As Mayor Nutter drilled into the sidewalk along North Fifth Street, his jackhammer cracked open a project 10 years in the making: the revitalization of the Golden Block of North Philadelphia.
Known by neighbors as El Centro de Oro or El Bloque de Oro, the Golden Block runs along Fifth between Lehigh and Allegheny Avenues and along Lehigh between Second and Sixth Streets.
The $3.8 million project, led by the Main Street Program of the Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises (HACE), will stretch from Lehigh to Indiana Avenue on Fifth. To make it happen, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania provided $2 million, the Philadelphia Cultural and Commercial Corridor Bond Program $900,000, and the state Department of Transportation $977,500.
What neighbors commonly call golden sidewalks will finally be repaved and repainted.
"Now, we are not literally repaving the street with gold," Nutter said in the groundbreaking ceremony last week, "but it will look like it. Well, you know, we have budget challenges."
Those freshly paved sidewalks will get a new coat of bright yellow paint along a squiggly pattern, meant to refresh the corridor's Caribbean theme.
Metal palm trees will line both sides of the street. New benches, planters, and other adornments will be added. The lighting will be improved.
Renovations also will include landscaping, the disposal of dead overhead wiring, and the construction of bump-outs at Somerset and Cambria Streets and Indiana Avenue.
"For many of us, this was the first place that we could come as young folks to shop," City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said. "We want to make sure that when we brand this that it is something that this community is proud of and that it leverages all the other things that are going around Fairhill."
Centro Musical owner Wilfredo Gonzalez, who bought the store in 1972, said he had seen the Golden Block pass through many phases.
In the 1950s and '60s, when the area was developing, there were very few businesses, said Candelario Lamboy, who owns Lamboy Furniture on Fifth Street.
After World War II, the Latino population began to grow in North Philadelphia. By the '70s, the area had become a thriving business corridor and received a face-lift - the golden sidewalks that the public sees today.
Properties should gain value after the project is completed, Gonzalez said, adding that he feels there is less crime than before.
HACE and the Business Association work closely with the 25th Police District to reduce crime, said Maria Aponte, HACE Main Street manager. The Business Association and HACE are also scheduling regular street cleaning for the Golden Block.
Nine businesses have moved to Fifth Street, bringing 30 jobs, Aponte said. Some investors are using the streetscape as a selling point, getting loans to buy properties on Fifth, she said.
Merchants and community organizations hope the revitalization creates an even stronger identity for the Golden Block and promotes the Latino community, making it recognizable to visitors.
HACE wants the Golden Block to attract tourists and become a destination, Salas said.
The streetscape-improvement project is part of HACE's drive to extend the Latino presence and compete with other commercial corridors, such as Chinatown and the Italian Market.
"This is a business, cultural, and social landmark in the city of Philadelphia, but in particular for Philadelphia's Latino community," Nutter said before taking a jackhammer to Fifth.
"Commercial corridors are critically important to the progress and growth of the city," he said. "It is about neighborhoods, and it's about small neighborhood businesses that in many instances are the backbone of our community and certainly the backbone of the city."
Part of the improvement will be to increase secure parking areas. Streetscape construction could begin by the end of July.
"We're moving ahead," Gonzalez said.