It’s 21 years since James Youboty moved across the North Atlantic from war-torn Liberia, to what he still likes to call the City of Brotherly Love, where he prints store nameplates and T-shirts at his crowded Parkside Impressions Sign Shop in Southwest Philadelphia.

“When I came here, all these shops were empty,” Youboty recalled. “Now, as you see, there is someone in every one. There are more people, and they know me, so I don’t have to struggle as much. And now there’s the truck.”

“The truck” is the newest sign of hope in this old-rowhouse and former-factory part of town where immigrant owners from Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean have launched businesses and where activity appears to be on the upswing. The truck picks up trash from businesses along the busy retail corridors of Woodland, Elmwood, and Chester Avenues in Southwest Philly’s Elmwood section, on days the city trucks don’t run.

The vehicle was financed by a $48,000 grant from M&T Bank, which has redoubled its efforts to cultivate clients in the area. A $294,000 city grant covers a manager and a dozen workers this year. And the vehicle is owned and run by the African Cultural Alliance of North America (ACANA), which says it has enrolled more than 600 local businesses, most of them immigrant-run.

The response from business owners has been almost giddy.

“It’s been a month since they started with the truck. It’s wonderful,” said Sayed Ahmad, whose family owns the Cousins Fresh Market at 6411 Woodland Ave. “I can feel things turning around. You don’t see the abandoned places like before. You see people fixing up and moving in.”

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At the same time, formidable challenges remain in an area where incomes and home values are well below the city average. The owners echo complaints about high taxes and intrusive regulations common to their counterparts across the city and say some businesses are already moving to better locations in Delaware County, where the commercial levies aren’t so harsh.

“This tax on soda, the law on plastic bags, the city cigarette tax [a $2-a-pack surcharge], it really hurts the businesses around here,” said Ahmad whose family’s four-store chain now includes a location in Chester. “People are moving to Delaware County. If costs keep rising, it is going to be hard for us to grow here.”

Elmwood’s factory past

Like many city neighborhoods, Elmwood used to attract residents for factory jobs — such as building generators at the giant General Electric plant, and refining oil into fuels at the Arco, Gulf, and Sunoco facilities on the nearby Schuylkill. The refinery complex employed a fraction of its former workforce when it shut after an explosion and fire in 2019.

GE closed the last part of its three-block complex in 2002 and leveled the site. Last year, Amazon beat out SEPTA to take over the GE site for a last-mile warehouse. Meanwhile, Giant Co. opened a large e-commerce warehouse and fulfillment center in Eastwick. Ongoing redevelopment of the former refineries and other vacant sites could add thousands of jobs, city officials said.

The nearby Philadelphia International Airport represents another big source for employment in Elmwood, as does the University City medical complex.

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The area remains a magnet for immigrants. In Elmwood’s 19142 zip code, one in four residents in 2020 was foreign-born, compared with 1 in 7 across the city, and 1 in 11 for the region, census estimates show.

Homes remain a relative bargain here, with average prices below $100,000 — less than half the city average in 2020, and one-third of the region’s average, according to Policymap.com, a Philly-based data analytics company.

Median household income was about $35,000, less than half the regional average.

Yet for the stores, business has been brisk. Just 5% of the Elmwood area’s business addresses are now vacant, compared with more than 8% citywide, according to Policymap.com and the marketing firm Valassis Corp.

The activity is evident in the shopping districts along Chester, Woodland, and Elmwood Avenues. Ethnic groceries, restaurants, hair-and-nail salons, electronics stores, and worship centers now crowd the busiest blocks. “Immigrant entrepreneurs are driving revitalization” here and in other low- and moderate-income city neighborhoods, such as Olney, said city spokesman Kevin Lessard. “Immigrants and their families [have] been essential” to the city’s growth in recent years.

But owners say it’s tough to attract investment capital and bank loans, and they worry about how to draw more visitors from the airport, to the south, or from University City and Center City, to the north.

Banks and other institutions that stayed have been seeking ways to win immigrants’ business, with some success.

Bank deposits, which fell by two-thirds in Elmwood and were flat in nearby Eastwick from 1994 to 2010, roughly doubled in both neighborhoods by June 2021, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data.

One bank that is digging in

M&T Bank, like other lenders, had closed branches in older city neighborhoods over the last 20 years as consumers and big businesses began banking digitally.

But at its 6301 Woodland Ave. branch, and at another on Castor Avenue in the multi-ethnic lower Northeast, M&T decided to add staff, education, and community programs. The goal was to attract immigrant and ethnic entrepreneurs who still use neighborhood branches, said David Femi head of M&T’s “multicultural banking and diverse market” strategy.

