West Philly’s historic black corridor looks to rebuild after unrest and pandemic
A long economic blight and one day of damaging unrest has forced 52nd Street to once again contemplate what's needed for it to become vibrant again.
Signs of community on 52nd Street shone through even as looters shattered glass and burned a business along the historic West Philadelphia corridor.
“The brothers in the neighborhood stood up for me,” said Tedd Hall, who since 1972 has run Babe, a clothing and nutrition store on the street.
About 15% of the 200 businesses on 52nd between Arch and Pine Streets, and along some side streets, suffered some form of damage May 31 from looting and vandalism after protests over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Big chains, such as Foot Locker and McDonald’s, got hit, but the majority of the damage was done to small businesses.
Hall’s store, though, had only a broken upper-story window. People in the neighborhood discouraged looters from prying open the front gate, he said. The same happened for Tiffany Easley, whose store, NV My Eyewear, was untouched.
“I probably would have been devastated if my business was one of the properties,” she said. “I thank God that people remember me.”
Two weeks after looting ended amid a fog of tear gas and smoke billowing from burned cars, the corridor known as West Philly’s Main Street took stock of the damage, evaluated the future, and hoped the community’s recent positive trajectory would not be derailed.
The Rev. Wendell Mapson, pastor of Monumental Baptist Church on 50th Street, is old enough to remember the 1967 riots in Newark, N.J., his hometown. Some parts of that city were never fully rebuilt. He doesn’t think that will happen in West Philadelphia.
» READ MORE: This West Philly neighborhood had been struggling to rebuild. Then the looting started.
“The black community is kind of a different sort and more than that,” Mapson said. “I think they will be rebuilding, and I think it’s important that leaders come together and figure out what happened and say, ‘This can’t happen again.’”
A number of business owners on the corridor said they empathized with the people who committed looting and vandalism.
“I don’t understand it, but I think I can sympathize,” Easley said. “It seems as if there’s nothing ever done unless there’s violence.”
Some said the destruction stemmed from the same frustration and anger that spawned peaceful protests.
“So many people have this pent-up emotion, this pent-up rage, and people just end up lashing out,” said Jabari Jones, president of the West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative, the largest coalition of small businesses in the neighborhood. “We’ve tried everything. Nobody is listening to us.”
Empathy didn’t mean people condoned the destruction, though. Fire gutted one business, King’s Men & Women, which sells custom clothes, uniforms, and Sixers and Eagles gear. The city has given the business 30 days to repair the building, or it will be condemned. Damage to pharmacies, ATMs, and check-cashing businesses have not yet been repaired, depriving the community of access to money and medication.
Amir Hussian, owner of Variety Plus, said looters took $100,000 in jewelry and watches. He has no insurance, and his finances are already dire because of the pandemic-driven shutdown.
“How we gonna support the family?” he said. “I have a couple of kids. My wife’s not working.”
Questioned police response
The Philadelphia Police Department is conducting an internal review of that day, a spokesperson said, and declined to comment on what prompted the police presence there. Councilmember Jamie Gauthier said she had seen social media posts on May 31 that encouraged people to target stores on 52nd Street.
“As the people who were there, mostly young people, ratcheted up their aggression,” Gauthier said, “the police also ratcheted up their aggression pretty quickly.”
Officers initially used tear gas to dispel looters at a Foot Locker, but later fired tear gas on empty streets and at bystanders. One canister landed on a family’s front porch. Groups of young people gathered later in the day not to loot, Gauthier said, but to confront police about how they patrol the neighborhood, interact with young black residents, and use force.
Gauthier returned to the street that night to act as a go-between for police and the protesters, and facilitated a phone call between Mayor Jim Kenney and protesters.
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After the destruction May 31, National Guard members in military fatigues, driving military vehicles, and carrying soldiers’ weaponry patrolled 52nd Street, supplementing police. About 20% of the Pennsylvania National Guard are from within 50 miles of Philadelphia, said Lt. Col. Keith Hickox, a Guard spokesperson, and there’s recognition of the sensitivity needed in the city’s neighborhoods right now.
“It’s definitely more complicated compared to operations where we’ve been in Philadelphia for the papal visit and the Democratic convention,” Hickox said.
West Philly’s Main Street
About 60 years ago, 52nd Street was a flourishing black enclave. Older residents remember jazz clubs and movie theaters, a place that wedded economic prosperity to cultural cache. In the decades since the deindustrialization of cities, disinvestment, and misguided efforts to compete with suburban shopping malls contributed to the community’s decline. The neighborhood hit a nadir in the 2000s. A prolonged and deeply disruptive repair project on the El caused some businesses to fold. Crime and the drug trade became rampant. The Daily News in 2007 called 52nd and Market Streets the city’s deadliest corner.
