Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

El reconstruction over, biz owners eye rebound in West Philly

BACK IN THE DAY, when 60th Street was booming, Allan Smith and Karen Browne were West Philadelphia High School sweethearts, and Alicia Burbage was hanging out with her grandmother at the Broadway Restaurant with stars in her eyes.

Wanda Glover, owner of Simply 2000, checks on a client at her shop. Glover's shop formerly was on Market Street near 62nd, but she moved due to multi-year construction project. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)
Wanda Glover, owner of Simply 2000, checks on a client at her shop. Glover's shop formerly was on Market Street near 62nd, but she moved due to multi-year construction project. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)Read more

BACK IN THE DAY, when 60th Street was booming, Allan Smith and Karen Browne were West Philadelphia High School sweethearts, and Alicia Burbage was hanging out with her grandmother at the Broadway Restaurant with stars in her eyes.

"You'd see [DJ/civil-rights activist] Georgie Woods, [state Sen.] Hardy Williams, all the neighborhood stars - because the Broadway was the soul-food spot that everybody wanted to go to," Burbage said.

"My grandmother was the cashier and the keeper of the recipes," she said.

"I'd hear people ask her for the recipe for the rolls or the sweet-potato pie. Even the crust on that pie was homemade."

Decades of losing business to malls and the past 10 years of losing neighborhood customers to the frequent street closures of SEPTA's Market Street El reconstruction have decimated West Philadelphia commercial streets like 60th.

But back in the day, Burbage said, "We had Woolworth's, Woolco, Kresge's. We had a baker, a dentist, an eyeglass doctor, men's and women's clothing stores, a furniture store - everything a family needed. It looked like West Philadelphia's Main Street."

Smith agreed. "Karen and I are from West Philadelphia, and we used to go to 60th Street all the time because it had a movie theater, a roller-skating rink and several black clubs.

"The Swank Bar is the only thing still there from back in the day when 60th Street was jumping," he said.

The Smiths - who went their separate ways after high school in the late '60s, then reunited in 1996 and married in 2000 - and Burbage are among a hardy core of small-business owners who have settled on the 100 block of 60th Street in the wake of the El reconstruction, convinced that the street will soon be jumping again.

According to SEPTA, 47 businesses in the Market Street El corridor closed during the 2000-2009 reconstruction, 10 relocated and 21 opened.

"The street was declining before the El thing," Smith said.

"That was the final nail in the coffin."

But today, backed by the nonprofit vision of The Partnership CDC - which rehabs long-shuttered properties and offers them as affordable store-below/apartment-above rentals - 60th Street is slowly recovering its 1950s/1960s mojo.

Allan, 61, and Karen, 59, were eight years into their successful K&A Sandwiches & Grocery business on 20th Street near Dickinson when 60th Street came calling.

They were approached by The Partnership CDC, which had renovated the store and the apartment above, and offered them a store lease with the option to buy the whole building in several years.

The Smiths were confident that they could succeed on 60th Street because during the eight years that they had been running their original K&A Sandwiches, "Customers would ask us, 'Why don't you open a place in West Philly so I don't have to come all the way to South Philly to get a good sandwich?'

"I'd tell them, 'Well, at least there's no toll on the Grays Ferry Bridge,' " Smith said, laughing.

But underneath the humor, he saw a serious chance to expand. "I was a little reluctant at first because, basically, 60th Street was kind of bombed out," he said.

"Because the area was blighted by the El construction, nobody wanted to be here. So the rent was cheap.

"And The Partnership CDC has plans for old-style lampposts, sidewalk benches and hanging plants to bring 60th Street back to what it once was. Because we grew up here, Karen and I wanted to be part of that."

Steven Williams, executive director of The Partnership CDC, agreed. "K&A Sandwiches was an established business in South Philly," he said. "It was paramount for us to have a quality eatery that had a name, that was known, come here because it gives credence to the idea that, yeah, you can survive on 60th Street.