“We are moving in the direction our customer want us to — and we are seeing a rapid growth of multicultural and diverse communities,” Femi said. “There’s so much potential in these areas. It’s only going to grow from here.”

As part of that larger strategy, the bank increased its commitment in Southwest Philly after its Woodland Avenue branch was gutted following local protests against George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, on June 1, 2020.

“They destroyed it; we were shut down for three weeks,” recalled Preston Stackfield, the former branch manager.

M&T sustained similar damage at its Rittenhouse Square branch. It was no surprise the bank planned to fix the office in that high-rent area, serving $40 million in depositor accounts; but would it also return to Woodland Avenue? By that point, after losing more than 80% of its deposits since 1994, that branch had just $4 million in neighborhood accounts still on the books.

“I want the community to know we understand — and that we are coming back,” Stackfield told his boss, regional manager Brandon Smith.

M&T responded with 30 volunteers to clean up the mess. They also put rose bushes in vacant planters along the avenue. And sent contractors to replace the vandalized equipment.

The bank advertised the existence of government-funded forgivable PPP loans to pay small-business employees idled by the pandemic. And it approved a grant program, fueling the expansion of businesses such as Youboty’s shop, Desiree Shields’ GLAD Center preschool, and Sam Perry’s Southwest Fresh Hairstudio.

Plus, the bank funded the truck that ACANA had been trying to finance since 2018.

The vehicle arrived in early March and went right to work in the business district, where ACANA installed West African national flags, recalling those that line the Parkway in Center City.

Some hopeful signs have emerged: Deposits at the little M&T branch nearly doubled, to $8 million, though bankers said they couldn’t yet track as strong an increase in loans. Many small businesses struggle to establish credit.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood retains its global feel. At Cousins, Ahmad said he sees people “from Honduras, Guatemala , Mexico, Salvador, a lot are in construction. The Africans, from Mali, Nigeria, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the majority are working in the airport” and more from southeast Asia and the Caribbean.

“I call this a ‘multicultural tsunami,’” says M&T’s Femi, a Nigeria native. “We see the non-Hispanic white population continuing to decline. Multicultural Americans are responsible for all the population growth, in America, and in places like Castor Avenue and Woodland Avenue. They are also driving a lot of the economic growth.”.”

“Twenty years ago it was easy for a lot of people to look at places like Woodland Avenue and see a decline that was likely to continue,” observed Domenic Vitiello, a Philadelphia native and associate professor of city planning at the University of Pennsylvania.

“People thought of this as just another neighborhood that was re-segregating, from Irish and Italian and Jewish, to Black. But that African and African American community is very diverse. It has made Woodland Avenue a cosmopolitan place.“

Count the “more than 20″ African groceries, restaurants advertising cuisine of more than a dozen nations, and it’s clear that Woodland Avenue has become “a regional destination” for immigrants beyond the neighborhood, Vitiello added.

Elected officials have noticed. Among other grants, last winter Harrisburg promised $3 million in redevelopment funds if ACANA can raise a like amount for its new headquarters to showcase its citizenship, literacy, music, public-health, and business programs.

“We hope to have a ballroom where we can host visitors coming from Africa — as you know we are the closest part of the city to the airport,” said Musa Trawally, director of ACANA’s Community and Business Development arm. But even African visitors are routed to tourist areas in Center City, instead, he said.

Delaware County beckons

Above all, Philadelphia can’t take this neighborhood revival for granted. ”Back in 2015, when my cousin Sahmed Okyne opened Kings and Queens Liberian Cuisine right off 69th Street, there were maybe two African restaurants in all of Delaware County. Today I can count 20,” said Hafiz Tunis, who represents that neighborhood on the Upper Darby Township Council.

His immigrant family lived “on Woodland Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia — we still call that Africa Town,” before moving to Upper Darby in 2007 when he was 10. “Our slogan out here is ‘The World in One Place’ — Greeks, Koreans, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, African refugees, and now more from the Latin countries,” Tunis added.

“In Philadelphia, to start your business you have to deal with City Hall all the way downtown. Here you just walk across the street to the township building. And people view it as a safer community, with less competition, and more opportunities. They are moving up to Media, too.”

“You know each community has reached critical mass when they move on from restaurants and start selling groceries directly to their families and neighborhoods,” said Vincent Rongione, whose family moved from Italy to South Philly a century ago and followed the immigrant road to Upper Darby, where he is township administrator. “We are very actively trying to cultivate and compete with West Philadelphia for these residents and their businesses.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.