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Newall: Change comes to the Bourse, Philly's last chapel of chintz

I don't visit the kitschy food court inside the historic Bourse building on Independence Mall for the food. I've eaten there just once: on my sixth-grade trip to the Liberty Bell more than a quarter century ago.

(I was coming from Brooklyn. I'm not sure how many Philadelphians actually go to the Bourse.)

In the last year or so, I've found comfort in the tackiness there, from the pizzas maturing under the heat lamps to the neon Rocky hats and "Philadelphia Beach Patrol" T-shirts in the gift shops. (I am still searching for our city's pristine coastlines.)

But when you write columns about how the city changes around us, a seat inside the Bourse affords the perfect view.

There are the beautiful old bones of the building – its neoclassical columns, polished brass balconies, marble staircases, and Victorian-era finishes – from when it opened in 1895 as America's first commodities exchange. There are the old-school souvenir shops hawking postcards from D.C. and New York, from back when Philly was just a stopover town. Then there were the newcomers trying to cash in on Philly's recent cachet. $25 Ben Franklin Bobbleheads. Yards Brewery hoodies. You know the type.

So learning last year that the Bourse was getting a makeover, that it had been sold to a fancy D.C. firm, was a bit bittersweet. The firm, MRP Realty, has a $40 million plan to turn my chapel of chintz into a posh food hall with champagne and oysters and craft beer gardens.

It's undeniably good news. Yes, we're losing one of our last vestiges of Tacky Philly. And after last year's loss of our other gaudy stronghold, the Gallery, it's a hard blow. But we must endure.

The Bourse, with its striking sandstone exterior, is a jewel of the Mall. It deserves better. And we need nice things – not only for tourists in search of a cheesesteak but locals looking for a nice happy hour.

For now, the food court is quiet. A temporary wall encircles most of it, with construction underway and many of the old stores shuttered. Charley McGrath, the managing director of MRP, was as bullish as could be as he recently showed me around the project.

His crews are uncovering the original ceramic tiled floors, inlaid with the brass numbering that a century ago denoted commodity trading stalls. They're flooring over the escalators to make more room for upscale eateries and installing dynamic digital lighting to bask the new digs in cool illumination.

(I hope they don't mess with the lighting too much. I always loved how the late-afternoon sun from the skylight painted Old City Pizza in gorgeous amber. No, really, I did.)

But the move also displaces those who have long made their living selling cheap eats and mementos to endless tourists and school kids.

"A changing world," said McGrath, not bothering to couch it. "Everyone knew when I bought this place that I had a vision – and it probably wasn't going to be LOVE Philadelphia and selling chicken to tourists."

Out go the purveyors of kitsch.

Like Joseph Yim, 62, of South Philly, who for 14 years owned the Vivianna souvenir shop in the Bourse. Over the years, he built his business enough to hire a staff. When his lease ended last year, the new management told him what they told most the old owners: "See ya." Yim found a small shop at Third and Market. He works seven days a week now. And yearns for his old space in the historic building.

"Heaven," he called the Bourse, wincing.

Some owners are trying to negotiate, while others put up a fight.

Mimi Yang and her husband, Moon, have owned the Philly Gourmet Café for 16 years. Filling the buffet, they sent two kids to Cornell University. Now, they're suing MRP, saying it's trying to force them out.

(McGrath said he couldn't comment on the dispute.)

I hope there is a place in the new Bourse for Mimi and Moon.

But even among all the change, some things will remain the same.

The shoe-shine man isn't going anywhere. The new owners have told him as much.

"They'll keep me around like an old piece of furniture, I guess," said Leon Frisby, 60, of Southwest Philadelphia, with a smile. The shoe-shine chair has been in the Bourse for 30 years. Frisby has worked it for the last four years, always in jacket and tie.

He misses some of the old faces, he said, but isn't too sad. Change is good, he said.

"Everything must pass," said the shoe-shine man. "And be reborn."