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.
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.”
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.
“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.”