"You can feel the history here - what it must have been like before the [Vine] Expressway, and 100 years before that, when the area was a vibrant, rough-and-tumble working-class area known for manufacturing," says Ian Cross. "There used to be a circus and a brewery yards away. I love neighborhoods that don't quite make sense."
Cross, chief executive officer of the local design/marketing firm I-Site, has refurbished the once-trashy Trestle Inn, a go-go bar at 11th and Callowhill. In October it reopened as a whiskey bar, eatery, and black-box performance space, with dancing girls and drag queens part of the nightly show.
The Trestle Inn and Gary Reuben's Underground Arts basement theater in the Wolf Building at 12th and Callowhill are among the higher-profile new entrants into the burgeoning "Eraserhood."
Reuben, an architect and real estate developer, and his Regis Group partner, Gary Reisner, bought the 170,000-square-foot mixed-use Wolf Building in 1997. Its tenants range from social-services organizations to painter Nelson Shanks' Studio Incamminati. Additionally, says Reuben, "we're moving toward making more of the building residential."
It's the building's 11,000 square feet of dusty basement called Underground Arts (UA) that's of interest to such Philly theater artists as Sarah Sanford (who christened the space with Appetite in May 2009), Thomas Choinacky and Amanda Grove (who debuted their SoLow Fest of one-person shows there in 2010), Brat Productions' 2010 Halloween Carrie, and 2011's Fringe Fest-timed Late Nite Cabaret.
"As an avid theatergoer with kids in the arts world, Gary gets that struggling artists who aren't privileged need support," says Scott Johnston, who, with Mike Staldi and Michael Thatcher, booked and ran 16 free nights of theater and music during 2011's Late Nite Cabaret. "Reuben gave us support and then some." In return, Staldi and Thatcher stayed on to continue to help program Underground Arts.
Its first objective is to offer space free of charge to selected artists, to help them build confidence as well as develop an audience without the struggles of renting. Reuben came up with this idea when his son, Max, graduated from New York University's Tisch School of Drama and cofounded a theater troupe, Aggrocrag.
"My son grew up doing shows in the basement - and here we are again," Reuben says with a laugh. "In his four years of studies, my wife and I saw Max and his fellow students creating viable stuff. We also became aware of how difficult it is to pursue and make a living at. So I went to my business partner with an idea: We have a basement. Let's make it available to artists free so they could begin to have their voices heard and experience making money while doing so."
So now tenants can do their laundry in the basement - or see a show. Landlord Reuben offers scads of giveaway and half-price tickets. He notes, "People will want to live in this building for this idea alone, yet we do want [Underground Arts] to be bigger than just our building."
Along with the aforementioned thespians, performance artist-singer Johnny Showcase and other theater, spoken-word, dance, and music artists have used UA's stages. This month, area alterna-folkies Spinning Leaves, the multimedia Theater Confetti, and Rachel Laibson's shadow dance-filled show "Illuminoir" will be performing in the space.
"Gary has this born-again fervor for the possibilities of a bustling performing-arts venue and an incubator for new work," says David Sweeny, the actor behind the Johnny Showcase persona. "It was hard not to be excited by his vision."
To help subsidize that vision, Reuben has, of course, pursued grants. Also in the works is a bar/restaurant component called Underground Eats with a newly installed kitchen and a chef (Tom Stalling) with a colorful background. "Tom's a session drummer-turned-chef," say Reuben. "We're giving him a chance, like we do everyone here."
While Reuben mentions themed performance-and-cocktail events and a craft beer named for Underground Arts, the basement's vision expands to include making DVD recordings of each event available to artists and audiences, and live-streaming capabilities with quality sound and video. An online network would offer outsiders a chance to participate in the mini-revolution happening in what was once a dingy, uninviting part of Philly.
As Underground Arts and the down-the-block Trestle Inn offer habitues new places to hang, they help turn the area into a viable commercial area. Attila Ujvari, a sergeant in the Army Human Resources Command, says he moved to the Wolf Building so he could be close enough to Center City to "stumble home" after a night out. But he's come to enjoy UA's basement offerings ("It's got a real hipster-dive environment") as well as other hot spots in his own increasingly busy area.
"I feel safe here," he says. "I'd like to see it develop along the lines of the East Passyunk area, where there's day and night life."
Ian Cross and his wife and partner in the Trestle, Josette Bonafino, also would like to see a 24-hour scene in their adopted neighborhood. The Trestle has added Sunday brunches to its schedule (with drag goddess Brittany Lynn), a fine chef (Travis Messman, ex-Arrow Swim Club), and a happy hour at least as fabulous as the one that's long been associated with the cozy go-go bar.
"I know I missed the glory years of the '70s and '80s, but we get guys who used to work in the neighborhood," says Cross. "Firemen and cops come in and share stories, some of them pretty crazy. This is a corner that people have come to cut loose at for over 100 years. You can feel it."
Along with reigniting the go-go tradition ("original go-go from the '60s, not the modern bastardization") and bringing something provocative but not pornographic to the burlesque scene, Cross wants the inn to be eclectic and edgy - something you'd expect under a railroad trestle on the edge of downtown - but good for all who live and play in the area.
"First thing is that we need to make this a unified neighborhood for everyone, day and night," Cross says about holding onto both the grit and the green. "We need to keep the character and make it easy to set up businesses, bars, and arts venues while creating a critical mass of workers and residents."