Roma Dati has watched South Philadelphia ebb and flow over the 50 years she’s lived in the same home on Sigel Street. Her family’s moved out, but the 90-year-old remains in the rowhouse she loves and knows nearly everyone on her block and the ones around it. And she doesn’t mind change. In fact, she welcomes it.
Dati and some of her neighbors say they’re pretty OK with Le Bok Fin, a summertime pop-up beer garden installed by developers on top of the now-defunct Edward W. Bok Technical School, a neighborhood school that was one of many to close down two years ago because the district was staring down a massive budget deficit. Dati’s friends from the neighborhood tell her all the time she’d love it up there, overlooking the city from on top of Bok.
“I think it’s nice, and I’d love to go up,” she said, laughing. “If only I weren’t afraid of the elevator.”
You might have heard of Le Bok Fin by now. Hundreds of people have posted Instagrams from atop the building, mostly young people holding their cocktails and their craft beers and standing under the lights on summer nights. The floors below it in the school remain largely abandoned and unused. It’s been described as a “gentrification battleground.”
Le Bok Fin has been the target of Internet outrage after a Philadelphia teacher wrote that it’s wrong for the neighborhood and is insensitive to those who live there because it attracts “young, white people – the sort who build start-ups and attend expensive, pointless pop-ups and don’t worry about the community that was already there.” Her post created a contentious discussion and comments on the post were shut down.
There’s emerged a sizable contingent of people who think that in addition to the strange optics of boozing at a French beer garden on top of a building once used for learning, Le Bok Fin is attracting young, white millennials to the neighborhood and helping to usher in gentrification to the largely working class area.
Last week, Philadelphia Jobs With Justice started a Facebook page that encouraged people to write negative Yelp reviews of Le Bok Fin, saying “a lot of these bar patrons don’t realize the cruel symbolism.” As of Tuesday evening, three of the 33 Yelp reviews of the beer garden were one-star reviews.
Located at 9th and Mifflin Streets in East Passyunk Crossing, the 340,000 sq. ft. Bok building is a hulking and commanding structure. It was officially purchased from the school district by Lindsey Scannapieco of Scout Ltd. in July for $1.75 million, despite the property being appraised by the city at much more than that.
Long-term, developers want to repurpose the building and turn it into a mixed-use “makerspace” for artisans and businesspeople alike. But while that’s being developed, Scout wanted to use the roof view to make money in the short-term and attract people to the building. So Le Bok Fin was born, and it was set to be a five-week pop-up — the name is a nod to a student-run restaurant that was once in the building. And that name was itself a nod to George Perrier’s Le Bec-Fin, an upscale, French Philadelphia restaurant that also closed in 2013.
Scannapieco said some of the online narrative about Le Bok Fin has been wrong. She says the developers have worked with neighborhood organizations and community leaders to connect the history of the Bok building with “the inevitable future.” But, from her perspective, it’s not “a school-closure themed bar.”
“We had an alumna in here who was so excited because the roof was closed when she was there before, and she was so excited to finally be up there,” she said. “Our thought was that this wasn’t a bad space. We opened it within four weeks of getting the keys. It was a miracle, and it literally took so much work. So that was the idea, let’s invite people in.”
Most of the residents we spoke with weren’t all that concerned with the optics of putting a beer garden on top of a place that was once a place for learning trades. Albert Burns has lived on Dudley Street next to the Bok building for 15 years, and said outside his home this week that he doesn’t have a problem with the beer garden, the yoga studio or the redevelopment of Bok.
“It wasn’t being used anyway,” he said. “I think it’s nice.”
Other neighborhood men standing two blocks away were confused when we told them people were angry about the establishment, saying “let ’em have fun on the roof” and quipping that it’s nice to see people hanging around the area. And still, other neighbors in the around the Bok building were surprised that there even was a bar on top of the shuttered school. One man said now that he was asked about it, he’ll have to check it out.
Pat Simpkins and her daughter Danielle Dittus debated while standing along 9th Street what the beer garden might mean for the neighborhood. Simpkins said she’s generally concerned when more bars and establishments that sell alcohol are added to neighborhoods because of what they can bring. She said she’s seen what alcohol fuels, and was especially nervous someone would accidentally fall off the top of the roof.
“I don’t want to see all that around here,” she said. “And I just hope it doesn’t bring in more burglaries.”
Dittus, on the other hand, thought Le Bok Fin was good for the neighborhood — anything that brings in business, she says, should be celebrated.
“It could be one of those things,” she added, “that helps turn the neighborhood back into what it once was.”