Popped up and kicked out
Whats the real story behind the shutdown of Point Breeze Pop-Up?
TANJA DIXON thinks a lot about befores and afters.
Before the Point Breeze Pop-Up beer garden opened for business, the sprawling, vacant lot on which it sits at Point Breeze Avenue below Fernon Street was disgusting. Littered with garbage and crawling with vermin, it attracted rock-throwing kids and drug dealers who hid their stash in the trash.
After the pop-up opened May 16, gone were the trash and weeds, replaced with colorful, plastic Adirondack chairs and tables. The stench of human excrement was replaced by the aroma of grilling meats and other fare sold from an array of interesting food trucks. And new lighting and security cameras made the place feel safe.
But you know what made the block feel really awesome?
The customers - newcomers and old-timers alike - who brought eyes, ears, pleasant conversation and healthy activity to a block that has long needed it.
"It was beautiful," sighs Dixon, who lives on Fernon Street. "On Thursday, when I'd pull onto the block after work, I'd get all excited because the pop-up was open." (It operated Thursdays through Sundays.) "It was refreshing to look out my door onto something peaceful and nice."
The Point Breeze Pop-Up, owned and operated by developer John Longacre, has been shut down by the city for Licenses and Inspections infractions that, from what I can see, never even existed.
In full disclosure, I know Longacre personally; he's a former neighbor. But I won't let that affiliation keep me from saying that something here reeks worse than the pop-up lot used to.
Longacre's paperwork shows he was in compliance with the state law that governs pop-ups and with the city's zoning requirements. The state Liquor Control Board and the city Health Department found nothing amiss at his operation. Neighbors were ecstatic that the pop-up brought vitality to a lot that used to generate only drama.
The pop-up also was supported by City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and South Philadelphia HOMES, the local registered community organization.
Yet Longacre was twice slapped with L&I cease-and-desist orders that other compliant pop-ups haven't had to deal with. He and his lawyer are heading to court again this week.
It's clear when the crap began.
In early June, an anonymous flier circulating through the neighborhood accused Longacre of enticing "newcomers" to Point Breeze "who will be drinking from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. They will be walking all around our neighborhoods drunk, like they own the neighborhood."
It also read: "Let's protect our children and families, send a message to John Longacre, you are not welcome here."
The flier prompted state Rep. Jordan Harris to host a community meeting at which Longacre was lambasted for being, basically, a business owner who adheres to building and zoning laws, gathers community input on development projects and invests his money in blighted areas that have seen no investment for decades.
I get it: Gentrification scares people. It attracts newcomers, increases taxes, alters the culture of a place. Even a neighborhood as rife with blight and crime as Point Breeze still has good folks who call the place home.
Still, it's one thing for residents to vent over changes they fear. It's quite another for L&I, in response, to close a legal operation just because it can.
Who's pulling the strings here, anyway?
"I hate to say this, but this looks like reverse racism to me," says Claudia Sherrod, executive director of South Philadelphia HOMES and a 55-year resident of the block. She is black, she loves the pop-up and she thinks the protesters would, too, if Longacre weren't white.
"It saddens me," says Sherrod. "John made that lot beautiful. People walk by and say, 'Can you believe this?' They're amazed."
Fellow neighbor Dixon was tickled by how the pop-up's clientele started as mostly white but then, as word spread, became a 50-50 mix of blacks and whites.
"And they were talking together. Not because they had to," she says. "They were all just nice, just enjoying the atmosphere."
She's angry at those who say that the pop-up lot would be better for a rec center, or that it invites public drunkenness.
"That lot was vacant for 40 years," she says. "If people wanted something there, why didn't they make it happen?"
As for public intoxication, Dixon says the only drunks she sees are the ones who start fights and sell drugs outside a longtime nuisance bar around the corner.
"But, funny, I don't see anyone protesting to shut that place down," she says.
Race, politics, money, fear. It's the urban story, all over again.
On Twitter: @RonniePhilly