Archive for the ‘SCI-West’ Category

Upgrades on “The Strip”: Persistence and collaboration behind the scenes bring changes to 52nd Street

December 14, 2012

Can a commercial corridor get a facial? Maybe not, but 52nd Street, also known as “The Strip” and the “Main Street of West Philadelphia,” does look like it just returned from a long awaited appointment at the beauty salon.

Facade on 52nd

The corridor recently received major cosmetic improvements that make the district more inviting. A total of 24 stores enjoy new façades and storefronts, complete with colorful fabric awnings and improved security gates installed behind storefront windows. Over the past few years, the Philadelphia Commerce Department has really championed 52nd Street, encouraging collaboration among a diverse set of stakeholders that led to the recent changes.

The new façades are a welcome and hopeful sign of improvement on a corridor that’s been struggling for years. Neighbors and customers have retreated from 52nd Street over the last few decades as it became renowned with drug dealing. Whether the safety concerns are real or perceived, the area suffers from a lot of leakage – neighbors are finding what they need and spending their money elsewhere.

A number of other issues have impeded progress. Thanks to the intentional and collaborative work to address these deeper problems, 52nd Street may yet experience the renaissance everyone’s been hoping for.

Building A Strong Organization to Champion Development

Without a Community Development Corporation (CDC), 52nd Street could not contract with the City’s Commerce Department to perform corridor improvement and maintenance work. LISC has supported the efforts by the Commerce Department, The Enterprise Center, and the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians to finally get the 52nd Street CDC up and running in 2012.

LISC and its partners worked to help the up-and-coming CDC develop and position itself to implement the economic development plan written by the City. “The [52nd Street] CDC was created to drive that plan forward, but we want to build their ability to be more effective as an agent of change on the corridor,” explained Jamie Gauthier, a Program Officer for LISC.

The Corridors of Retail Excellence (CORE) program, a national initiative of LISC’s funded by PNC, has supported the organizational development work of the 52nd Street CDC. The CORE program also helps selected corridors analyze market data, identify issues and opportunities, and drive projects that can be catalysts for successful corridor revitalization.

Thankfully, last spring, the 52nd Street CDC came to an agreement with the Commerce Department around storefront improvements. Commerce made special allowance to help business owners on 52nd street afford façade renovations. Business owners only had to come up with 10% of the cost, instead of a 50% match as required to participate in the standard Storefront Improvement Program (SIP). This attracted more buy-in from merchants, and in five short months, 24 stores would enjoy new facades.

Strengthening Unity through Respect for Differences

Disagreements between street vendors and storefront business owners have also slowed progress, as well as conflicts between leaders vying for input and recognition. But recently, thanks to efforts of local business owners like Art Williams, businesses and vendors are working more closely together, in spite of their differences.

Williams remembers his own turning point. One night over a year ago, another community leader pulled him into a meeting. Williams was not in favor of having street vendors, at least not in a way that detracted from overall business on the corridor. And he openly spoke up.

An immigrant street vendor stood up to respond. “Look, I’m out here every day because I have to feed my family. I have a little girl I have to feed.”

Williams was taken aback. “I have a little girl, so it was easy to put myself in his shoes,” Williams said. “That changed my perspective on the idea of having vendors on the corridor.”

After that night, Williams became a mediator who worked to foster dialogue between vendors and owners, and between African American and immigrant merchants. He understood that change was only going to happen with hard work and collaboration. He didn’t want progress to leave anybody behind.

“Art Williams has been able to bring together so many different business owners from different backgrounds,” explained Karolyn Chamberlin of The Enterprise Center and formerly of the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians. “52nd Street has a majority of immigrant business owners… [Williams] has been able to bring people together in a way that hasn’t happened before, to my knowledge.”

facade 52nd

Williams played a key role in mobilizing and uniting the people on 52nd Street around the storefront and façade improvement work with the Commerce Department. In addition, his construction company contracted with the City to complete the renovations in just 5 months.

According to Chamberlin and others, progress would have been much slower and more difficult without the Williams’ organizing efforts. “I’ve worked really closely with 52nd Street for a long time, and I do find Art Williams to be someone who has succeeded in moving things forward in a lot of ways that other neighborhoods haven’t been able to,” Chamberlin said.