"We're at square one with 60th street," Williams said. "Our goal is to create a demo block on the 100 block - bring in stable businesses, relocate businesses affected by the El reconstruction and attract new businesses - to revitalize the corridor."

The Smiths opened K&A Sandwiches 2 last January. It's still a work in progress.

"The Partnership CDC needed someone who could stand to carry the store for a little bit because this wasn't going to happen overnight," Smith said.

"Our new store is still not profitable, but it's getting there," he said.

"Our South Philly store grew through word of mouth and that's what's happening now on 60th Street."

Next door, in another store renovated by The Partnership CDC, Burbage - long past those girlhood days when she hung out with her grandmother at the Broadway Restaurant - just opened her fashion-conscious shoe store, Isshoes.

"I've always had a passion for fashion," said Burbage, who left a decade of service as a neighborhood liaison for state Sen. Anthony H. Williams to open her store.

"Shoes have always been my vice. Hence, shoes were my 'Isshoes.' So this store is my own intervention.

"I've lived the past 30-plus years within walking distance of the 60th Street shops," she said.

Burbage, who has a degree in fashion design and worked in the apparel industry until she was downsized out of a job in the '90s, is not worried about the financial risk of opening a fashionable shoe store on a block that is trying to emerge from decades of decline.

"There is a misconception by people outside this community about what people in this community deserve," Burbage said.

"You won't find six-inch plexiglass separating me from customers because, as a consumer, I know it's a turn off.

"People who live here deserve the opportunity to walk into a clean store with good quality merchandise. I think some people sell us short when they think we don't deserve that. It's kind of an insult."

Burbage put her faith and her savings into 60th Street's future.

"I have an El stop, several bus stops and tons of foot traffic," she said. "I think this is a good place to invest my hard-earned cash."

Unlike Isshoes and K&A Sandwiches 2, which are start-ups, Wanda Glover's Simply 2000 hair salon was rescued from "El Reconstruction Hell" on Market Street near 62nd and given a new lease on life (literally) in the 100 block of South 60th Street by The Partnership CDC.

Glover, who opened on Market Street in 1997 with the name New Millennium, had a booming business - six stylists, one barber - when SEPTA's El reconstruction began closing off streets and shutting off the water in 2000.

"The street was built on Mill Creek," Glover said.

"So they had a lot of stuff they had to do underground before they rebuilt the El on top of it.

"They closed off Market Street," she said. "They closed off the next street over. I used to have a lot of people coming and going to work, catching the El, getting off the El. All that stopped because people couldn't get here.

"My staff started finding other places to work," Glover said.

"I went from six stylists to just me. I was trying to do everything I could to keep people, to get people back. Even with 'Buy one, get one free,' I couldn't survive."

Glover said that Frances Jones, SEPTA's governmental liaison who morphed into the go-to person for all community problems during 10 years of El reconstruction, tried to help.

"Frances Jones talked with every business owner that wanted to be helped," Glover said.

"A lot of people were just so angry, they said, 'I want some money and I want it right now. I don't want to move. I just want money.'

"But I was willing to listen because I wanted to relocate nearby, keep the clientele I had built up over the years and stay in business," Glover said.

"I was willing to take a chance on 60th Street. I'm glad I did."

Although Glover was the pioneering first business to move to 60th Street while the area was still disrupted by El reconstruction in late 2004, "my customers were able to get here right away," she said. "I had walk-ins again. As long as people can get here, they are happy. And that's a blessing."

Glover credited SEPTA's Jones for helping her survive the worst of times, when it looked like El reconstruction would destroy her livelihood.

Jones said, "I found that if you have people's trust and you're telling them the truth, they may not like what you're saying but they like that you're being real.

"They didn't like that there was going to be dust and dirt," Jones said.

"They didn't like construction going on in front of their property. They didn't like the lack of access. But we tried to help people like Wanda survive.

"She welcomed the help. And she survived."