More recently, though, property values have gone up, unemployment has gone down, and the corridor is again hosting cultural events. It remains a predominantly black neighborhood where about half of the businesses along 52nd Street are now black-owned. Gauthier noted that periods of disruption can attract outside speculators. She wants the city to support Enterprise Center plans to acquire properties along the corridor and make them available to locally owned businesses.
“We need to focus ourselves on preserving the culture and identity of 52nd Street as a center of black culture,” said Gauthier, who was elected to represent the area last November.
» READ MORE: In a plan for a safer, vibrant 52nd Street, worried West Philly neighbors see gentrification looming
Easley, one of the faces of the new 52nd Street, wanted to bring high-quality eye care to a community that lacked it. She went to 11 banks before she could get a loan, which, along with $43,000 of her own money, allowed her to open three years ago. Along with running the business, she’s active in charitable efforts benefiting the neighborhood. On Thursday, she was on a panel with Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden as he unveiled an economic plan.
She’s also among business owners reeling because of the coronavirus shutdown. “I was closed for two months,” she said. “I need business right now.”
Hussian, whose shop lost so much merchandise, hasn’t been able to pay his $2,000-a-month rent most of this year. “I got four month rent I don’t pay,” he said. “How am I gonna pay?”
The community didn’t take long to rally around the wounded corridor. On June 1, the day after looting and vandalism, hundreds came to 52nd Street. They swept glass and picked up trash.
“Turnout was amazing,” said Sadiyah Sabree, 52nd Street commercial corridor manager for the Enterprise Center, a nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing the neighborhood. “Most of the debris on the sidewalk and in the street was cleaned up in a matter of hours.”
» READ MORE: ‘Black owned don’t loot:’ For some business owners, signs show solidarity — and provide protection
Revitalizing black and brown neighborhoods
Jones fears that wealthier, whiter areas of the city will be prioritized over 52nd Street for robust investment to help recover from the pandemic, economic depression, and the recent destruction.
“Predominantly black and brown neighborhoods are typically the last to receive resources,” he said.
He is assembling volunteer lawyers and insurance professionals to help business and property owners file insurance claims. (They can be reached at 610-304-8529.) The Enterprise Center has received tens of thousands of dollars that can be used to support small businesses affected by looting and damage. It is also in the process of opening a satellite office on 52nd Street.
The center administers its own low-interest loan program and the federal Paycheck Protection Program loans designed to offset the revenue lost during the pandemic, but so far only 10 businesses have sought help applying for relief and received funds. A dozen more are in the process of applying. Many are staying away because of the complexity of the application, said Jesse Blitzstein, director of community and economic development for the Enterprise Center. They also are afraid to assume any debt as they’ve had no income.
City Council is using $25 million from a reserve fund to bolster an array of programs, some of which could help shuttered businesses and those damaged in recent weeks, but what’s needed, officials said, is a coordinated effort.
“At this point, there’s no real kind of comprehensive program to help with all that,” Gauthier said.
Programs to help business owners become property owners, and to help property owners maximize the value of their buildings, would be a major support for the community, Blitzstein said. Along 52nd Street many buildings’ second stories are boarded up. Rehab programs that could turn that space into apartments or offices could give owners financial stability.
The city is “working to identify resources,” a spokesperson said, for businesses struggling after recent damage.
Gauthier said budget plans to reduce funding to the commerce department could hurt neighborhoods such as the 52nd Street corridor.
Restoration is underway, though. King’s Men & Women remains a burned-out husk, but McDonald’s, with windows boarded up, has reopened. Repairs have progressed at SunRay Pharmacy, which was looted. All the business owners who have spoken with representatives from the Enterprise Center said they plan to reopen.
On Sunday, two weeks after vandalism and the police response shattered the corridor, a group of young people gathered at 52nd and Hazel Streets with a banner saying, “Heal the Hood.” Many were twentysomethings who had grown up in West Philadelphia and since moved away.
“When I saw 52nd Street burning, my first thought was, ‘OK, I have to do something,’” said Alliyah Francis, 24, a Philadelphia high school teacher.
Her group has raised money to buy goods from black-owned businesses to give to people in the community. She and other organizers see themselves as beginning to build the legacy of the protests and unrest on the street — young people with a different perspective on American race relations taking leadership from their parents and grandparents.
“It comes from people knowing themselves at this point,” said Rakirah Fisher, 23, another teacher. “There’s hella awareness right now.”