Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Philly, R&B Capital

I opened the Daily News last Wednesday to some of the best news I've heard in awhile, a fantastic development for the city of Philadelphia. Kenny Gamble announced that the Rhythm and Blues Foundation is relocating from New York City to Philadelphia. Big deal, you say? Well, this move doesn't just mean three new jobs for the city, and an ineffectual art group will take up some office space.

The Rhythm and Blues Foundation run one of the major music industry nights, the Pioneer Award gala, which attracts all the major stars who go to the Grammys and Source Awards. Gamble hopes to move the award ceremony to Philly once the Foundation gets set up. This would bring the eyes of the industry to Philly on a yearly basis, allowing the city to show how much it has to offer in the way of amenities and attractions and whatnot. Also, it might force Philebrity to step their game up, as the A-List would be amongst us. How great would it be to have R. Kelly come to Philly, pick up an award and hang out around town? Okay, scratch that one. How about Outkast or Urrrrsher? They haven't peed on anyone, have they? Actually, don't tell me.

Even bigger would be the building of an R&B Hall of Fame right here in the city. We almost got the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame years ago, but this one seems like a more natural fit. We are one of, if not the, home for so much that has happened in black music. From Chubby Checker and American Bandstand to Philly Soul to modern R&B and hip-hop, we have been an integral site for the shaping and development of the music. The Hall of Fame would be a great tourist attraction, a destination site, which would bring people in from around the world. The Hall of Fame would serve as a great lure to bring people to the city, where they would spend their money, walk around, get a feel for how much is going on here.

The initial plans have the building being built on Broad Street near South Street. Beyond the simple addition of an active, attractive site on a relatively dead corner, this will help extend the Avenue of the Arts, where the Kimmel Center and theaters and art schools are, towards the south. Suddenly, this area will have great value, which should provoke real development. G-d willing, the McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts, and vacant buildings will seem out-of-place and unacceptable. Development will start to make Broad Street the avenue it deserves to be, like a Park Avenue in NYC perhaps, street that is a destination.

Once the money is raised, and the building built, Kenny Gamble's biggest plan would begin to take shape. He sees all of this as a means to brand the city as a music hotbed and center. For all of the talent here, most of it has to move to NYC or LA or Atlanta to really go big. But why? Kenny Gamble seems to be the one asking this question the most, and he has not found any good answers. He envisions the foundation "as a keystone of an "entertainment economic development strategy" that will boost tourism for Philadelphia - much as the sports stadiums and Convention Center have done - by making the city the "international home of rhythm-and-blues music." Sounds good, and best of all, the infrastructure is there. We have the money, the real estate, the musical talent and scene, and this plan provides a nice focus.

Can't you see it now? A bustling Broad Street, bursting with people on a summer night, some heading to a play, others to hear the Orchestra, many checking out the Hall of Fame. Others are eating at restaurants in their outdoor seating areas, at the latest Stephen Starr or a trendy place like Nobu developed by some NYC restauranteur. Some are walking back from a nice Italian dinner in South Philly, people watching, checking out the tourists getting their first taste of the city and the locals getting used to their presence. Others are coming up Washington Avenue, having enjoyed an authentic Mexican or Vietnamese meal. Perhaps some are there simply to check out new boutiques and stores that have moved in, extending the Walnut Street ritz onto an even bigger thoroughfare. On the opposite end of Broad Street, the north side, one can see an entertainment district taking shape, focusing on clubs that feature R&B, hip-hop, blues and jazz music, places for North Philly to come and play. Other buildings are used as studios, bringing new Philly sounds to the world. Broad Street becomes a huge artery, busy with activity and traffic, bringing people and energy to the entire city. Philly begins to feel bigger and bigger, less divided by neighborhoods and streets. [Leave your ideas and dreams in the comments section, as I would love to hear what people envision and want for Broad Street.]

I am ecstatic at this news, and more importantly, the creative thinking, big ideas and optimism contained within it. Kenny Gamble is not afraid to imagine big things for Philly, and he backs up with his words with real action. This mentality seems to be taking root every day, as suddenly we aren't telling ourselves that it can't be done, but are doing things to make it happen. It is about time, and the development of this project is a great signpost to show this new mentality. Big things, Philadelphia, big things.

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