Strengthening Business Leadership

Businesses on the corridor have also lacked the capacity to drive changes on 52nd Street. Throughout 2012, LISC supported the SCI-West Corridors Connect program, linking business association leaders from commercial corridors in West Philadelphia to training and assistance to help strengthen their organizations and bring new businesses and customers to their corridors.

Leaders from 52nd Street, including Williams, participated in the process, bringing back valuable information to inform their work. The street’s primary business association, the 52nd Street Business Development Corporation (or BDC) is now more equipped to fulfill its mission: beautify the corridor, attract a more diverse mix of businesses, reverse the perception of 52nd street as being unsafe, decrease blight, improve relations with street vendors, and promote the corridor as a whole.

After all, 52nd street is only making a dent in the market it has – it could be a regional corridor, said Gauthier. “It is a corridor that has huge potential in terms of its market, and this work will help it to get there.”

Championing the Whole Commercial Corridor

For all of the effort put forward by institutions and agencies at the city level, ultimately you need people who understand the context on the ground, who relentlessly bring people together, and who have a stake in making change happen. And you need organizations like the 52nd Street BDC and CDC who can own projects and push them along.

station diner

“The façade work is an actual intervention. It signals new life. It’s exciting to see things actually changing,” said Gauthier, “but imagine once these organizations get stronger, and they are a steady presence and can act as stewards for 52nd street and can connect with the community and focus on a number of different efforts. Then even more can happen – with respect to business attraction, safety, beautification.” This is what LISC’s commercial corridor work is all about: empowering the business leaders and organizations to move revitalization efforts forward.

As for the businesses old and new, it ultimately comes down to increasing sales and revenue by attracting more customers. But to do that, everyone has to work together to improve the whole district. Thankfully, business leaders like Williams have learned this lesson. “In the future, we are looking at promoting the corridor as a whole,” he said, “instead of just our individual businesses.”


Green Block Build Collaborative Gives Mantua Block a Sustainable Facelift

April 5, 2012

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Saturday, March 31, 2012 was a day of hard work, good food, and community building for the residents of the 3800 block of Aspen Street. The Green Block Build Collaborative, with support from over 300 volunteers, provided critical repairs and energy efficiency upgrades to 20 homes on the block, as well as block-wide greening and beautification, and a host of other services. The program also educated homeowners and connected them with programs and resources to make their homes healthier and more energy efficient.

This was the first of five Green Block Parties in 2012, that aim to bring a comprehensive set of services to organized blocks, helping residents transition to a cleaner, greener, healthier, and more financially stable future.

The Green Block Build Program developed from LISC’s Sustainable Communities Initiative in West Philadelphia (SCI-West), a comprehensive community development effort focused on housing, income and employment, economic opportunity, education, and health. SCI-West partners convened the Green Block Build Collaborative, a coalition of community organizations including Philadelphia LISC, Rebuilding Together Philadelphia, The Partnership CDC, People’s Emergency Center, and a wide variety of other community partners. Its work is supported by Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Photo by Chris Kendig

The Green Block Build strategy is to improve the health and wealth of low-income households, block-by-block, house-by-house by building on the strengths of each partner organization. Participating blocks will receive education and a suite of products and services designed to help each participant transition to a healthier life and home.

“You don’t know what this project has done for me,” said Barbara Hall captain of the 3800 block of Aspen Street on Saturday. “I had given up hope.” Several years ago, Hall paid a roofer to install a new roof on the home. The first time it rained, she realized that the roofer had taken advantage of her; the leaky roof caused significant water damage throughout the home, and her basement and kitchen were crumbling around her.

Hall, who has lived on the 3800 block of Aspen Street for 67 years, is hopeful that she will be able to pass her home to her children and grandchildren. “I want it to be a family home for another 67 years,” she said.

