An opportunity to wow the shoppers. Center City holiday sparkle needs to dazzle, experts say

Posted: December 17, 2007

During these short, gray days, when trees have gone skeletal and stepping outside means getting chapped lips and numb toes and, as a consequence, grouchy, the city should sparkle.

Brightening the commercial district is not only a public service for the seasonal-affective-disordered populace, it helps put shoppers in the mood to spend.

New York and Chicago and Miami are fabulously flashy right now. While they are taking the December stage like the Sugar Plum Fairy, Philadelphia, in comparison, is looking a mite Oliver Twist. As in: "Please, sir, may I have some more?"

Philadelphia should do a better job of glamming up for the holiday season, say three art and design professionals who were invited last week to critique Center City's decorations.

"There is so much creativity here. So much talent," says Hilary Jay, director of the design center at Philadelphia University. "Retailers aren't tapping into it as much as they could."

All three critics identified homes, parks, stores and streets where residents and businesses have fa-la-la-la-la'd their space to fine effect.

"This is magical," said Julie Courtney, admiring the winter dioramas in PNC Bank's front windows at 16th and Market. The display is worthy of most Manhattan department stores, said Courtney, an independent curator, who produces exhibits in unusual places, like the Eastern State Penitentiary.

Outside the bank, a half-block-long row of spindly trees were dressed in Snow-Queen cloaks of white lights. Rustled by wind, they twinkled, the effect multiplied by its reflection in the bank's glass face.

A SEPTA bus blew past, its windows catching the sparkle and tossing it back.

"It just makes you smile," said Courtney.

This year, a joint venture by art students, the Center City District, the state, several foundations and property owners has produced a dramatic light show, projected nightly onto several buildings along Broad Street.

Watching a facade splashed with waves of fuchsia and violet light, Courtney approved: "They evoke an oh-wow!"

Most major cities rely on private firms, philanthropists and business groups to pay for much of the holiday glitz.

New York City is not responsible for the 84-foot-tall Norway Spruce in Rockefeller Center. That tree is donated, and the expenses associated with it covered by the building's owner, Tishman Speyer.

Chicago's municipal government gets more involved. It has spent about $300,000 this year on winter decorations, says Cindy Gatziolis, spokesperson from the mayor's office of special events.

That includes a Santa Claus house, a dual train set running in circles in City Hall, and an 85-foot "tree" composed of 113 smaller evergreens on circular planks.

In Philadelphia, passersby mostly pass by a donated blue spruce in front of City Hall, decorated with (also donated) cardboard candy canes and other ornaments. Another tree, this one artificial, glitters in JFK Plaza. And along Market, JFK Boulevard and Broad, 158 giant snowflakes and stars on poles illuminate the gloom.

The ones, that is, with functioning bulbs.

"They were all working when we put them up in November," says Joan Schlotterbeck, commissioner of the Department of Public Property.

"There isn't really a budget," Schlotterbeck says. Last year, the city scraped together $40,000 for the LOVE Park tree, including lights. "We hope to get 10 years out of it."

Decorations can build a sense of community, says Jay. The canopy of colored bulbs strung across the length of Wolf Street in South Philadelphia, for instance.

"It's like a civic gift," she said, taking a walk up Delancey Street, where the style is more patrician, but the holiday spirit the same. Homeowners have draped ropes of pine on their wrought-iron balconies, tied bows on their railings, and filled their window boxes with hardy green blooms, necklaced with red berries.

Along Market, Walnut and Chestnut, the critics observed, the window dressing is uneven in enthusiasm and quality.

Anthropologie won them over with its giant balls of yarn spilling from the second story, a patchwork of hand-knit red and ivory sweaters wrapped around one of the grand entrance columns, and gingerbread house scenes in the windows, with balls of yarn serving as smoke curling from the chimneys.

Zara earned good marks for its "dark but elegant" display. Joan Shepp's Harper's Bazaar theme didn't seem to have much seasonal relevance. Close up, however, you find a gift tag marked "defeat autism now" and other small reminders that Christmas is supposed to be about giving to the unfortunate.

Victoria's Secret received mixed reviews.

One window showed a cardboard model dressed in pink satin, fur-trimmed bra with rhinestone straps and a matching skirt that ended almost as soon as it began.

"Well, you know what they're selling," said Jay. The next window, however, struck her as "totally adorable" with its stuffed polka-dotted dog wearing a white beard and a hand-sewn throw demanding "Gimme More Pink."

"Again," said Jay, "you know what they're selling. But this time, it's pajamas!"

Rittenhouse Square has been crowned with the traditional white balls of light. In the interest of equal holiday measure, the square's Christmas tree has been joined by a massive wood and vinyl dreidel and an electric menorah, its transformers covered with black plastic garbage bags. "I really applaud the effort," said Jay, "but as far as the execution goes, it doesn't quite make it."

Ideally, the critics agreed, public spaces deserve to be graced with nonsectarian light.

The city's visitors ought to be welcomed like guests to a party, says Ray King, the artist who designed the funky light towers at Washington Street and the Avenue of the Arts. Using lights, King says, "you want to draw their attention to the bouquet of flowers you bought, before they notice the dust bunnies."

In an attempt to raise the decorative wattage, no one wants to see Center City drowning in neon or populated by inflatable Santas. Rather, the critics dream of streets transformed by star-strewn archways made of thousands of tiny white lights, as in Florence, Italy.

"I'd like to see the city put up $500,000 and choose three streetscapes to illuminate," King says. "You could use it to say you're countering people going to the mall."

Schlotterbeck thinks it's a brilliant idea. "But there's never funding available. We all would love to do more."

Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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