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Can Music Save The City?

September 19, 2014

NikGreeley02onlineText and images by G.W. Miller III.

It’s a mid-summer Wednesday afternoon in South Philly and the brass is pumping. The crew from the funk ensemble Swift Technique blast out song after song that gets people moving. And when they cover Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” well, the crowd in the backyard at the Headlong Performance Institute erupts.

People who had been drinking whiskey and studying their intricate glassware suddenly jump to their feet and start twisting, stomping and waving their hands in the air. The two girls sitting on the vendor table where tapestries are offered start moving side-to-side in unison. Even the guy manning the grill at the opposite end of the courtyard starts spinning around, a spatula in one hand and a PBR in the other.

As the song ends and the trumpet sound fades, you can hear the bandmates mumbling for a moment as they improvise their set list.

Singer Chelsea ViaCava speaks into the microphone and explains, “We’ve got to figure out what we all know.”

It’s a spontaneous and communal affair – the people performing are all part of Rising Pulse Productions team. Bass players, drummers, trombonists and a bongo player rotate in and out between songs.

“Nik?” ViaCava says into the microphone. “Do you know this one?”

And Nik Greeley, the frontman for the rock band formerly known as Black Stars, who had been standing by the food table, drinking beer and talking to everyone, runs toward the band and takes the mic.

ViaCava and Greeley (pictured above) whisper for a moment and then break into a super groovy, horn-backed version of Bill Withers’ “Use Me.” Greeley – the ultimate showman – growls, pumps his fist and slides to his knees, where he arches his back and pleadingly wails before the girls sitting on the tapestry table.

He frantically emotes for one more song, seemingly burning through all of his energy and passion, and then retreats to the back of the courtyard and his beer.

“Getting out of Jersey and being here all the time has done wonders,” admits Greeley, 24, who recently started working in Center City and has been performing around town much more since leaving his family home in Marlton. “It’s really refreshing.”

In a few weeks, he’s moving into an apartment in the city. He’s refocused his life – music is what he wants to do. And he knows that he has to be here to make it all happen.

“If you’re an artist from South Jersey, there’s a lot to write about because we’re all disgruntled,” Greeley says with a laugh. “But we have to come to Philly to be recognized.”

KindredTheFamilySoul2014onlineThat’s always been the case.

People have been coming to Philadelphia to find musical success for generations. American Bandstand, Gamble and Huff, Larry Gold’s The Studio and other attractions drew world-class talent to the city.

Pottstown native Daryl Hall came to Philly where he met John Oates, who had moved to the city from North Wales. Marsha Ambrosius arrived in Philly from Liverpool. Amos Lee was born here but raised in Cherry Hill. After college in South Carolina, Lee returned to Philadelphia and became a staple of the local music scene (when he wasn’t on the road).

The new arrivals complemented a deep stable of homegrown talent, a historic all-star list that includes Frankie Avalon, Pat Martino, Will Smith, Jill Scott, Jazmine Sullivan, Meek Mill and more.

“Music is the heartbeat of Philadelphia,” says Philly native Fatin Dantzler, half of the R&B duo Kindred The Family Soul. “Music is the science behind everything.”

We’ve always been a talented city but in the early 1990s – when Ed Rendell became mayor – music and the arts were placed at the center of the city’s revitalization plan. When he took office, the city was 27 days away from being bankrupt. Crime had spiked 16 percent the year before Rendell became mayor. And decades of neglect had left the city dirty, scary and short of prospects.

“There was no building going on in the city, no businesses in the city,” Rendell recalls. “And everyone was leaving or looking to take the first available option out of the city.”

One of Rendell’s first major projects was the creation of the Avenue of The Arts, Inc., a non-profit organization tasked with using the arts to draw people to Broad Street, from Glenwood Avenue in North Philly to Washington Avenue in South Philly.

That initiative spurred tourism and then fostered the restaurant revival. It slowly helped create the vibrancy we see downtown today. That energy started spreading around the city, cascading from neighborhood to neighborhood over the past 20 years.

“The arts are at the center of everything,” says Helen Haynes, the city’s chief cultural officer. “Some people think of the arts as a fringe but they’re not and they’ve never been at the fringe of any culture. If you study the great cultures of the world, going back in history, the things that we dig up to find out what they were thinking, what they were doing, what their philosophy was, how their society was progressing? It’s through the arts. What we create as artists defines who we are.”

