If it weren’t for the empty shelves where the potato chips used to be, it looks like business as usual recently at the Double Star Mini Market on Germantown Avenue and Huntington Street: bachata blasts from the surround sound speakers as customers enter. But Francisco Torres uses the word “tense” to describe recent days at work while watching live footage from nine cameras, all displayed on the bodega’s security monitor.
The 41-year-old, a cook, was one of the first to arrive at the corner store, on Sunday, May 31, after it was vandalized and looted. He said the bodega owner suffered tremendous losses — about $25,000 in property damage, vandalized merchandise, and stolen money. Now, Torres worries about the intentions of anyone who enters the store.
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“We were standing right here [the store front] when we heard someone say that this was on purpose,” Torres recalled of the destruction. “So, when the door opens, we have no idea what’s gonna happen.”
A month has passed since groups vandalized and stole from properties across the city, the weekend after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. In North Philadelphia, business districts in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods were severely impacted, particularly in Fairhill and Hartranft. The Inquirer interviewed business owners along the Germantown Avenue, Centro de Oro, and Front Street corridors and found cleanups are continuing with little financial assistance and fear that if the social unrest continues, there will be more looting.
Between May 30 and June 23, OpenDataPhilly reported 36 cases of break-ins in these three corridors, Germantown Avenue being the most affected with 23 cases.
Centro de Oro and Front Street were vandalized and looted during the last days of May. Germantown Avenue saw the violence continue, with a sneaker shop set on fire in mid-June. These days, the three corridors are lined with closed store fronts boarded up with plywood, broken security gates, and buildings covered with spray paint.
Now, both the livelihood of the business owners and the lifelines for local residents who depend on these commercial strips for goods and jobs are threatened. In these corridors, the looting and the slow recovery deepens the disparities for the Black and brown residents in North Philly.
Maria Gonzalez, president and CEO of the Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises, said the situation is devastating for these small businesses, especially when most had already been financially shattered by the coronavirus pandemic.
She estimated 30 businesses were affected just on Centro de Oro and Front Street corridors, where HACE has overseen community development efforts since 1982. She said the violent acts in late May were a “setback” for the business community. Gonzalez said these areas were already struggling to attract investors and will now need to recover from the vandalism and looting..
“We have to wait for the dust to settle to build that trust again and convince people that it’s worth investing in this area,” she said.
The business districts had seen recent gains, like when Centro de Oro received a $3.8 million makeover in 2011, to highlight the corridor as a vibrant cultural center for Philadelphia’s growing Latino communities. The corridor at Germantown and Lehigh Avenues had also made progress, after been assessed as the strip with the most vacant commercial lots in the North district of the city’s Philadelphia 2035 Strategic Plan.
Gonzalez said it’s stressful to now see these small businesses “turn the lights off.”
She said some business owners won’t be able to open their doors again, leading to more vacant storefronts and higher unemployment in the neighborhoods. Gonzalez said it may force residents to move out — or have longer commutes — for work, food, and medicine.
At 5th Street’s Centro de Oro, pharmacist David Ostrow estimated $100,000 in damages and inventory loss at Cambria Pharmacies, a 55-year-old family business serving a predominately Latino neighborhood.
The business, located on the 2800 block of North Fifth Street, was looted on May 31 with losses that included the storefront’s windows and security gate, merchandise, and at least 200 prescriptions that were ready for pickup. He said there were substantial thefts of controlled substances, specifically pain medications, that he reported to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Gonzalez, with HACE, said pharmacies were the most affected in the Centro de Oro business district. She said of the two corridors she works with, the Front Street district was worse hit, because of the type of businesses that serve that area: apparel stores, barbershops, mobile phone customer services, and nail salons.
Along North Front Street’s 3200 block is Joe’s Hardware and Automotive Parts. It’s been there since 1970, when Bob Gottfried’s father opened the store. Four weeks after the late May looting, the second-generation owner was open for business but still cleaning up broken glass and damaged showcases.
Gottfried was waiting for insurance money to repair some of the estimated $10,000 in losses and damages. The store was already on reduced hours because of the pandemic. Despite losing 25% of the inventory, he said he was resigned to fully take on the repairs. He owns the building and doesn’t expect any support from local agencies.
“It’s gonna take a while to get the place back up and running, but it basically depends on me,” Gottfried said.
The City of Philadelphia’s Commerce Department has partnered with the Merchants Fund to create the Restore and Reopen Program, with $1.4 million in initial funding to support businesses that experienced damage or inventory loss during the recent looting, with up to $10,000 grants.
The program, administered by the Merchants Fund, is focused on historically disadvantaged communities. It was launched Monday, June 22, and had a one-week application deadline, until the end of the day Sunday, June 28. By midday Friday, 350 applications had been submitted.
Bodega business leader Enerolina Meléndez said she appreciated the city’s effort to support the small businesses that were affected but said a week wasn’t enough time to get business owners to complete an application.
She said owners with language barriers and limited access to the internet needed personalized assistance at a time when organizers, advocates, and others serving the business community were caught up with pandemic relief efforts.
“I just hope they don’t give more time to the gentrifiers who are going to come in, now that the [Germantown] Avenue, our roots and its essence, have been stolen from us,” said Meléndez, who owns Rodríguez Grocery on 9th and Cumberland Streets, two blocks from the commercial strip.
Philadelphia’s public-private economic development corporation, the PIDC, will soon open applications for the $3 million Restart PHL Loan Fund, a program that will provide flexible low-cost capital to small businesses that meet specific criteria. . It is targeting historically disadvantaged communities with a focus on Black- and brown-owned businesses in low-income commercial corridors.
As Philly prepares for the “green” phase in the state’s reopening of the economy and legislators in Harrisburg push for statewide police reform, small business owner Brenda Rodríguez doesn’t get her hopes too high.
After spending three days and four nights guarding her Digital One store on Germantown Avenue’s 2600 block, the 73-year-old said she feels discouraged about the corridor’s fate, the community she serves, and the future of the business owners in North Philly.
“I fear that this [vandalism and looting] will happen again, because it’s a matter of time before we hear another [Black person] gets killed.”