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Next time you’re a tiny bit north of Rittenhouse Square, look closely at the street signs. You might unknowingly be standing in Philadelphia’s French Quarter.
That is, if you’re willing to call two city blocks “a quarter.”
No, it doesn’t really match the vibes of the famous New Orleans neighborhood. And no, Philadelphians don’t really call it that, as evidenced by the barrage of confused locals reacting to a recent social media post.
Twitter user @PhillyPartTwo kicked off the conversation with a screenshot of a blog post mentioning the “French Quarter in Philadelphia Center City.”
Plenty of people replied expressing surprise, confusion, or outright disdain. So what’s the deal?
There’s a pretty light-on-details Wikipedia page for this so-called “French Quarter,” which vaguely mentions its designation shortly before the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philly… and also might not even meet Wikipedia’s “notability guidelines” for geographic features.
The name also shows up on Google Maps — a platform that’s not known for being the best neighborhood name gatekeeper.
Billy Penn took a quick comb through the internet and some local news archives to learn more.
A ‘salute’ to the ‘French presence in Center City’
Broad Street Review founder Dan Rottenberg claims on his personal website to have christened those two blocks as the “French Quarter” in the July 1998 issue of Philadelphia magazine in July 1998. (Rottenberg also claims he was first to use the term “yuppie” in publication.)
It was on the following Bastille Day that the City of Philadelphia officially designated the area, declaring 17th to 19th streets between Sansom and Walnut to be Philly’s own French Quarter.
The French consul in Philadelphia at the time, Daniele Thomas Easton, told the Philadelphia Daily News the name was a “loose designation” — one meant to “salute the French presence in Center City.” It was part of a broader effort by the consulate and the city to highlight France-Philly connections, she told the paper.
There is a pretty notable French connection nearby: Although the park was part of William Penn’s original plan for Philadelphia, Rittenhouse Square was reimagined in the 1910s by the French architect Paul Philippe Cret, who also designed the Ben Franklin Parkway (inspired by the Champs Elysees) and the Ben Franklin Bridge. Cret’s Rittenhouse Square designs included the diagonal walkways, the ovular center plaza, the entrances, and the fountain and reflecting pool — much of how the park looks today.
Plus, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the area in and around the newly named “French Quarter” was home to a number of French (or French-influenced) businesses, like La Creperie Cafe, the bar L’Hexagone, and chef Georges Perrier’s Brasserie Perrier. Perrier’s older and more famous restaurant, Le Bec Fin, was a few blocks away.
The new moniker came less than a year before the May 2000 opening of Sofitel Philadelphia, a French-owned luxury hotel at 17th and Sansom which still operates — and still describes itself as “nestled between Philadelphia’s French Quarter and picturesque Rittenhouse Square Park.”
Shortly after its opening, Sofitel Philadelphia actually held a Bastille Day block party, The Inquirer reported.
That wasn’t the only celebration of French culture in the area that year: the 2000 Rittenhouse Row Spring Festival chose its theme to pay tribute to the new “French Quarter” label, per the Daily News.
That French-themed fest included an open-air French-style farmer’s market (how is that different from an American farmer’s market? Good question), pop-up outdoor cafes, a European fashion show, the French consul passing out newspapers and maps from France, and a celebration of the restoration of the Rittenhouse Square fountain.
If we’re going to have a French Quarter, should it really be *there*?
Lots of closures have happened in the past 24 years, so other than the Sofitel Philadelphia, there aren’t many French businesses left in Philly’s “French Quarter” — though the labels on the street signs still remain.
The French consulate is also a quick walk from the area, at 17th and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, and Stephen Starr’s French bistro, Parc, is less than a block away.
But some argue the area isn’t really a good fit to be Philly’s designated center of French history or culture.
Historically, Philly has had some strong ties to France — not to mention Michelin declaring us the “Frenchest American city” just this year — and there’s a number of places that people argue have some more interesting or significant connections.
How about the Ben Franklin Parkway itself?
Or the area around Washington Square, where Napoleon’s brother lived.
Or Mt. Airy, which really looks the part.
History or no history, some are totally unwilling to accept the “French Quarter” designation for a simple reason: the list of Philly neighborhoods — including those made up by realtors or marketers — is way too long already.