Al fresco dining in the historic Old City neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
“Because it’s Old City, we get a lot of tourists who might come to see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell but then can stick around to go shopping, or have lunch, or have a cocktail. And it’s been a privilege to be in one of the country’s oldest neighborhoods,” said Job Itzkowitz, Old City District Executive Director.
This “charming, multilayered district” has grown into a booming, modern place that honors its historical roots. With 30 new businesses opened in the last year and the residential population experiencing unprecedented growth, the numbers show that Old City is the place to be right now.
“We have the space, we really do. A lot of it is in full development, surface lots have become condos or apartment buildings. A lot of it is vertical growth. We have some buildings that are ten stories tall, we have a building that’s nineteen stories tall, and we actually have even more room; there are 800 units that are currently under construction right now. And there’s also likely to be 1800 units coming to the riverfront just across from our border,” Itzkowitz said.
Between bridal shops, art galleries, furniture showrooms, men’s clothiers, vintage stores, theaters, flower shops, confectioneries, a multileveled book shop, and endless dining options, Old City proves to be much more than just a rich historical destination. Old City’s growth over the years has shown businesses that there is strength in numbers.
“Old City is still centrally located, but it’s a discount off of being in the central business district. If you’re a business owner and you wanna still have a lot of foot traffic but you don’t wanna pay the top of the market rates, Old City is a great place to be… What ends up happening is that, because these spaces inform the uses, people co-locate. We always had one or two bridal shops, but we now have 50 wedding-related businesses in the neighborhood… We’re suddenly seeing an increase in vintage shops; we have four vintage shops, all of which opened in the last year.
“It ends up self-curating in a way that creates a meaningful experience for customers,” he said.
So how did this growth in such a small, single-square-mile area come to be? How does the district balance the history with modernity? Itzkowitz describes the changes over the years since colonial times and how industrial buildings from the 1800s became ideal spaces for modern businesses to set up shop.
“Nobody wants Old City to be Colonial Williamsburg. This is not a recreation. This is a real, living, breathing, dynamic place, that has changed dramatically over its several hundred years of existence. Historically, Old City was the port. In colonial times, there were colonial buildings here and a few of those still remain like Independence Hall and a few other scattered buildings. As it was the port throughout the 1800s, there were bigger buildings built because they were like commercial industrial buildings, manufacturing, and warehouse buildings. And those buildings informed a lot of the later uses. Because it was industrial, not a lot of people lived here. In 1980 only 800 people lived in Old City… In the mid to late 1990s, the same giant spaces that were suitable for art and design businesses also became suitable for bars and restaurants and nightlife. Old City ended up with a burgeoning nightlife scene.
“The other thing that has happened is that these places became cool places to have offices and they became cool places to live. Our population has skyrocketed from 800 people in 1980 to around 7,000 people today. So, we’re almost at ten times the residential population we had 40 years ago,” said Itzkowitz.
While Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Elfreth’s Alley, the Museum of the American Revolution, and more keep Old City riddled with our nation’s history, there are a few hidden gems that have blended the trendy modern with the historical charm Old City is known for.
One like no other is Shane Confectionery – America’s oldest, continuously operational candy confectionery.
“When you walk into Shane Confectionery, it’s like walking back in time,” Itzkowitz said.
It’s a very full-sense experience. You walk in and you probably smell the chocolate we’re roasting in the back before you even absorb the really decadent interior. We have Old time music playing. Our stuff is literally the best I’ve ever had… We take a lot of care in flavor… we like to reference history to get inspiration, but we really work at improving the quality of our products every day,” said Pavia Burroughs, Shane’s representative who has done design work for the Confectionery for 9 years.
The Shane Confectionery has been in business since 1863 and it’s still providing Philadelphia with some of the best quality chocolate in the area. They have specialty chocolate flavors, a decadent hot chocolate bar, and endless other candies, caramels, gingerbread, and licorice to choose from.
“It feels really great for us to be stewards of history, which is what we see ourselves as. We love educating people on confectionery history, which has a really amazing number of tentacles that go into other kinds of history, from class distinction to trade, medicine, and prohibition with the soda fountains and everything. So, there’s kind of a very rich history tied to a very fun and frivolous thing– candy,” said Burroughs.
Shane confectionery is a great example of a business that blends history with modernity. While their chocolate bar is literally modeled after the first American chocolate bar, they also pride themselves on a “bean-to-bar” method of ethically manufacturing chocolate, something big-name chocolate companies don’t usually do.
“We have made a really concerted effort in the last six years to start doing our own bean-to-bar chocolate and to switch over entirely to that…So our new face is what we’re doing with our craft and the old face is in the architecture… Amazingly, the architecture from the 1910s was preserved, and the [owners] revitalized it back to its glory.
“We also try to fuse all our products with some element of history. So, all of our chocolate bars that we make are molded to look like the first image of a chocolate bar in America,” Burroughs said.
Burroughs also said that being located in Old City is wonderful but comes with its own challenges at times – the tourists.
“It’s both advantageous and one of our largest hurdles because a good portion of our customers are tourists. We love the tourists; we love being able to show people what Philadelphia’s all about and be that kind of stop. There are always new people coming to our city which is really wonderful, but on the other hand, once you get labeled a tourist trap, locals kind of tend to write you off.
“So, in one way we’re constantly trying to bring back the locals… Just because the tourists enjoy us doesn’t mean you don’t want to,” said Burroughs.
One thing that has negatively impacted the confectionery along with the rest of Old City over the last few years is – yup, you guessed it – the pandemic.
“We closed in-person sales at Shane for two years. The first year we only had online and curbside orders. So, we really had to use our website in a way that we hadn’t previously… Although the online sales have definitely carried a lot of it, our sales have increased almost back up to 2019 levels.
“But coming in person was really important for people. The experience of Shane is half our allure… as sort of an experiential food establishment,” Burroughs said.
Although Old City saw foot traffic die down, an increase in vacancy rates, and many businesses suffer during 2020 and 2021, 2022 has seen Old City almost entirely bounce back. With vacancy rates almost all the way back down and foot traffic back up, the district has had many new businesses open up in the last year. The growing residential population really helped Old City come out of the pandemic better than ever.
“Our residents helped our businesses survive during the pandemic. Had we not had people in the neighborhood going out to eat, shopping, buying presents, our businesses would’ve struggled even more… Our vacancy rate went from about the national average for any similar commercial quarter of 12% to 20% in 2020. But, in 2021, 30 new businesses have opened. And in 2022, 30 more businesses have opened already with more on the way. Our vacancy rate is dropping, it’s back down to 15%. We worked in a lot of different ways to support the businesses.
“We were monitoring our foot traffic and started focusing on bringing retail back to these vacant spaces. And we’ve had a lot of success there with being able to attract new businesses as tourists have come back, some office workers are back, and the residential population continues to boom,” Itzkowitz said.
Itzkowitz also said that business owners interested in the district where, as its website says, “charming cobblestone streets lead a path to chic boutiques” should contact the district to get more information on spaces available and other important info.
“If you are interested in opening a business, please reach out to us. We are able to connect you to brokers and property owners. We provide a lot of data about foot traffic, market demand, and there is availability, but get in while you can,” he said.
Overall, Old City is bursting with delicious flavor, charming culture, and amazing experiences to be had. There’s always something to do, something to eat, and something to learn. Whether you’re looking to visit, live, or work, Old City has it all.
“The neighborhood is a living, breathing soul that’s fueled by the energy of the people who live and work here.”