Annette John-Hall: Jamaican Jerk Hut vs. Symphony House

Lisa Wilson outside her Jamaican Jerk Hut on South Street, with the Symphony House condominiums behind her.
Lisa Wilson outside her Jamaican Jerk Hut on South Street, with the Symphony House condominiums behind her.
Posted: January 07, 2011

There's been a situation brewing on Broad Street - excuse me, make that the Avenue of the Arts.

Amid the beautiful Kimmel Center and the welcoming Suzanne Roberts Theater, ugly has surfaced.

No, I'm not talking about that towering monstrosity, Symphony House, which my colleague, architecture critic Inga Saffron, called "the ugliest new condo building in Philadelphia" when it opened three years ago.

I'm talking about a different kind of ugly.

Because for more than two years, the 32-story Symphony House, the new kid on the block, has been embroiled in a pitched battle with the venerable Jamaican Jerk Hut, the popular eatery two blocks away that has been a South Street mainstay for more than 20 years.

Some Symphony House residents want to pull the plug on the Jerk Hut's live reggae music, which it offers to customers on the lot next to the restaurant on weekends in spring and summer months.

That the city Zoning Board of Adjustment in July ruled in the Jerk Hut's favor hasn't stopped Symphony House from filing an appeal with Common Pleas Court.

Which means thousands of dollars more in attorneys' fees out of owner Lisa Wilson's pocket.

"This has been killing our business," laments Wilson, whose outdoor operation, which accounts for 70 percent of business, was forced to go dark in 2009 while she waited for the Zoning Board's decision.

"They're hoping to get us to go away," sighs Wilson, who concedes it might just happen. "I hate to say it, but I can't continue to fight with these people."

A cultural gem

Nothing like lowering the boom on a cultural gem that just wants to serve up good music with its oxtails.

It's just that "not everyone enjoys the music," says Gary A. Krimstock, who represents the largely affluent residents of Symphony House, Center City One Condominiums, and Academy House. "It's disturbing to other residents in the area."

"It's illegal for them to operate outdoors because it's not under the Philadelphia zoning code. That's our position," Krimstock says.

In other words, forget that the Zoning Board already has given Wilson a variance. He'll see her in court - again.

The irony is that the lot is owned by renowned architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who've spent their lives designing and planning cityscapes and who believe in urban diversity and the comingling of neighborhoods. They've rented to the Jerk Hut for years.

Wilson, says Brown, has helped to beautify the property and "has done very well by it."

Outside rhythms

The pulse of the city is a selling point, if you believe the Symphony House website.

In the mix. Above it all. . . . The rhythms of the city at your feet. Where Beethoven and Brahms are your neighbors.

But not Bob Marley.

Wilson has tried the neighborly approach, inviting the protesters to dine at the Jerk Hut. And she's offered to lower the music and stop it at 9:30 p.m. instead of 11, as approved by the Zoning Board.

But there have been no takers.

Why be above it all? Just drag out litigation and bankrupt a small business owner.

That the Jerk Hut has operated for two decades without complaint - way before the film In Her Shoes, based on a novel by Philadelphian Jennifer Weiner, made it a national attraction - is a testament to its standing the test of time.

"The Jamaican Jerk Hut was here when nobody else wanted to move to this part of South Street," says lawyer Darlene Threatt, who represented Wilson at the zoning hearing. "They brought other businesses into the area."

"It seems to me [Symphony House] is trying to change the culture over there."

The point is, urban living is made up of all kinds of tastes, sounds, and flavors. You say Beethoven, I say Marley.

That's the beauty of living in the city. You have the choice of hearing either - or both.


Contact me at 215-854-4986 or Ajohnhall@phillynews.com. Read my work: http://go.philly.com/annette. Follow me on Twitter @Annettejh.

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