Ed Zampitella walks through Graffiti Pier. Credit: Mark Dent / Billy Penn

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Andrew Loewenstern and Jaimie Einsbruch promise they didn’t come to Graffiti Pier solely for the Instagram. They took one during a recent visit, though — and a Snapchat for good measure.

Why wouldn’t they? Everyone does who visits Graffiti Pier. And as they walked back toward their car from the rainbow-colored pillars on an outcropping over the Delaware, Einsbruch thought more about how they’d heard about Graffiti Pier in the first place. While Instagram wasn’t their sole motivation, a friend’s picture likely was their inspiration.

“I guess if our friend didn’t post it,” Einsbruch said, “we wouldn’t have come.”

Philadelphia is still a city with the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, famous Art Museum steps and, yes, cheesesteak institutions. But a new kind of tourism has emerged, with social media taking formerly obscure sites into the mainstream. Residents and tourists who see their friends take immaculate Snaps and Instagrams decide to visit the same sites and then take the same cool picture, a shot that looks far more impressive than standing next to the Rocky statue.

“There are these trends popping up,” said VisitPhilly social media director and Billy Penn Who’s Next honoree Dana Schmidt, “like ‘do it for the ‘Gram’ things.”

The locations are obvious if you spend any time scrolling through the Philadelphia-located pictures on Instagram or under the hashtag #VisitPhilly. Graffiti Pier is up there, as is Magic Gardens. Maybe more than any site in Philadelphia, Magic Gardens has ridden the Instagram wave.

In 2002, Magic Gardens, the South Street art exhibit started by Isaiah Zagar, was at risk of extinction. A Boston-based owner had threatened to sell the property and dismantle the art. A two-year court battle followed, and it wasn’t until 2008 that Magic Gardens opened to the public similar to how it is now. In those early days, they were getting maybe 300 people a week. Now 300 people is a typical day. Two years ago, Magic Gardens surpassed 100,000 annual visitors for the first time. It expects 140,000 this year.


Allison Boyle, events & marketing manager for Magic Gardens, knows Instagram has played a role. She hears about it all the time in person and online. Visitors say they’re here for the picture. Some caption what they share, “just paid $10 for the ‘Gram.’

Magic Gardens is happy to have all the new traffic, even if it means some people pose on the sidewalk without paying the entry fee.

“We recognize we’re a very visually interesting space, which is what Isaiah is all about,” Boyle said. “We welcome people coming in and tagging us in any social media. We want them to really connect with the artwork.”

As popular as places like Magic Gardens and Graffiti Pier are, they still don’t compare to Philadelphia’s traditional tourist sites, even on social media. The Art Museum was Philly’s most ‘grammed site in 2016, followed by Lincoln Financial Field. Others in the top 10 included Penn, Temple, the Philadelphia Zoo, PHL and the Fillmore.

As part of her job, Schmidt regularly scans through the 400 to 500 pictures tagged #VisitPhilly on Instagram daily. She’s noticed Graffiti Pier, for sure, but also more subtle and unexpected places. This time of the year, for instance, Powelton Village and Fabric Row become hotspots, with dozens of ‘Grammers seeking out the colorful homes.

Temporary art installations and special art tours have also benefitted. Mural Arts has a ticketed tour of love letter murals along the Market-Frankford Line. Yes, people are riding the El for $22 in the name of art.

“I’m not sure people would ride the El to take photos if they hadn’t already seen it on Instagram,” Schmidt said.

The Instagram effect has meant more than increased foot traffic. When increasing crowds of young people start popularizing an area, change is bound to happen. The Divine Lorraine developed a cult-like following while it was abandoned, becoming so famous on social media that thousands showed up for an open house in 2015. It’s now actively leasing. The Reading Viaduct, formerly a favorite for urban explorers and many an Insta, is being redeveloped into the rebranded Rail Park.

“I’m a little bummed out honestly,” said Zoe McCarthy, a recent art school graduate. “I liked how it was so open before.”


When Rail Park designer Bryan Hanes was recently asked about other industrial relics that come to mind as possible redevelopment projects, he mentioned Graffiti Pier. Not long ago, the area was unknown even to many nearby Port Richmond and Fishtown residents. On weekends now, it’s hard to find a nearby parking spot, and new pictures pop up on Instagram and nearly every hour of the day.

McCarthy brought a friend from out of town to Graffiti Pier recently, Ben Kaufman. A camera dangled from his neck as they stood on the pier’s farthest edge, looking out toward the Delaware and Ben Franklin Bridge. Did he plan on taking an Instagram?

“I assume so.”

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...