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Annette John-Hall | Along 52d St., not a miracle, but a glimmer of hope

I went back to 52d Street in West Philly this week, not to beat the dead horse about the eight-year SEPTA reconstruction that has closed 50 businesses and left many others on life support.

I went back to 52d Street in West Philly this week, not to beat the dead horse about the eight-year SEPTA reconstruction that has closed 50 businesses and left many others on life support.

There was another story to tell. Something that was being called the "Miracles on 52d Street."

Whatever it was, I knew it wouldn't recapture the golden age of retail in West Philly, when the consecutive blocks from Market to Baltimore Avenue were connected by strings of Christmas lights and teemed with with movie theaters, lounges and retail shops, giving the neighborhood the proud distinction as the city's second-largest retail district behind Broad Street.

You can hardly shop there anymore, but amid the now-struggling strip, I saw that something wondrous is happening on a tiny oasis of brotherhood at 52d and Locust.

Maybe not miracles, but a glimmer of hope.

Most of the fledging businesses are run by relatively new immigrants from China, Southeast Asia, West Africa and the Caribbean. Economic change has brought cultural change, which has created its own tension among the groups and with the longtime black residents and business owners.

The Welcoming Center West, a branch of the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, usually helps newly arrived immigrants get established.

But now its "Miracles on 52d Street" program is bringing old and new together in an effort to show that community change doesn't necessarily have to be bad.

Throughout the month, the center has been transformed into a global holiday village, with a full slate of events that have not only wowed the children, but helped teach the natives about the holiday customs of their immigrant neighbors.

Embracing change

"We're trying to show that we can embrace change in a way that truly benefits the entire community," says Fatimah Muhammad, Welcoming Center West's project coordinator.

Two weekends ago, kids got a chance to sample holiday foods from Mali and Cambodia. And last Saturday, a circle of children sat cross-legged, transfixed by a Liberian storyteller. Later, a Chinese singer performed.

The place was ablaze in Christmas lights and festivities. Outside, a deejay spun soulful Christmas music. Inside, youngsters took pictures with Santa.

"This is wonderful," says Pansy Jones, a lifelong West Philly resident who brought her grandchildren, ages 10, 5 and 2. She welcomes the new businesses that have settled here.

"Instead of having the neighborhood run down," she says, "I think a lot of people are happier to see businesses in as opposed to abandoned buildings."

After all, she says, "we're all here to get along."

Chhay Laim nodded in agreement. Since 1993, Laim has run Mary's Deli at 52d and Hazel. His livelihood depends on the trust he builds with his customers.

"When we first started, people told me not to go into the black neighborhood because we are not the same nationality," says Laim, a Cambodian refugee who arrived in the United States in 1981. "But you live with black people you have to make sure you do the right thing. You clean up your property and be part of the community. Make sure they know you and you know them."

Beautified corner

We walk down the street to Laim's business. His storefront is spotless. In the spirit of Christmas, two wooden flower beds are planted with mini-fir trees. Laim says he plants flowers during the spring and summer.

Walking back up 52d, I had a delicious lunch at the Brown Sugar Bakery & Cafe, where the Trinidadian proprietors served me a generous platter of succulent peas and rice, sweet fried plantains, and oxtails so tender the meat fell off the bone.

I don't know whether it was the comfort of the food or the sun bouncing off the facade of the venerable Bushfire Theater that suggested a resurgence in the air.

Al Simpkins, founder/artistic director of the theater, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year, says the success of 52d is directly tied to a strong community and neighborhood support.

Securing that foundation is the primary purpose of the "Miracles" program, says Fatimah Muhammad.

"Nicer environments reduce aggression," the coordinator said, with a wisdom far beyond her 23 years. "Crime goes on where there's darkness. And we're trying to bring in light."

It's how "miracles" happen.