Monsoon stormed onto the media stage in 1995, and 2020 marked the 25th anniversary of its inception, by founder Charlie Szoradi.
Monsoon Microstudios Profile on CNN Financial News from Archive 1998
Here is an example of some print media coverage:
Art Plus Digital Media Equals Urban Renewal
by DAVID J. WALLACE. – Source Article October 19, 1997
PHILADELPHIA — Watching the sunset paint a rainbow across the skyline is a fringe benefit of Martin Peterson’s corner office. But engrossed in whatever Web site happens to be under construction on his screen, he rarely pauses to enjoy the vista.
The view is among the very scarce amenities at Monsoon Microstudios, where the ambience is defined by speeding commuter trains dashing past on elevated tracks. Peterson’s desk — and he uses the term loosely — is one of three workstations made from unpainted plywood doors laid atop sawhorses.
“We needed three desks in a hurry, and it cost us $30 per desk,” he said matter-of-factly.
The nearby lunchroom is a plywood sheet supported by two 55-gallon drums. Printers and Zip drives require a sign-out sheet, because they are routinely disconnected and moved wherever they’re needed. A large-format Xerox plotter sits on a hospital gurney, awaiting some techno-orderly to speed it away.
Monsoon is the latest incarnation of one-man urban reclamation project named Charles Szoradi. The first incarnation, The Hut, was born in this same building in June 1995, when Szoradi, an architect, formed a partnership with two friends to buy a 34,000-square-foot building that had been built in 1910 as a Baptist church. It had subsequently been transformed into an upholstery shop, then a tin-ceiling factory.
The building, a combination artist’s co-op, impromptu rave nightclub and Szoradi’s home, sits on 8th Street near Girard Avenue, about a 10-minute drive from downtown, in Philadelphia’s Empowerment Zone, an urban renewal project using primarily federal funds to attract businesses to impoverished urban areas.
Monsoon, Szoradi’s latest vision for the building, has a first-floor drive-in garage where Kate Bartoldus does set design and prop work for films like “Twelve Monkeys” and the upcoming “Beloved,” and Steve Stormer has installed an oven for his pressed-glass creations. Monsoon’s clubhouse-cum-headquarters is on the second floor. Szoradi’s home is on the top floor.
The transition from urban homesteader to businessman has not been without bumps. Last fall, Szoradi brought in a video cameraman to record one of The Hut’s “Trash n’ Fashion” shows, featuring astroturf miniskirts and marketed it as a local cable TV production called “Ooze from the Underground.” To support the show, he sought out local companies including beer distributors and truck rental companies that had no TV ads and began doing commercials using computer-based editing gear.
While those moves got the business rolling, a Halloween last year led to the closing of The Hut, after city officials objected to too many people occupying in a building zoned for industrial use. Subsequent electrical and plumbing improvements proved expensive, Szoradi said, sparking the switch to commercial projects. It took until early 1997 to get the building rezoned for commercial use. A municipal business license was issued last April.
Szoradi enlisted Taheem “Tyme” Gadson to make a profitable venture from their creative connections. With their ties to film, video production, Web site and media and graphic design, they’ve developed an eclectic portfolio: menus and graphics for two upscale restaurants, Paradigm and Brasserie Perrier; TV commercials for a microbrewery, the Independence Brewing Co., and Nantucket Nectars; a promotional video for the rap group Wu-Tang Clan and a Web site for City Paper, a Philadelphia weekly. Monsoon also produces digital animation used by lawyers in courtroom presentations.
“We’ve been refining our energies to become a premier youth-culture ad agency,” said Gadson.
Gadson, a 25-year-old who sports dreadlocks, first encountered Szoradi, now 30, while both were at the University of Pennsylvania. Gadson was an undergraduate; Szoradi was pursuing a master’s degree in architecture.
“I met Chuck while filming a student project,” Gadson said. “He was designing a game for kids and actually opened his studio to the neighborhood kids.”
One of Gadson’s pet projects is an interactive movie produced by local children. He says he wants them to make — rather than just watch — movies. What intrigues him, he says, is combining community service with profit by teaching local youths while producing commercially viable media.