The arts have also become a major economic driver, generating more than $3.3 billion in the region annually, according to the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.

The problem is that we may now be at the apex of this spectacular movement and it’s difficult to imagine the pace continuing. Foundation funding for organizations is becoming difficult to obtain. There are more organizations – galleries, music venues, theaters, nonprofits, etc. – fighting for every available dollar. And the employment outlook for artists remains bleak. Too many of our musicians, for instance, serve coffee or deliver pizzas in between concerts and tours.

In a post-industrial era, however, music and the arts may be the last great hope for a city with a massive public education crisis, lack of political leadership and conservative values masked behind Democratic voter registration.

“Holding on to the creative class, especially the Millennials,” says Haynes, “that’s going to be really important.”

Can the arts and associated amenities keep them (and their tax base) here?

Can music save the city?

The answer to both questions almost has to be yes.

Or else.

SwiftTechnique2014a“That’s the natural progression of any society,” says Greg Rosen, the trumpet player and founding member of Swift Technique.

Manufacturing grows, labor becomes expensive and then industry leaves for places where production is cheaper. The arts rise in their place.

Rosen lives above the Headlong Performance Institute, where this Wednesday afternoon show is taking place. Headlong’s ground floor studios were once the viewing rooms for the Fiorentino Funeral Home. Behind the stage in the courtyard is the former crematorium.

Rosen, who hails from Bordentown, New Jersey, came to Philadelphia to attend the University of The Arts. After graduating in 2011, he watched as many of his friends ran off to New York, Austin and elsewhere.

“We don’t have to go to New York to prove we’re good musicians,” he says of his band.

Greeley nods in agreement, although he gave New York a shot. After one semester at Burlington County Community College, Greeley moved to New York to attend a one-year program at the Institute of Audio Research in Greenwich Village. He interned at the B.B. King Blues Club and a few studios. But things didn’t work out.

“Living in New York just became too expensive,” he admits.

So Greeley, then just a 20-year-old punk with grand aspirations, moved to 35th Street and Haverford Avenue in West Philly.

Because of our numerous colleges, many young people arrive in Philadelphia every year. Between 2000 and 2010, Philadelphia added 50,306 new residents between the ages of 20 and 34, according to the U.S. Census.

The overall city population increased over the last decade for the first time following a 50-year population decline, during which we lost more than 500,000 residents. The marketing people like to say that the rise in population is due to the influx of creative young people and the empty nesters who buy fancy condos.

The reality is slightly different, however. The number of foreign-born folks living in the city increased by 11.8 percent between 2008 and 2012. From 2000 to 2010, Philadelphia added 58,683 people of Hispanic origin and 28,751 Asians. The percentage of Philadelphians who classify themselves as white was at 41 percent in 2010, down from 45 percent in 2000, a loss of 57,041 people. In 1940, 86.8 percent of city residents were white.

The changing face of the city parallels the changing tax base. Many of the new residents – the Millennials and the immigrants – have low-end or service industry jobs. And the much celebrated population increase was muted by the recent global recession, which squashed the already bleak job market in the city.

Greeley lasted about six months in West Philly before he and his roommate ran into problems. Also, his music career failed to take off and he was broke.

“I just tapped out,” he remembers.

He moved back to Jersey with his parents.


Josh Tirado (center) and the Rock To The Future House Band.

It was a different world when Cherry Hill native Jim Sutcliffe graduated from Glassboro State University (now Rowan) in 1990 and began taking the bus to Philly for an internship at the Electric Factory. After six months, he was hired full-time to do PR work, so he moved into an old warehouse with no heat on Third Street just north of Market.

“It was a ghost town after 5,” he recalls. “The whole neighborhood would just clear out.”

They played wiffle ball in the vacant lots and held all-night parties in their building, which was occupied by visual artists, modern dancers, musicians and other creative types. The art scene had slowly migrated to Old City from South Street, starting with the Painted Bride in 1982.

Many young artists hung out at the Khyber Pass Pub, which began presenting alternative rock music in 1988, long before the area was a destination. Yet, the 200-person venue brought in acts that would become huge – Hole, Smashing Pumpkins, Pavement and others.

“It was amazing to be a part of that scene,” says Sutcliffe, who is now the director of marketing for Live Nation in Philadelphia.

Other arts organizations sprung up around the neighborhood. In 1991, they began celebrating the creativity there by holding First Friday events. And by 1995, there were at least seven venues in Old City offering live, original music.

