The winding, sloped Main Street stands as a relic of Darby Borough's grander past. Trolleys pass empty shop windows along the narrow street. Architectural flourishes carved into stone buildings are crumbling, and one of the busiest places is the Department of Public Works, where people receive public assistance.
Despite Darby's hard luck since the mills closed long ago, things might be changing. The borough hopes to open a new recreation center in August on Ridge Avenue, where children can play in a full-court gym. Police and borough officials hope it will help keep more kids off the streets, away from drugs and out of fights.
And a Save-A-Lot store is expected to open next May in a new shopping center on MacDade Boulevard. The store would be the borough's first supermarket in at least 20 years.
Although Darby has a produce store and some corner grocery stores, most residents have to drive or take public transportation to finish their shopping in Philadelphia, Sharon Hill, or Glenolden, Councilman Howard Blackson Jr. said.
"Will it make a big difference for them? Surely," he said. "Residents that I have talked to are very excited about it. They feel it's time that something good is happening in Darby."
Like many former mill towns, the borough of about 9,900 people has struggled to keep jobs and residents. Twice as many Darby families live in poverty than the national average, and while Delaware County has a median family income of $61,590 - $11,500 greater than the national average - Darby's median family income is just $36,000, according to 2000 census data.
Darby's number of reported violent crimes is on par with the number for Upper Darby, even though that township has seven times as many people, according to FBI crime statistics from 2007.
Police Chief Robert Smythe said much of Darby's crime, which includes a large number of aggravated assaults, happens among juveniles. Police presence helps, but the young also need something to do.
The recreation center is part of a complex under construction at Ridge Avenue and 10th Street. The 11,025-square-foot rec center will have programs for seniors and children, said Janice Davis, president of the Borough Council.
The complex also will house the district court, police station, and borough administration, and will be built over the next two years. The complex will cost $4.5 million overall, with Darby financing $2.2 million and the rest funded by state grants, Borough Manager Mark Possenti said.
Over the years, structured youth activities have dwindled in the borough. Paul DiBona, who owns Public Drug, a pharmacy where he has worked since 1975, said he used to sponsor Little League teams every year. But he hasn't heard from a team in several years, he said.
"They pretty much collapsed," he said. "So what do kids do?"
DiBona hopes that when the center is up and running and the borough hires a recreation director, more leagues will start up. It's a vital step, he said, "to build the neighborhood."
As for the shopping center, developers say they'll need 100 workers to help build the center, which is expected also to include a Wine and Spirits Store, a dollar store, a GameStop, and a few undetermined retailers. The center will employ at least 200 permanent workers, according to the developers.
One of the partners in the company that is building the shopping center grew up in neighboring Collingdale. Patrick J. Burns of MacDade Partners L.P. says he believed the $10 million project would encourage more development in the borough.
"Sometimes energy follows other energy," he said. "I believe it will help the whole area."
Any investment is a risk, but if the stores generate enough foot traffic, it could boost neighboring businesses and inspire confidence among possible investors, said Eugenie Birch, a professor in the department of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania.
And having someone on the development team who knows the area is its own advantage, she said.
"It is an important symbol in this community . . . that an investor has come and put money in the area," Birch said. "It's his money. He's going to watch very carefully. These are very good signs."
Some food merchants in Darby say they will welcome the new supermarket. They think their businesses will benefit from the new market, enabling them to capture traffic crossing through the borough.
"That's going to help us," said Sal Duran, manager of a Produce Junction across the street from the proposed shopping center. "The business right now is kind of slow."
Other business owners are more skeptical.
Tom Botscharow, who owns Darby Hardware, a fixture for more than 100 years on Main Street, said the borough's best days might be gone for good.
"It's a good thing," he said of the shopping center, "but is it going to be the revitalization of Darby? Nah."
The borough doesn't have enough jobs, and the higher rate of unemployment makes it harder for businesses to survive, Botscharow said.
He mentioned a restaurant across the street that closed this spring. Joanna's Breakfast & Sandwich Eatery still has signs in its windows advertising fried chicken and greens, but the shop is dark and locked.
"Everyone was excited about that, a place to sit down and eat breakfast," Botscharow said. "It's a shame."
Davis, who grew up in Darby, said recovery would take time. One of her next projects is to create a plan for abandoned housing, which litters the borough and tends to attract drug activity and other crime.
"There's a lot being done, but there's a lot to be done," she said.