Penns top facilities honcho envisions 40th Street as a link bridging the intellectual ferment of the campus and the artistic, ethnic and economic diversity of the neighborhood.
Photo by Candace diCarlo
The big screens at 40th and Walnut will light up for the public Friday, Nov. 8, just in time for date night. After two days of celebration and previews for invitees, The Bridge: Cinema De Lux, a cooperative venture between the University and National Amusements, will import here its West Coast, upscale take on going to the movies (see Campus Buzz, page 8).
The theater is the linchpin for Omar Blakes cosmopolitan vision for the revival of the 40th Street area as a commercial strip where campus and the neighborhood meet.
Blaik, who is vice president for Facilities and Real Estate Services, works with the team that oversees the Universitys construction program. The program has amounted to a billion dollars over the past five years and is arguably the most ambitious university construction program in the nation, Blaik said.
A native of Cairo, Blaik lives nearby with his family, and he brings his awareness of the University City neighborhoods diversity to the project. He also brings to it his consciousness that students do only half of their learning in the classroom. And creating a place for them to hang out, bump into faculty, have deep discussions and think is also his goal. If there is a mission for our department, it is to create the best urban campus in America. he said. Best? we asked. That attracts the best students and faculty to come and work here.
Q. Do you know which movies The Bridge will show first?
A. No. What we think will happen is there will be quite a bit of experimentation as they are coming to a new market, trying to find out what is right for the audience.
I think they will start with five of the screens probably [showing] first-run commercial movies.
You know, Philadelphia just doesnt have much competition here. For first-run commercials, this will probably be the theater in Philadelphia to come to.
And then for the sixth screen, they will experiment with art movies or non-Hollywood American movies. They are called crossovers. Crossovers are art movies that are done by independent studios, and then they get to be popular and then they take them on in regular theaters. The [Royal] Tennenbaums, In the Bedroom those are independent movies that made it big.
Q. Why did the theater take so long to build?
A. One point Id like to make as to the theater and its history, is that we were not the only ones who suffered from the multiple bankruptcies that hit the cinema industry over the past three or four years. In fact as we were trying to market our venue after the General Cinema deal collapsed, we were knocking on peoples doors along with 20 other mall developers and other real estate developers who were in exactly the same position as we were in. But it was not just General Cinema; Loews and so many other theater chains went under.
So it is remarkable, in my opinion, that we have been able to land on a bona fide theater operator like National Amusements, one of the largest private operators in the country. And for them, they had actually a lot of choice. They had three or four sites that were in Providence and in Long Island and elsewhere and they picked us, and I think there is a lot to be said about what they saw to be the market here and their proximity to a campus. And they really bought our vision for 40th Street.
Q. What was that vision?
A. The vision is basically that 40th Street is where campus and community meet. ...The campus will not go beyond 40th Street. What we have been engaged in is really a revitalization of the neighborhood, both its housing stock and the services it provides, but also to be a place that community and the campus student body meet. In providing a commercial strip with a small c, not a capital C, where it really celebrates the diversity of the neighborhood
Q. C for campus?
A. No, C for commercial. If you go with capital C, people will say OK, more of Gaps and Banana Republics. But thats not what the plan is. The plan is they want to capitalize on the enormous diversity that exists in locally grown businesses and projects. Plus our academic side. You have professors who are terrific jazz players, and professors who are artists, and they are into the gallery scene. There are community members from almost every corner of the world who actually live in the neighborhood. We are just opening a Senegalese restaurant called Fatou on Chestnut and 40th. We opened Bitar, which is a Middle Eastern restaurant. We opened a gallery space, Slought, across from the cinema; the opening [was] on the 18th for the public opening. Its run by a Penn graduate. ...What is it that we are trying to do? We are trying to create 40th Street as a commercial strip that provides entertainment arts and culture and services to both the campus and the community, and doing it in a way that is very unique, with a lot of character and sophistication. When people want to come to 40th Street, it will be because they really like that energy that gets created when you merge university and community together.
Q. Do you have a model?
A. I really think we have a terrific thing that no one else does.
One of the things that people underestimate is that the neighborhood, because of the flow of immigrants into the neighborhood, is very rich with quite deep, entrenched cultures and attitudes and activities that occur nowhere else.
You have a diversity in the neighborhood that goes beyond being international. It is really driven by a housing stock that is diverse. And this is something that is probably unique to Philadelphia compared to any place else in the United States. You have houses that are mansions, costing 400, 500 thousand dollars. A block away you have an apartment building that has two-bedrooms for $800 a month.
The other thing the diversity is in, is in the landscape and the width of the streets. You have the alleyways, you have the boulevards, you have the ones that are tree-lined. In many ways, I feel that when the planners planned for West Philadelphia, they really were on a mission to create a physical infrastructure that would insure the richness of this neighborhood through which many people from many different backgrounds come together. And I want physically to show it on 40th Street.
Q. And do you bring your own culture to the neighborhoods diversity?
A. I grew up in Cairo. My kids are bilingual. We celebrate Ramadan. When you come to our house during Ramadan, our trees have lanterns in them. I remember people walking by and just fascinated by how different it is. ...
You cannot walk anywhere in the neighborhood and hear only English. An artist, we just opened a studio for him on 40th and Chestnut, hes Argentinian, and he said, Omar, I have never seen a neighborhood [like this] and literally when I go out for a smoke and two Nigerian women are stopping by and someone from Latin America, and someone from Europe and a Russian, I love that.
Originally published on October 31, 2002