Tear gas wafted through her neighborhood and helicopter rotors roared overhead as Pamela Blanding-Godbolt waited anxiously Sunday for her daughter to come home.
“I’m on pins and needles for her,” said Blanding-Godbolt, who lives on Lindenwood Street, about a block away from 52nd Street, one of the centers of conflict .
Her daughter, Courtney, 27, was driving to Philadelphia from Kentucky, and was scheduled to arrive after the city’s 6 p.m. curfew began. Her mother wasn’t sure how she would be able to get into the city, and if she would be safe once she arrived.
The outrage and vandalism that shattered Center City on Saturday waited a day to spread to West Philly, where about 150 people took to the street. This time, though, the damage came to a business corridor that serves a predominantly black neighborhood, one that had been in the midst of finding its footing.
At 52nd and Chestnut, looters climbed a trashed police cruiser to break into a Foot Locker store. A few blocks away, at Arch Street, two police vehicles smoldered. Tear gas fired from a police SWAT vehicle fogged the street.
“Businesses are already … driven to this point of making the decision of whether they’re going to shut down for good because of the coronavirus," said Jabari Jones, president of the West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative, the largest coalition of small businesses in the neighborhood. "And now this might be the straw that breaks a lot of camels’ backs in terms of businesses saying, ‘Look, I can’t reopen.’”
Sixty years ago, 52nd Street was one of the most thriving African American neighborhoods in the city. It has since struggled to regain its former vibrancy. Redlining kept African Americans from investing in the community, and in the last 20 years, a highly disruptive SEPTA repair project on the Market-Frankford Line, along with high crime, left the corridor in shambles.
More recently, revitalization efforts through the city have supported storefront improvements and small kiosks for merchants along the sidewalk. Work was underway to bring tenants to some of the abandoned buildings along the corridor. Almost all the businesses on 52nd Street are small or locally owned, and about half are black-owned, some for multiple generations, Jones said.
"Seeing decades of investment, of community planning, of support from grant-making agencies, and seeing so much of that great work literally be thrown away in the course of an afternoon is really devastating,” Jones said.
Jessie Joseph, who for 20 years has operated the Caribbean restaurant Brown Sugar at 52nd and Chancellor Streets, watched the damage on television from his home in Delaware and hoped for the best. He had pulled down the metal shutters on his business when he last closed, he said, and he believed the restaurant would be undamaged. Like so many others along the corridor, he felt deeply conflicted by the destruction to the neighborhood. He didn’t approve of the looting, but he understood it.
“People are tired of the way things are, of black folks getting killed,” he said. “That’s what happens when people get frustrated. They start doing crazy things.”
That similar sentiment came from others in the neighborhood. George Floyd’s death on Monday while in police custody in Minneapolis stirred a new round of rage over decades of black lives perpetually marked by anxiety and fear.
“There’s no way that you can act that doesn’t end up with us being in a space where our lives are forfeit,” said Serita Lewis, who lives and runs a business on 50th Street organizing community engagement programs. “You have all these insecurities and people are just lashing out blindly to make their voices heard.”
Police initially fired tear gas as the Foot Locker was looted. But by early evening they were shooting tear gas canisters down 52nd Street at people simply standing on the street. Two neighborhood doctors, Vijay and Elizabeth Bhoj, who sought to help people affected by tear gas or injured, said one family had to evacuate their home when a tear gas canister landed on their porch. Among those they treated for tear gas exposure were young children.
“It’s hard seeing people trying to find a voice who have had theirs taken away,” Elizabeth Bhoj said.
The McDonald’s across the street from the Lucien E. Blackwell West Philadelphia Regional Library had its window smashed. Near 52nd and Walnut Streets, a drugstore, a store that sells medical scrubs, and a beauty shop were looted.
“I work there, and I gotta clean that up tomorrow,” said a young woman outside.
Revitalization efforts on 52nd Street were already controversial. Residents and business owners feared revitalization could mean remaking the community more friendly for whites and less welcoming for the people who call it home now. If this weekend’s damage does drive out businesses, Lewis worried that gentrification could be encouraged.
“So many of the properties that are owned on 52nd Street, those are not people that live in our community,” she said. “Some of them will decide it’s not worth it for them to rebuild, and it’ll turn into a fire sale.”
Jones agreed that there was a risk the twin tragedies of the pandemic and Sunday’s destruction could threaten efforts to encourage locally owned business on the corridor. “We need city, state, and federal or otherwise resources to help us rebuild those community corridors,” he said.
Joseph, who planned to visit his restaurant Monday morning, was more optimistic. The damage, though stark, was confined to a few blocks.
“We’ll overcome,” he said. “We are strong people. We always find a way out.”
By 7:20 p.m. Sunday, Blanding-Godbolt had heard from her daughter. She had arrived safely at her father’s home. The news brought some calm, but didn’t fully ease her unsettled mind.