On a chilly afternoon, along a worn shopping strip, the music legend is being greeted like the pope in Rome. As he strolls by the discount stores, the beauty-supply shops, and the vacancies pulling down Point Breeze Avenue, people drown Kenny Gamble in smiles, shouts, and handshakes.
"Hey, brother," a man calls from across the street, waving as he pushes a shopping cart toward the dreary Harvest Supermarket.
"Hey there," says Gamble, in a thick brown coat, his familiar kufi, and schoolboy glasses, his arm outstretched.
"I hope you have a blessing for me."
"I do," Gamble says, "I do."
Several blocks away, on the north side of Washington Avenue, Gamble and his community-development corporation, Universal Companies, have been credited with bringing parts of South Philadelphia out of the abyss through educational opportunities and real estate redevelopment.
Now, through a federal grant announced Monday, Gamble hopes to rebuild the 200 blocks that make up Point Breeze and Grays Ferry, two of the city's most distressed neighborhoods, battling an economic devastation that rivals Detroit.
Through its Promise Neighborhoods initiative, the U.S. Department of Education took applications last year for a one-year planning grant, ranging from $400,000 to $500,000. The goal was to help communities develop a comprehensive plan that addressed their most pressing problems, and get children from the cradle through college graduation. If Universal's long-term strategy impresses the government, the nonprofit group could get a share of a $200 million grant to make it a reality.
In its application, Universal painted the grim picture:
About 50,000 people call Point Breeze and Grays Ferry home, two neighborhoods that run from the Schuylkill to Broad Street, from Washington to Passyunk Avenues.
They are largely African American, with about 7,000 children enrolled in the neighborhood schools. Seventy percent of those students live in poverty, in households headed by single mothers. More than half of them will drop out of school. And most of the ninth and 10th graders still sitting in class cannot read or perform math at grade level.
Out of 339 applicants, Universal was one of just 21 awarded funding, $500,000. The nonprofit organization raised another $500,000, including $250,000 from the William Penn Foundation, to lay out its "PointGrays" transformation plan.
Gamble made the announcement to a standing ovation Monday in the auditorium of Audenried High School. On the stage with him were a dozen of his strategic partners, including School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and Mayor Nutter.
For Gamble, the famed songwriter-producer turned community organizer, it is perhaps the biggest production of his life.
"Seeing is believing," Gamble said before strolling the streets near his old neighborhood. "And when you see a neighborhood where there's abandoned houses, where there's vacant lots, and trash all over. And when you see people who can't even buy a loaf of bread or a quart of orange juice unless you buy it from somebody who doesn't live in your neighborhood.
"The bottom line is," Gamble continued, "how do you create this kind of consciousness, so that people who have been robbed of all these initiatives, the knowledge of doing for themselves? How do you create a community of people to get up off their knees so that they can become independent? You change their whole community."
Gamble wants to take those 200 blocks, ravaged by neglect and despair, and inoculate them with a cocktail of early-childhood education; family services; decent, affordable housing; jobs; quality businesses; and community development.
To see it through, he has partnered with what he calls "the awakened ones": Ackerman, Nutter, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, and those universities, hospitals, think tanks, and community groups that have developed the best practices around rebuilding urban communities - with Universal taking the lead.
"What we've been able to do," said Gamble, his voice a soft, steady baritone, "is identify why African American communities are like they are - distressed, in poverty, not involved in the economics of their community, not involved in the whole political process, and what we came up with was that education, education was the key."
"There's been generations that have not been able to take advantage of the education," he continued, "and when African Americans had education, it was always inferior. This is going to take generations and a constant maintenance of the educational and cultural aspects to make sure that this doesn't go back."
Gamble remembers his native South Philadelphia neighborhood as one that thrived with black-owned restaurants and boutique hotels.
After he made it big writing hits, and branding that soul-stirring Philly Sound, he did what he now laments is part of the problem.
"You know, the cream always rises to the top," Gamble said. "The bottom line is, the cream is always leaving. The smartest ones, the ones who have been able to get education, the ones who have been able to achieve success and fame, they always leave the community."
Gamble moved his wife and four children to Gladwyne.
Decades later, while driving to his office on South Broad Street, he stopped at the Christian Street house he grew up in, a beat-up rowhouse carved into six tiny apartments, and ran into the landlord.
"Remember me?" Gamble asked. "I'm Ruby's boy."
The neighborhood was teeming with drugs, violence, and prostitutes. Gamble learned the man wanted out and was selling the property for $1,500. Gamble agreed to buy it on the spot. He later bought the house next door, then one down the street, sparking an addiction. In the mid-1990s, Gamble and his wife moved back to his old block. To date, Universal has built hundreds of homes in South Philadelphia, many once ghostly houses and weeded lots. And near his office sit Universal Institute Charter School, Universal Property Management Co., and Universal Home Ownership and Financial Literacy Center."
"This is not a job. This is a lifestyle for us" at Universal, Gamble said. For him, the work honors those early messages of self-determination and empowerment from Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, and North Philadelphia's own the Rev. Leon Sullivan.
Universal has eight months to submit its exhaustive plan, with a due date of Sept. 30. Of the 21 grantees, the Department of Education will award four a proposed total of $200 million for implementation.
Through the partnerships, Gamble envisions transforming not just Point Breeze and Grays Ferry, but struggling neighborhoods throughout the city.
As he continues down Point Breeze Avenue, Gamble stops inside a clothing store to buy a T-shirt. He opens the door, and hip-hop music pours onto the sidewalk.
Outside, a 12-year-old girl waits with her mother to shake his hand. She attends the South Philadelphia charter school Gamble founded. The alternative, her mother said, was a school blocks away from their Point Breeze home, where "kids bring drugs to school."
"He's made such a difference in the lives of my children," said the mother, Shameka Thomas, 27, whose three children have been educated under Gamble's influence. "He's like a superstar."