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Philadelphia’s Food Desert

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Philadelphia’s Food Desert

Thanks to the pandemic and protests, little eateries and fast-food restaurants are now all but gone in Center City. March 4, 2022
Cities
Covid-19
Economy, finance, and budgets

Downtown Philadelphia, or Center City, once had vast numbers of delicatessens and fast-food restaurants that could accommodate the flood of office workers into the city each day. The pandemic and lockdowns put an end to all that. The George Floyd riots of summer 2020 also played a part, leading to the destruction of a popular McDonald’s near Rittenhouse Square and the closure of a large WAWA on South Broad Street near City Hall. In the ensuing months, a wide assortment of fast-food restaurants and cafes closed, including a popular Burger King at Eighth and Market Streets and a WAWA next to Macy’s, which had become a kind of replacement for the closed eateries but bit the dust in late 2021 because of shoplifting.

Little eateries and fast-food restaurants are now all but gone from Center City. Cities need a multiplicity of choices—from a hole-in-the-wall coffee and bagel shop to the overpriced fusion Martini restaurant on the waterfront. A tourist visiting Philadelphia’s Society Hill section, where many historic sites are located and casual eateries were once common, would now be hard pressed to find one. Those looking for a simple hamburger must now consider more expensive fare.

This is not the case in Philadelphia neighborhoods, where fast-food venues and cafes still thrive. Only the dining options in Center City, it seems, have fallen prey to events of the last few years, making it even more of a “bubble” community—a sterile, largely empty place with tall office buildings and high-end restaurants.

The last remaining fast-food restaurant in Center City is a miniature Wendy’s nestled under a web of scaffolding and half hidden by the signage of a Wells Fargo bank. How it survived the havoc of the last several years is anybody’s guess. As the final holdout, this Wendy’s is so popular that lines always form at the service counters. It also provides indoor seating, unlike the fast-food restaurants in the neighborhoods, which often have takeout service only.

In January, the city directed restaurants and other venues that serve food to require patrons to wear indoor masks. In December, the city had mandated that patrons also show proof of vaccination before dining indoors. The requirement to show proof of vaccination has had an odd, if haphazard, effect on Philadelphia restaurants. Wendy’s, for instance, ignores the city regulation, as does the always-crowded Café Ole in Old City, near Third and Race Streets.

Café Olé, with its full lunch menu of organic cold and hot delicacies, happens to be one of the few remaining cafes in the city, aside from Starbucks. Café Olé did away with its indoor-mask policy more than a year ago, when such a choice still raised eyebrows, and it continues to do so today, blithely ignoring the January 2022 order on indoor masks, an order that, by the way, has become a joke throughout the city because of the lack of enforcement. Strangely enough, Café Ole’s bucking of the rules doesn’t seem to bother the café’s (mostly) politically progressive patrons who would otherwise follow mask policies with rigid orthodoxy. 

Responses to the city's guidelines constantly shape-shift according to the venue. At a recent press event at the Rodin Museum, for instance, I was not asked for proof of vaccination, but a hard-core mask mandate was in effect, such that the featured speakers, who usually take off their masks when they speak, kept them on, making their talks difficult to understand.

Mild panic over the Omicron variant also caused major institutions like the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia to go back to Zoom presentations. Many small private clubs in the city have also followed suit, while the city’s theater companies have taken different approaches. Some companies have been locked into Zoom presentations since 2020, while big theaters like the Merriam, the Forest, and the Walnut Street Theater are planning elaborate openings this spring.

The addition of so-called street eateries during the pandemic has helped many restaurants survive, but in the winter months these warm-weather dining options stand empty, reminiscent of abandoned horse stalls on a Chester County barn. Philadelphia’s city council has to decide whether to make the expanded street eateries permanent, despite Center City’s narrow sidewalks. The idea of permanence has a foe in council president Darrell Clarke, who introduced a bill that would extend the temporary outdoor dining that began during the Covid-19 pandemic, but only until June 30.

When it comes to pandemic regulations, nothing stays the same in Philadelphia for too long. In mid-February, around Valentine’s Day, came the announcement that the city would eliminate its vaccine passport requirement for restaurants. The news was greeted with enthusiasm, even if a long list of restaurants made it known that they would keep the vaccination requirement as a precautionary measure. Just yesterday, the city finally lifted its indoor mask mandate, except on public transit. But there’s no telling what may happen in the future.

Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images

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