then-dwindling lineup of department stores (it didn’t work) or creating a facsimile of suburbia behind blank walls (ditto). Gallery 1 and 2 were attempts not so much to enhance as to replace a strategic chunk of Philadelphia’s core with something newer and supposedly better. But it was a bad fit, and it hurt rather than helped surrounding blocks, creating a virtual dead zone even before the remnants of the gasping mall were shut down three years ago to make way for the Fashion District.