As I drive around our city and region, I see something I was hoping to never see — the systematic boarding up of storefronts along our commercial corridors. Everywhere from West Philly to Chestnut Hill to Ocean City, N.J., wood over storefronts physically and figuratively separate business and property owners from their customers and community.
While it is obviously a reaction to the recent civil unrest, it is misguided and hurtful.
- Philly police scaled back a plan for the George Floyd protests. The impact was devastating.
- After the unrest, these restaurateurs rebuilt, and stand in solidarity
- Vigilantes surround Christopher Columbus statue for 3rd day; N.J. police departments ordered to identify officers who commit serious violations
So, here is my message to my fellow business and property owners: It’s time to tear down the plywood that divides us.
I understand that each property owner has to make their own choice as to how to best protect their buildings and tenants. Some businesses were devastated by theft and looting. But my company, Philly Office Retail, went against the grain. We not only chose to not board up, we also spent the past 30 years taking down metal grates from our storefronts. My company owns commercial properties along business corridors in Mount Airy, Germantown, and West Philly, some of the hardest-hit areas in our city during the recent rioting and looting in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. But none of our tenants reported a significant amount of destruction or theft.
Sadly, Philadelphia’s commercial corridors are now not only blighted by unsightly metal grates but also board-ups. While many businesses have remained open to the public or recently reopened as Philadelphia and the surrounding counties moved to Gov. Tom Wolf’s yellow phase, when covered with boards and grates, those businesses have become uninviting places to shop and do business. What kind of message does that send to the community? Not a good one.
Metal grates and board-ups over storefronts are a blight. They cheapen a business district, send word that the business corridor is dangerous and unsafe, and send a negative message to members of the community that they cannot be trusted.
That is why Philly Office Retail removed grates from more than 40 storefronts over the years. Metal grates out in front of stores have roots in similar unrest that took place in the 1960s. Mostly white property owners responded to turmoil in black communities by building mini fortresses to protect their stores. These unnecessary grates furthered divisions in our society. We must not be blind to this legacy and allow metal grates to be replaced by plywood.
I am sympathetic to business and property owners who had their stores looted and destroyed. We should do everything possible to support their recovery and reopening, especially black-owned businesses that are historically disadvantaged. However, people are more important than property. Windows can be repaired and merchandise replaced.
Nothing can undo the damage done by sending a hostile message to an entire community. But that’s exactly what boarded-up windows and metal grates communicate. Ultimately, the only way to prevent civil unrest is to address the long-standing, legitimate grievances. Removing metal grates and plywood should be a small part of that work.