As the area prospered and artists were priced out, the creative folks moved north – to Northern Liberties and then to Fishtown and now into Kensington and beyond. Other scenes sprouted around the city, often around music venues and cultural institutions. Born from the arts, those areas have matured into cohesive communities.

“The sector as a whole enhances civic life by providing a wide variety of publics with significant cultural experiences that are both inspirational and entertaining,” says Paula Marincola, the executive director of The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. “These experiences resonate with audience members not only in that moment but also throughout their day-to-day lives.”

In other words, there’s also a social impact of the arts.

“The arts do a lot more than put money into the system,” says Haynes, the city’s chief cultural officer. “They do a lot more.”

Josh Tirado was older than the age limit at Rock To The Future, a free music workshop for city kids, when he started picking up his little sister, Samira Long, there four years ago. While he was waiting for her to finish band practice, the 14-year-old, 5’9”, 230-pound high school football player would sit down with other students and assist them with their math homework.

One day, RTTF program director Josh Craft approached Tirado.

“He said if I keep helping kids with their math homework, he’ll teach me how to play guitar,” remembers Tirado.

Tirado quit football and visited the Kensington-based workshop after school nearly every day and most Saturdays for the next four years. While other kids in his Fishtown neighborhood were stealing bicycles, joining gangs, getting into fights and worse, Tirado learned how to play guitar, bass, piano and drums.

“Thank god I didn’t hang out with those kids,” Tirado says. “I’m not trying to mess up my future or anyone else’s.”

He had been bullied when he was younger but the music lessons gave him the social skills to deal with people. He quit fighting with his sister. Tirado became more disciplined and his grades improved – he was an honors student his last two years at Franklin Learning Center. In June, he became RTTF’s first high school graduate.

“He’s doing things on his own now,” says Tirado’s mother, Catherine Long. “He didn’t have the confidence to think he could do stuff before.”

In August, Tirado ended his RTTF house band career, performing the intricate guitar solo in Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” before a small crowd at a fundraiser for the organization. He started classes at the Community College of Philadelphia this semester. He plans to become an X-ray technician.


The Rock To The Future House Band.

It’s a Thursday night, a week after the afternoon show at Headlong. Nik Greeley stands outside of Finnegan’s Wake, talking to everyone who walks into the club for the Liberty Music Fest. He has a personalized greeting for each person – all the music industry people, that is.

But he looks exhausted. He slumps against the wall. His big head of dark, bushy hair is slightly disheveled. His shirt is fairly wrinkled (the result of being worn several days in a row). Four years of living in Jersey, commuting to Philly for regular shows, rehearsals, recording sessions, networking and supporting friends, plus worrying about his future, have taken their toll on the young man.

“I kept thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’” Greeley says of his time living with his parents.

As the leader of Black Stars, he handled booking, promotion, press relations and everything else involved in managing the band. He worked odd jobs to pay the bills but he was constantly chasing his tail and getting nowhere.

“This summer has been all about change for me,” he offers. “I’m figuring out what I want to be. Starting a band is a fucking business.”

And Black Stars are falling apart. The original lineup has essentially broken up – the drummer is now a nurse, the guitar player is in business school and the bass player makes more money performing cover band gigs.

“The last four years have been a learning process,” Greeley says of his time in Jersey. “I’m ready to start with a clean slate.”

Look at Center City now and it’s hard to imagine the dark days. Walk down 13th Street on a Friday night and you have to fight through mobs of people, past outdoor diners, gelato lovers and revelers of all sorts.

Everything seems so grand.

“When you look at the aggregate, there has been some recovery from losses during the recession,” says Michael Norris, the interim president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. “But what we’re seeing is that that’s actually being driven by a small number of organizations that are doing really, really well because they have a large endowment.”

The Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Barnes Foundations, for instance, are thriving.

“When you take a snapshot of the sector, it looks pretty good,” Norris continues. “But when you remove these outliers, it’s not so pretty. A lot of our organizations are in deficit. They’re struggling through the shifting funding environment, trying to see new business models. That creates some volatility.”

The Prince Theater, Suzanne Roberts Theater, the Please Touch Museum and others are now struggling.

“We’ve had a rich foundation culture for so long and in some ways,” Norris says, “that kind of created an over-reliance upon foundations.”

The institutional funding landscape has crumbled – the Annenberg Foundation moved to California, Pew refocused their priorities and Lenfest is spending down their money.