Photo by Chris Kendig

The Green Block Party idea, developed by the Partnership CDC, grew out of a desire to address the interrelated issues of poverty and sustainability. Low-income households in the U.S. spend 17% of income on energy bills, 10% higher than the national average. Simple home weatherization improvements can dramatically reduce this number, saving low-income families money while reducing their environmental impact. The concept has grown into the full Green Block Build Program, which takes the fundamental components of the Green Block Party, and integrates critical home repairs from Rebuilding Together Philadelphia that further help homeowners meet these goals.

Each home on the block received multiple critical repairs, energy efficiency upgrades, energy assessments, education around home health issues, and financial education. Homeowners also received a bag of local groceries from the West Philadelphia Fresh Food Hub, which visited the block on Saturday.

Other home improvements include the installation of green and cool roofs, rain barrel installation, the removal of allergy and asthma triggers such as mold and dampness, weatherization improvements, and overall greening.

The projects were also tailored to specifically meet the needs of each homeowner. For example, homeowner Charles Clemens with physical handicaps received repairs to his home to make the bathroom, backyard, and other rooms more handicap-accessible. “Financially, I would have never been able to do these repairs,” Clemens explains. “These old houses are hard to keep up. This will help me get around. But the biggest benefit is bringing the value of the property up.”

Each of the community partners in the collaborative is bringing different skills and resources to the program.”One of the key things we were aiming for with this project is showing the amount of impact that each partner organization’s services and efforts could have on a household, on a block, and on a community if they were connected and coordinated,” said Jamie Gauthier, Program Officer at Philadelphia LISC. “We have seen the benefits of collaboration in this community through our SCI-West work, and I am truly excited about the potential of this project.”

Once the renovations are complete, Drexel University will conduct an analysis of the program’s impact, which will help spread this model for improvements and shape the strategic direction of the collaborative.

The collaborative focused its efforts initially in the Mantua community to align itself with the community-driven planning efforts of We Are Mantua! Choice Planning Initiative and the People’s Emergency Center. “The neighborhood is getting better,” said Gloria Jones, a resident on the block for over 25 years. “This project came at a wonderful time. We want the children to have a better place to live.”

Overall, homeowners are positive in recognizing the benefits of different resources and services of the program. Summing up her view of the project, resident Patricia Rozier said: “These are things that can help you in the long run. If you’re part of the community and they’re building it up, you can take pride in where you are living… We are going to maintain our block, trust me.”

Photo by Chris Kendig

Photo by Chris Kendig

Photo by Chris Kendig

Photo by Chris Kendig

Read more about the Green Block Build Collaborative Partners.

Corridors Connect Focus Group Dinner

March 16, 2012

Corridors Connect will build the capacity of Business Associations across West Philadelphia commercial corridors through training and technical assistance over the next nine months. Business owners and community leaders from six different commercial corridors gathered last night to begin building connections and make recommendations to shape the program. Here are some photos of the event!

Corridors connect is a collaboration led by The Enterprise Center with partnership of SCI West, Philadelphia LISC, the Partnership CDC, People’s Emergency Center, University City District, the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, the Philadelphia Commerce Department, and the Drexel University Center for Social Policy.

Preserving an artist community – PEC plans affordable artist live-work residence

March 8, 2012

Aiming to preserve both affordable housing and a community of local artists, the People’s Emergency Center (PEC) is looking to develop affordable live-work space for low-income artists in West Philadelphia. The project would transform a large vacant lot at 4050-66 Haverford Avenue into a space for artists to live, create art, and exhibit work in the community.

The design and plan of the proposed development is a collaborative effort. PEC included many partners in the process, including: neighbors on the block near the proposed development, West Philly Arts Connect (WPAC), West Philadelphia Traction Company, and architect Teddy Cruise.

“We see [this proposed development] as a way to preserve the artist community and create a bit of a hub and generate some energy on that part of Haverford Ave,” explains Kira Strong from PEC.


PEC has submitted an application to the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) for Low Income Housing Tax Credits to complete the development. With the tax credits, PEC would be able to move forward on a project that has been a vision for nearly a decade.

“We are really lucky to work in communities that have had a long history of artists who reside and work here,” says Strong. In the early 2000s, PEC began partnering with artists living in their communities of Belmont, Mantua, Mill Creek, Saunders Park, and West Powelton.

