TO AFRICAN grocery store owner Musa Kromah, who immigrated to the United States 11 years ago to escape civil war in his native Liberia, Philadelphia is "well-known" back in his home country.
In fact, he said, "all Liberians" have family members in the city. Greater Philadelphia has the largest Liberian population of any U.S. metro area, according to a November 2008 report from the Brookings Institute think tank.
Recent U.S. Census Bureau five-year estimates put the number of people of Liberian ancestry in Philadelphia at 3,769, though community leaders estimate that the numbers are over 5,000.
"If you ask them, 'Where they choosing?' they choose Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,'" said Kromah, 40, a resident who owns two stores near the site of the July 5 fire that killed four children and displaced 42 others on Gesner Street near 65th in Southwest Philadelphia.
Population estimates and theories about why these West African immigrants chose the area as their home vary. But the community, some said, is close and peaceful - a far cry from the protests July 7 where about 200 people clashed with police in the aftermath of the Gesner Street fire. Kromah said the area used to be "gangster" but is now booming with African businesses. They pay taxes, work hard to survive and support one another, he said.
"In every society, there is good and also there is bad," he said. "But the African community, immensely, has contributed toward the society - especially the city of Philadelphia."
Yayey Dukuly, 29, of Bensalem, who works at another family-owned African market on Woodland Avenue, said the community - which also includes some Sierra Leoneans and Nigerians - is trusting and everyone seems to know one another.
But while the city has become home, some in the community say that their move to Southwest Philadelphia has not been without difficulty at times.
Some residents say the city does not respond to their needs in a timely manner because they are African. Then, there are the other losses they carry - most recently in 2008, when a fire on nearby Elmwood Avenue near 64th Street killed seven people.
Last Wednesday, more than two dozen protesters marched about 5 miles to City Hall from Southwest Philadelphia, demanding "answers" to the fire on Gesner Street.
Alphonso Seke-Horton, 50, of Yeadon, said some in the community were likely only expecting the mayor to express his condolences and state he was sorry for their loss.
"Look, sorry, s-o-r-r-y, is better than $1 billion," Seke-Horton said. "I don't know whether in the Western world, but in the African community, sorry is valued more than $1 billion."
Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, director of outreach at the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, a nonprofit agency that works with immigrants, said when civil war broke out in Liberia in 1989, resettlement agencies chose to locate immigrants in Southwest Philadelphia. That's because there was already an African community in the area, partly because of the colleges.
Dahn Dennis, president of the Liberian Association of Pennsylvania, placed the number of Liberians living in the Philadelphia area at about 5,000 to 10,000, with more than 30,000 in the state. Dennis added Liberians were drawn because of cheap housing and resettlement programs.
"You want to go somewhere where you're comfortable in, you want to go somewhere where you can relate to the other people," said Patricia Awo, 28, of Upper Darby.
Now, for neighbors such as David Cassell, 46, of Eastwick, the focus is on improving the community and moving forward.
"We try to see how we can be united," Cassell said. "How we can be one."