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The Reading Terminal Market story: Will beloved public spaces return?

January 15, 2021 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
First came the stay-at-home orders and Center City office buildings emptied out. Then came the closure of nonessential businesses and the tourist trade dried up. Finally, mass gatherings ended which shrunk the Philadelphia Convention & Vistors Bureau and local hotels to a fraction of themselves.  

Added together, this meant severe economic trouble for many brick-and-mortar Center City retailers like the Reading Terminal Market, one of Philadelphia’s most storied and solid attractions and home to over 80 vendors selling a variety of foodstuffs and crafts.

But the loss of business, while significant, still understates the full scope of the economic crisis. Public spaces, like Penn’s Landing, the 30th Street Porch and the Reading Terminal are not just a place of business but double as public locations of civic engagement with the ability to connect people across the divisive boundaries of class, sexual preference, political identity, race and religion.

Anuj Gupta, former general manager of the Reading Terminal, once told Generocity that the 130-year old farmer’s market was “…arguably the most diverse public space in Philadelphia and one of the nation’s most diverse public spaces, with everyone using it in the same way, at the same time, because people still share a need/desire/interest in quality food. “

(Generocity file photo from 2015)

Yale sociology professor Elijah Anderson calls spaces like the Reading Terminal “cosmopolitan canopies” which he describes in his book The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life as resilient places where diverse people gather comfortably and talk openly and freely. Gupta, also a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation public space fellow,  agreed that public spaces encouraged civil interactions, albeit short lived, that transcended race, income, geography, language, and religion.  “Though these engagements are often fleeting, they still provide a measure of civic glue: a binding agent that can allow us to see past superficial differences and understand that we have more in common than we might otherwise believe, or at the very least, have fates that are tied together. Public spaces offer some of the only forums where this is ever possible anymore.”

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In short, a thriving culture of civic engagement requires that we maintain engaging and inviting public spaces.

Data shows that the Americans are increasingly politically polarized, socially isolated, and economically unequal — trends that inviting public spaces could help reverse. Surviving COVID then is not just an economic imperative but it also means finding a way to reactivate our public spaces with unifying civic engagement events. This will not only require money from local elected officials who are grappling with a COVID-stressed budget but also putting a priority on place making. That will require political willpower.

The year before the COVID outbreak, by all the statistical measures, the Reading Terminal’s bottom line looked better than ever.  Foot traffic, the Terminal’s lifeblood, was strong with a steady stream of hungry office workers, tourists, citizens on jury duty, and conventioneers which annually added up to over six million visitors. Pre-pandemic daily weekend traffic was about 40,000 – 50,000 people which translated into $60 million of annual revenue for 2019.

The Terminal wasn’t alone in its pre-COVID success.  In October, Thomas Ginsburg, senior officer of the Pew Charitable Trusts, testified before city council that “…in Philadelphia at last count before the pandemic we were operating around 23,000 establishments. That was the highest number we saw since at least 1990.”

That was then.  This is now.

Reading Terminal’s foot traffic has plummeted by 50% to about 15,000 people a weekend.  “Eighty-five percent of office buildings are empty,” said City Councilman Allan Domb, during a recent city council hearing adding, “The real issue here is getting that demand back.”  According to Opportunity Insightsa Harvard-related research institute, the number of small businesses open in Philadelphia in late November fell by 31 percent compared with January 2020.

One of the earliest victims of the pandemic economy was the newly hired Connor Murphy who was let go last month after only six months on the job. After conducting a national search, Murphy replaced Gupta who resigned to work as chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans.  It was an inauspicious beginning to start in the midst of coronavirus chaos. Reasons for Murphy’s abrupt departure are in short supply but the costs of COVID lurked in the board of directors’ public statement which said,” …as the pandemic has dragged on, the needs of the market has changed.”

According to the same press release, Murphy, a native of Ireland, called COVID “tough mentally.”

The City of Philadelphia is trying to find the secret sauce for keeping businesses afloat during the pandemic until demand returns and has committed $20 million of CARES Act funding to help 1,000 small business with grants of between $15,000 to $20,000 for 1,000 businesses. There was also the Small Business Relief Fund that offered zero percent interest loans of up to $100,000.

In addition, the Reading Terminal has turned online to survive. First, leaning heavily on its online delivery service and in October announcing a GoFundMe campaign that has so far raised $225,327 from almost 5,000 people reaching 90 percent of its $250,000 goal in just three months.  The funds were to be used to keep the market open daily and to subsidize the extra cleaning and disinfecting that was necessary.

In an op-ed he wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer in April 2020, Gupta said, “Government, nonprofit, and philanthropic leaders must develop post-crisis plans now to bring our community bonds back together once the virus subsides.”

He added: “An essential ingredient in that recipe will be vibrant and accessible public spaces.”



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