In 2006, PEC conducted a study to examine art and cultural resources in the community and identify opportunities for using the arts as an engine of community revitalization. Participation from the artist community exceeded expectations. Some 40 West Philly artists contributed to the study through surveys, focus groups, and interviews.


The study showed that artists were attracted to neighborhoods in West Philadelphia for their large stock of affordable housing, variety of active arts groups, and proximity to institutions like Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania.

A significant need came to the surface as well. “What we heard resoundingly was that there was a need for affordable live-work space,” said Strong, “Many artists were either being priced out or in fear of being priced out.”

Since the study, neighborhood conditions have continued to change: real estate values have risen, due to an influx of Drexel and University of Pennsylvania faculty and other higher income home-buyers.

Driven by its mission to serve and strengthen the existing communities, PEC was emboldened to figure out how to maintain its resident base, which includes local artists, while attracting additional amenities to the community.

While this unique artist live-work residence may be a few years away from ribbon-cutting, PEC will continue to preserve this population of artists “who are often the generator of neighborhood change, but less often its beneficiary.”

The arts and economic development work together on West Philly corridors

March 8, 2012

In October and November, hundreds of residents and visitors flocked to the Lower Lancaster Avenue galleries, restaurants, public spaces, and businesses.

They were here for LOOK! on Lancaster Avenue, a two-month program sponsored by the People’s Emergency Center (PEC) and University City District (UCD), that brought art installations to the windows and storefronts of vacant buildings, group art shows to galleries and public spaces, and public performances to various locations along the Avenue.

“Lancaster Avenue is a perfect example, where art can be an intermediate step between a vacant building and a completely thriving local economy,” explains Joe McNulty, Commercial Corridor Manager with University City District. “The Look on Lancaster project changed people’s perspectives about those blocks of Lancaster that have been empty and desolate for years. It was a way to bring people walking back down here and say: ‘This could be a really thriving corridor.’”

Lancaster Avenue is not alone. Across the SCI-West target area, organizations are using the arts to strengthen development on commercial corridors. Corridor managers like McNulty work with residents, businesses, business associations, and Community Development Corporations (CDCs) to revitalize the commercial corridors in West Philadelphia: Lancaster Avenue, 40th Street, Spruce Street, Baltimore Avenue, and 45th and Walnut Streets.

These stories of creative efforts on West Philadelphia commercial corridors reveal the effectiveness of including arts initiatives into any commercial development strategy.

Lancaster Avenue

LOOK! on Lancaster attracted hundreds of people to visit Lancaster Avenue, view the work of local artists, and spend their money at businesses all along the corridor. Its other benefits are real, but less quantifiable. “Events like these create interest in the area, and promote a sense of pride in the neighborhood,” said McNulty.

LOOK! on Lancaster also draws attention to an already engaged art community. Artists around Lancaster Avenue have been active in neighborhood revitalization for nearly four decades: renovating properties, exhibiting art, and performing locally.

“Having folks like that who really bought into their own community, with their own sweat equity and real money, promoting art has been really valuable for Lancaster Ave,” said McNulty.

Another SCI-West partner, the People’s Emergency Center (PEC) promotes the arts through a larger event. For the past five years, (PEC) has hosted the Lancaster Avenue Jazz and Arts Festival. The event attracts hundreds of families to Saunders Park with live jazz, dance, spoken word, art exhibits, workshops, and an open-air market. The annual event celebrates the rich history of arts in Philadelphia, stimulates the local economy, and energizes the community.

In warmer months, PEC and UCD host Second Friday events on Lancaster Avenue to showcase galleries and exhibitions. They dropped the event a few years ago due to budgetary restrictions, but have since revived it on a shoestring budget, citing its many benefits for the corridor.

A number of creative organizations have served as artistic anchors for the Avenue as well.

Audiences from all over attend performances at The Community Education Center (CEC), founded nearly four decades ago by community members looking to use art and culture to inspire creativity and goodwill. “Art enriches the lives of families in this community,” says Terri Shockley, [position] of the CEC. “The arts are about making individuals and communities stronger and more resilient.”

The Gwendolyn Bye Dance Studio has also engaged young people in dance classes since 1986. A local coffee shop, The Green Line Café, showcases the work of local artists. A number of other galleries and studio spaces provide space for artists to create and exhibit work.