Despite 20 years of using the arts as the backbone of the city’s renaissance, there remains little support from government for the arts. Pennsylvania ranks 27th in the United States in terms of money allocated to the arts by state government, according to National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

Aside from the Percent for Art program, which requires developers building on land acquired through the city’s Redevelopment Authority to dedicate at least one percent of the total construction costs toward the commissioning of original art, there is very little public money that is dedicated to the arts in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Cultural Fund has a meager $3.1 million to allocate annually. Any other funding must be begged for in legislative bodies, thrusting the arts into competition with education, crime prevention, public transportation and other social programs.

“Targeted investments in the arts at the grassroots level are both higher-quality and less expensive than the white elephant stadiums, convention centers and mega-casinos that so many city leaders waste their taxpayers’ money on,” says Richard Florida, the University of Toronto and NYU professor who pioneered the academic study of the creative class. “The idea is to foster the organic development of a uniquely authentic creative scene, not to expensively graft something onto it – a big, new symphony hall that will never sell enough tickets to support itself or a ‘cultural center’ that is really a subsidized venue for commercial touring acts.”

Our politicians seem to recognize this but they can only do so much in a city strapped for cash. City Councilman David Oh launched PHL Live, a music festival/competition that is intended to show off our local talent. In June, councilmembers Curtis Jones, Blondell Reynolds Brown and Cindy Bass sponsored a resolution to hold hearings to “investigate methods to enhance new and emerging artists’ access to arts, entertainment and cultural venues.”

The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance is now developing a cultural platform to ensure that the arts and culture are a focal point in next year’s race to replace Michael Nutter as mayor. Among the ideas they are considering are tax breaks for artists and the creation of new arts districts.

“Writ large, creative economies turn on knowledge, ideas and copyrightable or patentable content, as opposed to manufactured goods and services,” says Florida. “As such, their most important resource is the innate talent and creativity of their residents. Creative people are drawn to communities that are open, diverse and thick with amenities.”

It becomes a perpetual circle – art creates community, which needs culture to survive and thrive. If we don’t keep our young, creative talent here and constantly attract new people through arts and culture, the city is left with a declining tax base, an education system on the brink of collapse and a political machine that would make Rizzo proud.

And right now, we are at the precipice.

NikGreeleyOriannaNik Greeley reached his low point last winter. He was so depressed that he barely got off the couch at his father’s home in Marlton. Also, the people he grew up with were succeeding or otherwise moving on. The final straw landed when his father moved from Jersey to the Pennsylvania suburbs.

Rather than move with his father, Greeley lined up an apartment in the city. But the apartment’s availability kept getting delayed and delayed. He was already committed to the city by then, so he crashed on couches in Manayunk, Fishtown and here, at the South Philly home of Jake Weaver, his manager from Rising Pulse Productions.

Greeley takes a swig of his Dogfish Head IPA and sheepishly admits, “For the past few months, I’ve essentially been homeless.”

His possessions are spread around numerous friends’ homes, which is why he wears the same clothes for days on end – he only ever has a few items with him anywhere. And despite Weaver having a sectional couch with at least 20 feet of sofa surface, Greeley usually opts to sleep on the floor.

“I haven’t slept in a bed in four or five months,” he says. “My back is fucked up. Sofas are too soft.”

Ironically, he’s busier than ever. He’s a server at a Center City restaurant a few days per week. The band formerly known as Black Stars (they are likely changing the name since the lineup has completely turned over … but coming up with a band name is difficult) have performed a lot over the summer in Philly, New York and elsewhere. Greeley has also been singing for Swift Technique at gigs all around the Mid-Atlantic region. And during down times, he and his new colleagues in Black Stars have been recording at Forge Studio whenever they can.

“Every day I wake up and I just go with it,” Greeley says. “I know what I have to do every day but I don’t know where I’ll wind up.”

He sees no resolution to his housing situation in the near future. He’s in permanent limbo.

Tomorrow, Greeley will play four shows – a block party in Northern Liberties, a deck party at Dave & Buster’s, a bar show in Marlton and a Swift Technique gig at World Café Live. He’s not sure where he’ll rest his head after performing all day but he has no regrets about leaving Jersey for Philadelphia.

“It sucks being a burden on friends but I’ll return the favor one day,” he says. “I’m so much happier now.”

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  1. Featured in JUMP Philly Fall 2014 | Rock to the Future

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