Two weeks after looters busted up stores across America following widespread protest against the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, plywood still covered storefronts in Philadelphia’s business districts, from the AT&T phone store on Aramingo Avenue in the lower Northeast, to the Rite Aid on Lindbergh Boulevard near the airport in the far Southwest.
But not at the Corner Food Market, North 16th and Ontario Streets, a few blocks west of Temple University Hospital. The fresh-meat counter, the grocery shelves, the snacks sat neatly displayed as the sun lit a stream of neighbors inside.
How did owner Miguel Peralta stay open?
“Two of us slept on the floor here, the whole week, with an AR-15 rifle, and a pistol,” Peralta said in the Spanish of his native Dominican Republic, patting his hip. “So they would know we weren’t playing.”
“You think I work here every day for 10 years, so an imposter could come and wreck it? No,” he added.
He wasn’t afraid of his customers — “they are good people right here. But you go a few blocks, there are some to fear.”
Did the police help? “From morning to night, we didn’t see a policeman for five days. Not one," said Peralta. “We protected ourselves. There was no police. There was no authority. Businesses that closed were destroyed.
“Since they sacked the first stores [in Minnesota], they should have been ready. But they didn’t protect us. There were forces in the [suburban] malls, and in Center City. The president called for the Army, and then people debated if it was constitutional! The way I see it, they send the army into other countries. If you’re going to improve the world, start at home.”
Peralta had a message for City Hall, about four miles away, and for state lawmakers up in Harrisburg: “It is painful how slowly the mayor and the governor acted. If they don’t take this seriously, Philadelphia will be no place to invest.”
Over at Germantown and Lehigh, businesses on all four corners and others on both avenues were still plywood-covered. (As with boarded-up stores here and elsewhere, some are still open for business.) “Empty nothing left” was marked on the boards over the doorway that thieves used to bypass the metal gate at Philadelphia Jewelry, 2638 Germantown Ave. “Cleaned out, see?” read the sign next door at 2640.
Sun Pay Inc., a beauty products shop facing both avenues, “was completely looted and set on fire,” Jenn Yeo, daughter of owners Young Yeo and Jin-Hee Yeo, told me.
The family says they lost $650,000 in products and fire damage. On Sunday night they watched from home on a security camera as “30 individuals broke through Sun Pay’s shutters and swarmed the store,” she wrote on a GoFundMe appeal that has raised $31,000 from nearly 600 online donors. They expect insurance will cover a majority of the loss, but not cleanup, security or professional services.
The doorway on Lehigh next to Sun Pay advertises a police mini-station that the city closed. The office has been empty for years, says Rich Kim, a former head of the Germantown and Lehigh merchants’ association and the owner of Sun Pay’s building, as well as the Broad Deli at Susquehanna Avenue, a home health-care agency, and other ventures unscathed by looters.
“The ironic part is, I always paid my fire insurance. But in late January I got the flu, my wife, too,” they ended up in quarantine, and he fell behind on the payments, Kim told me. He figures he’s out more than $500,000 from the fire.
I met Kim at a block of stores on the east side of the Temple University campus, which closed in March as part of Gov. Tom Wolf’s coronavirus shutdown.
State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Democrat who represents a North Philadelphia district, had assembled Kim and other business owners he said were ailing from virus quarantines, looting and the “systemic racism” that keeps neighborhoods poor. Kenyatta was there to dole out what he acknowledged was a fiscal Band-Aid: grants of up to $500 each.
The money is from a $10,000 neighborhood business fund financed by landlord Ron Caplan’s PMC Property Group and Kenyatta’s Temple classmate Richie Juniors, who owns three sandwich joints around the campus. As a third-generation purveyor to hungry Temple students, Juniors said he was glad to pitch in.
Ken Scott, boss at Beech Interplex Inc., a nonprofit developer spun off in the 1990s by the William Penn Foundation, said his group will separately lend to stricken businesses, using its own funds and public programs.
“Businesses in North Philly have never gotten the support they need,” said Kenyatta. “Civil unrest is one small part of the damage."
Wesley Robinson, an aide to State Sen. Vincent Hughes, a West Philadelphia Democrat, said his boss had pressed Gov. Tom Wolf for the $225 million in aid to nonprofit lenders backing “historically disadvantaged” and “Main Street” small businesses, announced June 8. The money was part of the push to help businesses hit hard by the impact of coronavirus.
Robinson acknowledged that the state was still setting up the online infrastructure to process applications, with help from nonprofit, community-based lenders, a group that includes Scott’s Beech Interplex.
The looting linked to “las protestas” has created “a deeper uncertainty” among the city’s aging ranks of neighborhood shopkeepers, said Franklin Medrano, president of the 550-member Dominican American Chamber of Commerce.
“In the city, danger can come to a corner market at any moment. For grocers, this is nothing new,” Medrano told me. “But between the virus and the protests, the uncertainty has intensified. We already had a medical pandemic. Now we have a social pandemic, too.
“The authorities weren’t prepared for this, and neither were we; it’s the first time we remember anything like this, looting.”
Medrano suspects that the looting may speed an old trend: “The corner store owners used to be Korean, then Puerto Rican, now a lot are Dominicans. Each sent their children to school and the children succeeded and left it for new groups to run the stores in the neighborhoods. But who will take over when the Dominicans start moving on? It is difficult to see.”
On Saturday night, June 13, as if to mark a two-week anniversary, a crowd of about 200 broke into an A Plus Mini Mart on North Broad near Temple medical school, two blocks from Peralta’s store. The A Plus store is now shuttered.
Early the following Monday, firefighters found another blaze in a store near Germantown and Lehigh. It went to three alarms.
The next morning, I asked Peralta if he felt any safer than right after the looting when he had slept on the floor with weapons.