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South Street west of Broad is taking off as hot neighborhood

When Sara Stone-Bush was growing up in the 1990s, she dreaded the walk to the public swimming pool at 26th and South Streets.

Co-owner Craig Rosenfeld is joined by sales associate Kristine Eng at Loop, a knitting shop that is part of a new wave of businesses enlivening the once-blighted stretch. (April Saul/Staff)
Co-owner Craig Rosenfeld is joined by sales associate Kristine Eng at Loop, a knitting shop that is part of a new wave of businesses enlivening the once-blighted stretch. (April Saul/Staff)Read more

When Sara Stone-Bush was growing up in the 1990s, she dreaded the walk to the public swimming pool at 26th and South Streets.

"You got bothered by creepy people hanging out," she recalls. South Street west of Broad was the ragged edge of the city, a crust of decomposing buildings and skeezy bars. "There were blocks I wouldn't walk down on the route home from school."

On visits back from college, Stone-Bush began noticing a change.

"Buildings were being renovated," she says. "The squatter houses disappeared. The shot-out cars were gone."

Now 25, Stone-Bush works at LaVa cafe at 2100 South, one of a crop of hip eateries on the street that is becoming one of the city's hottest strips of coolness.

"Generally speaking, you have commercial corridors improve, then residential areas follow. Here, it was the opposite," said Ori Feibush, owner of OCF Realty. When Feibush, 28, set up his business on the 2000 block of South five years ago, rents were low, and the neighborhood was poised for takeoff.

Priced out of Center City housing, young professionals, recent college graduates, and families with small children migrated west, giving developers incentive to rehab and build, Feibush said. Now real estate costs are up here, too.

Last year, six single-family homes went up at 20th and Fitzwater. "All of them sold in the $700,000s," Feibush said. Units in another development at 19th and Fitzwater, he said, are selling in the $800,000 range. And at 19th and Catharine, where the Varick Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church sat empty for years before it was demolished then languished as a hole in the ground, 10 single-family homes are under construction.

The influx of residents (and their wallets) attracted new entrepreneurs and encouraged existing business owners to spiff up storefronts.

"It's been a long time coming," Feibush said.

Doggie Style, the 10th and most recent shop in the upscale pet-products chain, opened last August. (Nothing says gentrification like a $50 leash.) City Fitness, a 17,800-square-foot gym, began in December. Mushmina, a boutique selling fair-trade clothing from Morocco, came in May. And a new gastro pub, the Cambridge, is replacing the old Tritone bar and jazz venue.

Among the other new enterprises are a laundry service that picks up and delivers via bicycle, day-care centers, several yoga studios, art galleries, and the retail twins Spool and Loop, sewing and knitting stores.

Restaurants are proliferating. Beginning with Govinda's, a vegetarian place on the corner of Broad and South, they unfurl to the river. Vegan, Mexican, Thai, Indian, French, Italian. There's a gluten-free bakery and, soon to open, a pie shop and a second incarnation of Honey's Sit 'n Eat from Northern Liberties.

In 2004, when Hillary Bor and her boyfriend decided to open Pumpkin on the 1700 block, her mother, Renee Bor, was skeptical: "I was thinking, Oy! That's a neighborhood that never took off. It was no-man's-land. But they wanted an edgy destination and little by little, things began to change."

From the start the restaurant did well, with its charming dining room and menu, focusing on locally sourced foods. Then Pumpkin expanded, opening a takeout and casual eat-in shop on the street.

It's hard to pinpoint what sparked development, said Kevin Gray, chairman of the South of South Neighborhood Association, but the South Street bridge's reopening in 2010 definitely served as a shot of adrenaline.

And the pace seems to have picked up in the last six months. "We've definitely seen foot traffic increase," said Gray, 40. "People are interested in coming here from Center City as a destination."

A few older businesses have survived, including Bob and Barbara's bar, home of the "special" - a shot of Jim Beam and a Pabst Blue Ribbon. And the hair salon Platinum Shears, where loyal customers like Beverly Jennings, a security officer at Pennsylvania Hospital, can still find Pam B, the shop's owner, who has been dying her hair just the right shade since 1997.

"Back then, this whole row was hair and barber shops" catering to African American clientele, said Pam B. "There's a lot more diversity now."

Residents say they welcome most of the development, even large-scale ones like the Toll Brothers' 2400 South project, which will bring 66 townhouses and 59 condominiums.

One change causing tension, however, is a new CVS at 22d and South Streets. With two other large chain drugstores, Rite-Aid and Walgreens, within a few blocks, neighbors say, a third is superfluous.

"It's an example of not-so-great development," said Elise Boller, a 40-year-old veterinarian and mother of two young children who has lived in the area since 2006. "It would be nice if there were a park. Some open space for social interaction."

Boller said that parking, too, has become an issue, and she worries that "we're going to choke ourselves out of our neighborhood." She and her neighbors, she said, also regret that the CVS developer cut down so many old trees to make way for the building.

"We're not happy about the CVS," said Marcus Iannozzi, president of the South Street West Business Association. "But they never approached us. If a developer is planning to build to code, there's nothing we can do. We had no leverage."

The other major sore spot is the abandoned Royal Theater owned by Kenny Gamble's Universal Companies.

"In another couple of years, the building will fall over," said Feibush of OCF Realty. "It's in terrible shape. It can be fixed. A dozen developers would love to turn it into something beautiful." So far, Gamble's group has only proposed leaving the facade up and building houses behind it, Feibush said, and the community rejected that plan.

Universal Companies did not return several calls for comment.

Despite a few glitches, said Iannozzi, the development of South Street's western frontier has been a success.

"It's been really exciting," Iannozzi said. His group is compiling statistics on retail and commercial growth. And it is promoting festivals - new and old - that draw visitors. "Bloktoverfest, the autumn beer and music festival, drew 10,000 people last year," he said. And an estimated 500,000 came to the Odunde festival in mid-June.

The one missing piece, Iannozzi said, is a catchy name for the neighborhood.

"Graduate Hospital is used by real estate agents," he said, but since that hospital no longer exists, there ought to be a better alternative. "People have called it Southwest Center City, South of South, South Street West, the Grays Ferry Triangle, South by Schuylkill." So far none has stuck. "There is a strong identity for the corridor. . . . We're still looking for the right moniker."