Ultimately, these artistic efforts are changing the conversation about Lancaster Avenue. “The message is,” says McNulty, “That this is a viable neighborhood. This is a place where you could raise a child, you could open a business. You could do anything here.”

40th Street

At the crossroads of historically distinct communities, 40th Street embodies the diversity of West Philadelphia. Here the arts play a critical role in speaking across boundaries of race, class background, and generation.

The corridor is anchored by two key arts organizations: the Rotunda (at 4014 Walnut St) and the Artists In Residence (AIR) program (at 4007  Chestnut St). (See “Creativity as Engagement” for more on their efforts)

It was also on 40th Street that West Philadelphia Arts Connect was born. The collaboration of artists and arts organizations across West Philly originated from Friends of 40th Street meetings.

Looking forward, UCD and PEC plan to collaborate on several projects around 40th Street. The organizations hope to encourage pedestrian traffic and development, including public art installations that will coincide with tree planting and beautification efforts. Projects will include pole painting, public sculpture, and art installations on and in vacant buildings.

Baltimore Avenue

The artistic efforts and commercial amenities on Baltimore Avenue improve the quality of life for residents across West Philadelphia.

In February, West Philly was one of 20 cities to host a Fun-A-Day art show, organized by the Artclash Collective and exhibited at Studio 34 on Baltimore Ave. Thousands of people visited the two-day exhibition.

Even arts businesses are finding a home in West Philly. Aside from the galleries on Lancaster, there’s Vix Emporium, a “general store” selling the handmade gifts and art of mostly local artists using a consignment system. Emily Dorn, manager at Vix, says, “This area needed a place like this: a place to buy a gift.” Because these gifts are local, special, and practical, Vix is creating a win-win for local artists and consumers.

UCD promotes the arts on Baltimore Avenue in many ways. They organize Second Saturdays, a monthly arts fair outside Dock Street Brewing Company that brings foot traffic to the neighborhood and helps support local artists. Additionally, they have invited artists to contribute designs for new Baltimore corridor banners.

There are clear benefits to the arts, McNulty says, including engaging residents in community issues, improving the image of the neighborhood, attracting residents and visitors to patronize local businesses, and inspiring entrepreneurs to open businesses that can serve community needs.

“Ultimately, we are looking to make our neighborhoods more livable.”

Skills Initiative Update

March 8, 2012

The West Philadelphia Skills Initiative is being carried out by University City District and places young adults in the SCI-West target area on a career path by providing apprenticeship positions in area medical institutions and tuition-free courses at Community College of Philadelphia.

The first cohort of students in the Penn Medicine Apprenticeship program are currently working part-time and attending classes part-time, allowing them the freedom to commit equally to the apprenticeship and coursework, without the burden of extra work. LISC funds pay the students as if they were full-time employees. This unlocks employer-funded tuition benefits that allow them to attend classes at no expense to themselves.

Additionally, SCI West is using this pilot program as the centerpiece of a new Financial Opportunity Center (FOC) in West Philadelphia, slated to open before spring 2012. The Opportunity Center will be a physical space that links West Philadelphia residents directly to local employers, and to the practical training around job skills, financial education, and benefits access they need to thrive. Through the FOC, participants in the pilot program will be able to receive one-on-one financial coaching, training around accessing benefits, and other extra supports.

Digital Inclusion Program Update: Over 200 people trained, 137 computers installed

March 8, 2012

The People’s Emergency Center Digital Inclusion Program (PECDI) brings low-cost computers, broadband access, and computer training to affordable housing units throughout the SCI-West community.

So far 55 teens, 53 fifth and sixth graders, and 93 community members have graduated from their respective computer and technology courses, and another 50 people will complete courses by the end of April. In addition, 137 computers (combination of refurbished computers and netbooks) have been distributed to the community through the program.

Nineteen out of twenty Keyspot sites have been opened and are serving neighborhoods and community members all over Philadelphia. The Keyspots offer programs, trainings and open lab hours for youth, adults and seniors. PEC was also able to set up a WiFi hotspot at each of the 20 PEC Keyspots, connecting even more residents to the Internet. Since January 2011, 16,180 community members have used a Keyspot and 24,355 training hours have been delivered.

