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Towering Achievement: 'Pearl' Vision and a Revitalized Neighborhood
In dazzling recent opening night festivities, the Pearl became the first new movie theater to open in North Philadelphia since the 1940s. With searchlights sweeping the sky in the familiar fashion of a Hollywood premier, the new theater joined 30 retail storefronts, the Shops at Avenue North, and a 12-story student housing tower called the Edge, adjacent to Temple University's main campus, in being introduced to Philadelphia and, more precisely, to North Philadelphia.
The $100-million anchor project of the Avenue North revitalization program was undertaken in 2004 by the development firm Tower Investments, Inc., which continues to transform Northern Liberties as well, and is headed by founder and CEO Bart Blatstein.
Said the builder/entrepreneur: "The Pearl is about doing a good thing, yes, and being part of the rebirth and revitalization of the neighborhood. It demonstrates that through the efforts of many, first-class development can occur in economically-disadvantaged areas.
"But the Pearl project is also about cooperation and continuity, about North Philadelphia's Jewish roots, since it was Jewish men and women who built up the area years ago; and about the roots, traditions and aspirations of the African-Americans who live and work in North Philly now.
"It's also about the long and generally mutually supportive relationship between Jewish people and African-Americans, both of whom have had to struggle against prejudice to make their way in the world.
"My dad was born in the neighborhood, so it's a coming home, coming full circle for me," said Blatstein, whose many roles in the Jewish community include serving as president of the Jewish Publishing Group.
"Just as Jewish families and business owners lived and worked in the neighborhood, developed it and watched it grow, so, too, now African-American families and business owners have the very real opportunity to see the neighborhood turn around, to see it redevelop and grow economically.
"Other developers said the project wouldn't work here and walked away, said a movie theater operator wouldn't come here but it has. There is no doubt in my mind that it's going to work and be a resounding success on all levels," remarked Blatstein.
The Pearl, which has 1,300 seats, is part of a 100,000-square-foot complex while the Edge, at 200,000 square feet, accommodates 1,200 students. They represent the largest private development in the history of North Philadelphia.
In brief remarks in one of the Pearl's theaters, following a lengthy and lively reception in the theater's lobby, Blatstein talked about the importance of giving neighborhood kids a theater to call their own: "Growing up in Northeast Philadelphia, there was a movie theater there to which I always went. That experience gave me great memories. That's what I hope will happen for the kids who live around here, because a movie theater is central to a neighborhood."
Gov. Ed Rendell, who conceived the Avenue North idea, and who had attempted to attract a developer in 1993, when he was mayor, credited his successor Mayor John Street.
"We've done a good job with housing, but without commercial development it means little," he said. "Now that we have both, it means a great deal for the community and for the city. This is going to be a permanent contributor to change," adding that when New York developers failed to take up the challenge, "it took a Philly boy, Bart Blatstein, to get it done."
While Mayor Street was jubilant over the Pearl's opening, he didn't take credit for it -- though Blatstein acknowledged wholeheartedly it never could have happened without him.
Instead, the mayor heaped praise on City Councilman Darrell Clarke, who represents the neighborhood.
"This is it, this is it; this is truly a great day," said a triumphant Clarke, who pointed out that the construction phase of the project produced one of the most successful minority and female business participation records of any Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority-assisted commercial project.
The new Pearl is named in honor of the original Pearl Theatre, a 1,400-seat movie house that opened in 1927 at 2047 Ridge Ave., and closed in 1963. It served as part of the country's "Black Vaudeville" circuit in the late 1920s and '30s.
Exploring roots and tradition offers a rich Jewish history in the Broad and Oxford streets neighborhood where the Pearl stands, and in other North Broad Street areas, including the city's famous Strawberry Mansion district, which had a Jewish population of 50,000 inhabitants after World War I. Many Jews called North Philly home until the late 1950s, but a Jewish exodus from the area began and basically concluded in 1964.
But a new chapter in its life has begun; according to those involved in the project, that is what the new Pearl Theater and the revitalized surrounding development means and will continue to mean to residents of North Philadelphia and to the city.