Visit one of our historic commercial corridors in West Philadelphia or any predominantly diverse community after sundown and the sight is the same: silver shutter gates, dark storefronts, and empty businesses that have closed for the day.
Now, on that same day, visit Center City after dark. Bars and restaurants are thriving, people of all ages stroll by storefronts, and everyone is open for business.
The reason for the difference? Public safety.
I have spoken to countless West Philadelphia business owners who would love to be open longer each day, but they choose to close at nightfall because they have no confidence in the City of Philadelphia to keep them or their patrons safe from the rising tide of gun violence.
In the last two months, a Dunkin’ Donuts manager in North Philadelphia was murdered as she was opening the store at dawn, and West Philadelphia fashion designer Sircarr Johnson Jr. was shot and killed when his cookout was sprayed with over 100 rounds.
According to the Pew Charitable Trust, only 2.5% of Philly businesses have Black owners, even though Black people represent nearly 44% of city residents. But data from the West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative show that, on certain corridors in West Philly, Black people own a majority of businesses. A stroll through Center City, however, shows mostly larger corporate stores and white-owned businesses. For years, business and city officials have studied why the city’s racial demographics aren’t reflected in business ownership, and why BIPOC-owned businesses fail at higher rates.
Consider this: Businesses in Center City enjoy three to five more hours of revenue every day than those businesses in neighborhoods that close early for safety concerns. That can equal out to 25 extra hours per week. If you use a conservative estimate of $200 per hour that these businesses make in profit, it’s an extra $5,000 per week that businesses in Center City make over those in neighborhoods. BIPOC-owned businesses setting up shop in communities are almost immediately at a competitive disadvantage as of the day they open.
The reality is, you can’t invest in a community where business owners are afraid to set up shop or stay open, where people are afraid to go to work because they hear stories about employees becoming victims on the job, where residents are afraid to leave their homes because of violence. Before any investment is going to make a difference in the lives of residents, our city leaders need to solve our public safety crisis.
First, from an enforcement standpoint, there must be accountability. In 2018, a man who nearly killed West Philadelphia business owner Mike Poeng on camera received a plea deal from the District Attorney’s Office that avoided charges such as attempted murder, stunning Poeng and his family. The suspect in last month’s murder of a Dunkin’ Donuts manager is under investigation for multiple homicides and was paroled in 2020 after being imprisoned for another killing. The city must invest resources to beef up its investigations of violent crimes, find those responsible, and hold them accountable. I’m not advocating for mass incarceration, but some crimes — like murder and attempted murder — deserve lengthy prison sentences. Any elected official who can’t say that simple sentence should be removed in their next election.
This is one of the reasons that I, along with many of our businesses, support West Philly State Rep. Amen Brown’s proposal to crack down on gun violence, including mandatory minimum sentences for people with previous criminal records who are arrested and convicted on gun-related offenses. We cannot have a thriving community while every day someone is losing a life to gun violence.
Second, we need strategic investment. Our city invests millions in gun violence prevention and recently approved $155 million for after-school programs, libraries, community grants, grassroots organizations, and other measures aimed to reduce violence. But we need greater investment in returning citizens to reduce recidivism. Once people have served their sentences and been disconnected from crime, take those dollars to help them start a new life. Get returning citizens housing and pay for the first year of rent, offer free or reduced health care so they can afford counseling, provide workforce development and upskilling to help them access family-sustaining jobs, and start new businesses. If we can eliminate recidivism, we can make our communities safer.
Only once crime is curbed by these two measures can the city talk about investment in prevention and amenities.
The responsibility to push for safer communities with thriving BIPOC-owned businesses starts with us. I won’t wait for another familiar name to hit headlines as a victim to start pushing for reform. Will you?
Jabari K. Jones is the president of the West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative.
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.