How betting it all in June 1989 turned Manayunk into the beloved place we all know today. By Megan Douress Photography courtesy of Susan Beard Design Photography (susanbearddesign.com), JPG Photography (jpgphotography.com), and Manayunk.com
It’s an unusually warm April evening when some of the founding members of the Manayunk Arts Festival gather at Jake’s and Cooper’s Wine Bar to reminisce about how the event got its start. Every June for the last 30 years, Main Street Manayunk has welcomed nearly 200,000 visitors for the annual Manayunk Arts Festival. It’s hard to imagine now, but according to Dan Neducsin of Neducsin Properties, Manayunk was a sleepy former mill town when the festival first got its start. “I had some properties on the street but things weren’t going that well,” said Dan, who founded the Manayunk Arts Festival. “We needed to get people here.” Dan had an idea to host a festival to draw traffic to Manayunk, especially after speaking to his friend Alan Gross, a photographer who exhibited at an art fair in Chestnut Hill. An estimated 7,000 people attended the event every year. “I thought, ‘Wow, if we can get 7,000 people to our street, that would be a big deal,’” Dan remembered.
In the late 80’s, the district was going through a major revitalization. Former mill workers stuck around because housing remained affordable and crime rates were low. However, it was no longer feasible for mills to operate in a neighborhood consisting of narrow streets and steep hills. A handful of small businesses – some of which are still here today — began to move in. “We decided we wanted to open our own store after doing craft shows,” said Norma Mann, co-owner of Gary Mann Jewelers. “We looked at a lot of Main Streets and we just really liked the feeling of Manayunk with Jake’s, Jamie’s, Latitudes, and The Eyeglass Works. We were young and it was very much a supportive entrepreneurial environment here.” “These few small businesses who were moving in started out with antiques, and that sort of seemed like the push for where it was going,” added Victor Ostroff, former owner of A.I. Poland Jewelers. “There were small art-types of businesses – maybe not fine art – but people would come in for clothing that had an art element to it.” With a need for foot traffic and an interest in the art businesses that were already on Main Street, it only seemed natural for Dan’s concept to revolve around art. At the time, there were two business organizations: Business Association of Manayunk (BAM) and the newly formed New Manayunk Corporation (NMC). BAM was run by Gertie Solkov and was a resource for the small businesses that set up shop in Manayunk. NMC was founded by Kay Sykora in 1985 and focused more on community planning projects. As the president of BAM, Gertie volunteered her time to NMC by doing the books and recruited Becky Cornman to run the parking lots that brought revenue to the organization. No matter how great of an idea an arts festival was, Dan knew no event would be successful without the support of the business community. He went to BAM to ask for permission to host the event and for funding. “At the time, the organization had a budget of $14,000,” Dan laughed. “The board voted to give me $10,000 – more or less to use as seed money to start the arts festival. That was the good news and the bad news.” “I thought there was going to be an implosion on the street!” Kay chimed in. “I was the treasurer of BAM and Gert said to me, ‘Can we spend $10,000 on this?’” Victor remembered. “We didn’t even know what we were doing with that number but we ended up greenlighting it.” “I OK’d it because everyone wanted it,” Gertie said. “We only had $14,000 then? What were our [membership] dues? How much were they, $25 a year?” “We had $25 dues and we accumulated $14,000? I would like to go back and look at that number!” Victor said to a room of laughter. With the seal of approval from BAM and $10,000 in his pocket, Dan checked off the first two of many boxes on his to do list in order to get his new event off the ground. He sought the help of one of his tenants on the street, Ronni Brenner of Ahava, to assist with marketing the event. Jefferson Bank had just moved into the neighborhood, so he got CEO, Betsy Cohen, to chip in for sponsorship. Then, Dan took a step back and thought about the arts festival customer. Who would they be? What else were they interested in? He went to his friend David Lipson, owner of Philadelphia Magazine, for support. “My story was that his readers will be the ones who would come to an arts festival,” Dan said. “I thought, ‘If Philadelphia Magazine could be a sponsor, it would give us credibility right away.’ Jefferson Bank and Philadelphia Magazine were the first sponsors and we built it from there.” Of course, you can’t have a festival without food and unlike today, there weren’t many options on Main Street. Dan sought the help of his friend Larry Cohen, who owned the fruit vending and stadium catering company, KISS. “We made a deal and he put up substantial dollars, too,” Dan said. “The only caveat was if it rained, he didn’t pay. So the whole arts festival, I was praying it didn’t rain!” With the support of the business community, the confidence of David and Betsy to fund the festival, and food for his estimated 7,000 guests, Dan saw his event slowly coming to life. However, Dan wasn’t an event coordinator nor did he know the first thing about running an arts festival. He needed a staff that knew how to get artists to vend at the festival – and someone who knew how to speak their language. That’s when he reached out to Barbara Boroff, who had a history of executing mall craft shows. “I had good relationships with the artists,” Barbara said. “They trusted me and many came along.” The first Manayunk Arts Festival committee was a small group with big ideas. They had Dan’s concept, Barbara’s experience, logistics and branding support from Dan’s wife Luana, and day-of volunteer help from Victor, Dan’s colleague Allen Newman, and Barbara’s daughter Joan. At their first planning meeting at Jake’s – now famously known as Jake’s and Cooper’s Wine Bar – they needed to discuss the logistics of running a large festival. “I went to Shad Fest in New Hope a few months prior to the first arts festival,” Dan said. “It was a nightmare! It took me two hours to get there because there was no control of traffic. I was sweating like, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to create this monster and people are going to try to get to Manayunk and they’re never going to get there!’” Becky did her usual job to bring in revenue by manning Manayunk’s parking lots, but the group also decided to partner with North Light Community Center to run shuttle buses to remote parking lots – a tradition that still stands today. “If we didn’t have them, it would’ve been a one-year event,” Dan said. While having 7,000 people visit Manayunk for a weekend sounded great to the BAM board members who initially approved the event, there was a catch — the street would have to be closed. The plan sounded promising, though – line the artists back-to-back in the middle of the street so visitors would still have access to stores and restaurants. “The goal of the event was to sell Manayunk, not to sell an art show,” Barbara said. “I had to tell my artists, ‘You are not the stars. These businesses will be here on Thursdays when it rains and Sundays when it snows.’” “At that time of year, closing the street was the worst thing that could happen!” Victor added. “I remember trying to convince people that closing the street for these two days would be good for us the other 51 weekends of the year.” “Dan and Gertie did the whole pitch to us,” said Bruce Cooper, owner of Jake’s and Cooper’s Wine Bar. “It all sounded good. I saw the benefit of having all of these people on the street right from the get go.” “I was thrilled because July is always a month where people are away, so to have it at the end of June was something to look forward to,” added Davida Levin, owner of Worn Yesterday. “It was always good for business. I always do well according to the weather. If it turns out to be really hot, then all of the little kids need hats. If it’s a chilly day, then they need jackets.” But like all great plans, the committee hit a few bumps in the road.
“We had the sponsors, we had the artists, we had the street laid out, and the night before, the fire department came to us and said, ‘You can’t set it up this way.’ Barbara, I don’t know how you did it!” Dan said to her. “I stayed up all night!” Barbara responded. With her whole family in tow, Barbara took her chalk and remarked booth spaces for artists and sponsors on the opposite sides of the street. “I was helping in the middle of the night — eight months pregnant — marking the street,” Joan remembered. “We tried to keep front doorways open and created walkthroughs to businesses,” Barbara added. “We had a lot of issues with that but it finally did work.” “Is that an understatement, Barbara?” Victor joked. “I got heavily involved in the second year,” Allen said. “I was astonished because Barbara laid out the street the first year in chalk!” “Why? Because I didn’t want the street to be messed up after the show. That’s why it was chalk! I overdid being careful,” Barbara said. Allen explained that once he got more involved in year two, he would get up at 5 a.m. a few weeks prior to the festival to measure and mark the street in paint. “The interesting thing is every year, I went out to refresh the paint and each time I got more booths!” Allen remembered with a laugh. “It was never-ending. The street kept expanding!” The group shared many more logistical snafus and stories from the first few years, like how the street would reopen to traffic on Saturday night. “These artists who took three hours to put up their booths on Saturday morning had to then take them down Saturday night!” Barbara said. A few years later when the group got permission to keep the street closed throughout the weekend, the committee sought the help of local residents to help with overnight security. “They would drink all night and patrol!” Dan laughed. Kay recalled an early year when she lived on Cresson Street. She woke up to find an artist sleeping on a cot in her backyard. “The artist life is hard,” Joan said. “Many of them sleep in their campers or cars in our parking lot overnight.” Another year, Shurs Lane was being paved and essentially became a mudslide. Kay and Dan had to build ramps so the buses wouldn’t have to fight the uphill battle. For a few years, small hot air balloons sat on top of Main Street’s buildings representing each of the festival’s sponsors. “They were great until you had a big thunderstorm on Friday night and you had to let the air out of all of them!” Victor laughed. Another year, there was a fear that the power would go out due to a burst of new development in the area. “PECO put a generator in our parking lot but they said, ‘Not a problem. It won’t go out,’” Kay remembered. “So, we were hanging out in a sponsor area and the lights went out on the entire street. I went to them and I said, ‘The lights are out.’ They thought I was kidding.” Perhaps the most memorable moment from the arts festival’s mother-daughter duo was dinner at Jake’s after their very first successful event. “As a family, every year we would make reservations at Jake’s after the arts festival,” Joan said. “The first year we came here after being up all night. So, we’re eating dinner and having a glass of wine after working in 100 degrees. My mother fell asleep at the table.” “You had to tell that story. Only your kid would tell that story,” Barbara responded as she shook her head. “We all worked very hard and I looked over and there she is. I think we’ve come here every year since,” Joan said. The excitement and crowds far exceeded Dan’s original vision of 7,000 visitors. Two hundred and fifty artists vended that first year, and the police estimated 200,000 people visited Main Street in just one weekend. And while the Boroff family tradition of dinner at Jake’s has remained the same, the legend of the Manayunk Arts Festival has had quite an impact on the district throughout the years. Businesses that were already on Main Street started to evolve, and more importantly, more businesses started to move in. “I think it was a catalyst,” Dan said. “I had vacancy signs and it really brought people here who hadn’t been here or not in a long time. It was like they were just discovering it or were rediscovering it. After that, my phone rang off the hook and everyone wanted to be in Manayunk. I had previously told Gert we were going to bring people here that have never been here with this festival. She really believed in me.” After a few short successful years of having volunteers and business owners run the show, BAM and NMC merged to create the Manayunk Development Corporation (MDC), which has run the festival ever since. “As a consultant with MDC, I’ve been involved with the festival on and off throughout the years,” Joan said. “I have been involved with festival branding, media partnership and planning, and logistics, but it always comes down to the artists and the love of art. Without good artists and new artists, the show would go away. I would find new artists and give them that love. Even today, I’m always the one that’s like, ‘You have to be nice to the artists!’ We knew that if you don’t have a good arts show, you won’t have good sponsors.” “It was always a juried show,” Barbara added. “We made every attempt to keep out junk. It showed in our reputation and it showed in the quality.” To keep up with the trends of the artist lifestyle, MDC added an emerging artists tent to the festival seven years ago. Artists new to the festival scene are encouraged to apply for a table to sell their work in the large tent that sits on Grape Street. The expectation is that the artist will eventually move up to their own booth on Main Street after three years of vending from the tent. It’s the organization’s way of encouraging young artists to keep the tradition of art alive in Manayunk. “Your first year with a full booth is half off,” Joan said of the emerging artists transition. “In fact, one of the people that’s moving up is this year’s poster artist. We’ve had other artists who started in Manayunk and have gone on to other shows, like the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, which is one of the best.” “It’s been interesting to see over 30 years,” Joan continued. “There have been artists who started out doing jewelry and are now doing furniture, and you can see the connection. Some of the artists have really grown over the years.” The community has grown to love the arts as well. Back in the late 80’s, many of the stores didn’t appeal to the population on the hill and restaurants would promote themselves to suburban diners looking to spend a night in the city. “The people buying homes in this neighborhood are young or empty-nesters and they’re looking for art to put in their contemporary homes,” Joan said. “It’s a whole new market for the arts festival.” Today brings new competition to the art world. Art is more accessible now with online shopping through Etsy, big name labels on every corner, and replicas of original art. Even still, the founding members and volunteers of the Manayunk Arts Festival are sitting in Jake’s and Cooper’s Wine Bar today, not only laughing while they reminisce about how far they’ve come but remaining confident in the event – just as confident as they did 30 years ago. “Gert is responsible for the whole thing!” Victor said. “You hear all of these people talk about the arts festival but Gert was the first person that really unified the street with a business association and kept them here when there wasn’t much here.” “It was a gutsy move,” Dan said. “I asked for everything they had!” “And by the way, we never used the money,” Dan added. “Without the businesses, there wouldn’t be an arts festival.”