Monsoon’s office is two blocks from the Richard Allen Homes, in one of the city’s poorest sections. Gadson said he wants to meld the “idealism and creativity of Andy Warhol’s Factory with the practicality of a Toyota assembly line” and move past The Hut’s image as a fun house.
Gadson said he is encouraged by signs of economic stimulus in the community, which include a new shopping center and youth tennis center.
Szoradi finds encouragement in the city’s demographics.
“This is the second-largest college market in the country,” Szoradi said, “and we can tap that resource and channel the talent and creative energy to reach a new audience. Computers are just the tools for getting the information out.”
The venture began with Gadson’s Mac SE and a Powerbook borrowed from Szoradi’s mother. Now there are 12 employees and a small network of Apple clones. Monsoon’s office decor reflects Szoradi’s emphasis on recycling and reusing materials, but some of the penny pinching has a more practical basis.
For example, Peterson uses a 28.8 Kbps modem, because “that’s the speed most people have, and I want to see sites the way they will.”
“Lots of web designers who have a T1 line think the pages load with no problem,” Peterson said. “Anyone without high-speed access is going to sit there and wait and wait while some work of art comes up.”
Unlike Silicon Alley in New York or San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, North Philadelphia is not the kind of emerging techno-colony where companies take elevators instead of cabs to joint-venture meetings. But Philadelphia officials have put increased effort into marketing the city’s cultural attractions, promoting its Avenue of the Arts, a section of South Broad Street with music venues, theaters and restaurants.
That set the stage for Szoradi’s latest venture. He and three partners bought a 200,000-square-foot former toy factory about 10 minutes from Monsoon’s current quarters and five blocks northeast of the Avenue of the Arts, where they plan to rent space to set designers, artists, media companies and other enterprises.
Some of Monsoon’s operations will relocate there before year’s end. The newly purchased building sits among former printing and clothing factories, long past their prime and now used mostly for document storage.
But the city’s convention center is just a few blocks away from the new building, as are some of it’s largest theaters. Some former industrial buildings have been converted to lofts, and Szoradi foresees a new community emerging from the ruins. He expects Monsoon to participate in both urban redevelopment and commercial growth.
Anne Habiby, director of research for the Initiative for Competitive Inner City, said that inner cities can be a source of reliable, trainable workers who are fluent in various languages. There are rapidly growing black, Hispanic and Asian urban populations who are not served by retail stores or professional services, and new technology is opening up opportunities.
“We have the inner-city individual who’s not on the Information Highway,” Habiby said, “but one of the major issues facing empowerment zones and cities is how to get these populations and business clusters onto the Internet. They won’t be able to compete otherwise.”
The initiative was founded in 1994 by Professor Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School, who argued that inner-city areas have competitive advantages in location, cost and other factors that make them attractive to business.
“There’s a huge chasm between the companies that are all networked and linked and the inner city,” Habiby said. “There has been talk about computers in school but not much discussion of how to get connected to business.”
Gazing out from his new building at an abandoned railroad trestle and industrial decay, Szoradi admits it will take time to make North Philadelphia a place for meetings or power lunches. Trees grow out of an abandoned railroad bridge, and panhandlers roam the streets in a steady parade to and from nearby homeless shelters. Still, he sees potential.
After all, Monsoon started out designing promotional material for a truck rental company up the block from its headquarters. This month, it signed a deal to provide media consulting for The Florio Group, the consulting firm owned by former Governor James Florio of New Jersey.
“We’ve gone from very local to regional and now statewide and national,” Szoradi said. “We’re in the business of developing growth. You can take that energy and create a neighborhood revival.”
Photo 1: Monsoon’s president, Charles Szoradi.
Photo 2: Tyme Gadson, at the window, watches as Monsoon Microstudios employees Erik Hammarberg, left, and Chris Crafton collaborate on a TV commercial in the post-production suite.
Photo 3: Monsoon’s new quarters, a 200,000-square-foot building, are within blocks of Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts and the convention center. The space is still under construction.
Additional Media Coverage:
University of Pennsylvania Alumni Profile on Monsoon’s founder Charlie Szoradi – Click here
The Pennsylvania Gazette, Culture Conduits – Click here