The New Corridors Connect Program to build business leadership along West Philly corridors

March 8, 2012

SCI-West is pleased to announce a new program called Corridors Connect that will help build and grow business leadership by strengthening Business Associations along selected commercial corridors.

The Corridors Connect Program, led by The Enterprise Center, will incorporate hands-on support for individual business leadership and a classroom Certificate from our partner, Drexel University. We believe that this effort will lead to important connections and collaborative projects that will increase traffic and sales along West Philadelphia corridors.

Corridors Connect is a collaborative effort among a great group of SCI-West partners: Philadelphia LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation), The Enterprise Center, Drexel University Center for Public Policy, Partnership CDC, People’s Emergency Center CDC, University City District, the Philadelphia Commerce Department and the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians.

The collaborative is currently finalizing the design of the program and will be holding a focus group dinner at Drexel University on March 15th in order to incorporate the essential input of business leaders and corridor managers into the implementation of this Program.

New Green Block Build Coalition helps homeowners go green to save green

March 8, 2012

An Update on the Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative

In March the Green Block Build Coalition will complete rehabilitation and repairs for 20 homes of low income homeowners on the 3800 Block of Aspen Street. The block will celebrate the repairs at a Green Block Party on March 31, at which homeowners will be able to access programs and resources from each of the Green Block Build Coalition partners, including SCI-West, the Partnership CDC, Rebuilding Together, People’s Emergency Center, Drexel University, the Energy Conservation Agency, and the Neighborhoods Advisory Council.

The improvements at the 3800 Block of Aspen Street represent the first of several Green Block Parties the coalition is planning in 2012. The Green Block Build Coalition builds on the success of other SCI West Signature projects, including the Healthy Homes Initiative, the Green Block Party, Green Professionals Training program, and the Digital Inclusion program.

The initiative layers strong and effective programs from each partner agency, offering homeowners a comprehensive set of opportunities to improve their homes, neighborhood, environment, and economic situation. Improving energy efficiency, aka “going green,” will help homeowners save money on energy costs. Hence the coalition’s slogan: “Go Green, Save Green!” Homeowners will also learn about ways to keep their home healthy, financially sound, and environmentally friendly.

In March, some 300 skilled and general volunteers will provide critical repairs and safe and healthy home repairs for those in need in the first of several scheduled Green Block Parties in West Philadelphia. Volunteers will also install planters, clean vacant lots, and beautify the block. In addition to these critical repairs, partners in the Green Block Build Coalition will provide cool roof installations, Healthy Homes training, energy efficiency training, financial education, tangled title and homeownership preservation services, computers and technology training, and energy audits to complement the repairs. Drexel will evaluate the effects of this collaborative effort.

The Coalition will hold a press conference on the final workday for the first Green Block Build in Mantua on March 31st at 9am on the 3800 block of Aspen Street 19104. We hope to see you there!

New lighting marks beginning of 46th and Market Street Transit Hub Collaboration

March 8, 2012

An Update on the SCI-West Clean & Safe Project

Philadelphia LISC, the national LISC Community Safety Initiative, and the SCI-West partner organizations are working on a project led by UCD that aims to reduce crime through the creation of partnerships between West Philadelphia CDCs and police districts.

In February, UCD completed the installation of the pedestrian-level street lights near one of West Philadelphia’s major transit hubs: 46th and Market Streets, part of SCI West’s comprehensive Community Safety Initiative.

After participating in a LISC Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) training, SCI West partners worked to develop strategies to mitigate crime and opportunities for crime around the target area’s two major transit hubs at 40th and 46th and Market. Following this training, UCD completed a lighting study and hired a consultant to craft a plan for an improved lighting strategy for the 46th and Market area. Moving forward with implementing this lighting plan, UCD will also begin installation of residential porch lights near the hub this week.

SCI West aims to expand these small but significant improvements into a broader 46th and Market Transit Hub Collaboration that would work for further improvements (from landscaping and signage to more intense improvements like real estate development and retail attraction).