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Frankford running on the fast track to revitalization

JASON DAWKINS walks down Frankford Avenue from Margaret to Orthodox streets like the mayor of a small village, schmoozing with the barber, the cafe owner and the greengrocer and talking about a rebirth as real as the rumble of the El above.

JASON DAWKINS walks down Frankford Avenue from Margaret to Orthodox streets like the mayor of a small village, schmoozing with the barber, the cafe owner and the greengrocer and talking about a rebirth as real as the rumble of the El above.

"I'm a Frankford blood," said Dawkins, smiling, tracing his large family back several generations. "Everyone in the community knows my name, knows my parents, so they feel, 'If something's wrong, we're going to call Jason, 'cause we know we can bug him.'

"And if I promise to do something and nothing happens, folks are going to see me coming home and say, 'Hey, Jason, you didn't deliver.' "

For too many years, Frankford's main drag hovered in decline under the El tracks - dark, dirty, desolate, plagued by drugs and crime and fear.

Today, the bustling 4600 block of Frankford Avenue is the targeted center of a revitalization that Dawkins and his boss, Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, hope will radiate out along the Avenue from Womrath to Bridge streets.

It all starts with a broom, said Raymond "Ray of Hope" Gant, a former North Philly drug dealer who spent most of the '90s in prison but has spent all of the 2000s helping struggling business corridors like Frankford's get clean.

"When you clean up your house and your house is clean, the bugs go other places," said Gant. "Human nature's no different, understand?"

Gant leads a volunteer army of ex-offenders, recovering addicts and community-minded residents on a daily war against Frankford Avenue trash.

"Shopping on a clean avenue instead of a dirty one is like being out scuffling and hustling and bustling all day, coming home, taking a nice shower and putting on your body fragrances," said Gant, who works for the Frankford Community Development Corp. "You feel better."

Tracy O'Drain, managing director of the organization, said that before Gant mobilized his volunteers, there was a daily carpet of trash and cigarette butts down the middle of Frankford Avenue, storm drains were treated as trash cans, and people piled dozens of household garbage bags around the avenue's receptacles.

"I think what happened was that folks had a lot of fire and accomplished a lot of things in the past, but around the time that I came here in 2004, some of those folks had passed away, some had moved away, and the neighborhood had started a downward spiral because it lost its spunk," O'Drain said. "Now, I think we got that spunk back."

But, O'Drain cautioned that "revitalization in a commercial corridor this size is going to be slow, and it's going to be incremental."

One block north of the resurgent 4600 block, police are dealing with the drug trade in an abandoned house - its front door hanging open - on Foulkrod Street, just off the avenue.

There are 30 registered sex offenders living within two blocks of the avenue between Orthodox and Dyre streets, according to Thefts and burglaries occur regularly on side streets.

But as Dawkins makes his way up the 4600 block, the spirit of renewal is alive and well in core residents like Nafisah Lewis, who has owned the Iqraa Cafe for 14 years with her husband, Salim, opening early to prepare a breakfast menu featuring fresh salmon patties and other Iqraa delicacies, and staying late.

SEPTA employees from the Margaret-Orthodox station and other neighborhood workers are lunch regulars for Lewis' $5.50 brown bag specials, her sister Crystal Smith's meal-in-a-bowl soups - chili, lamb, crab - and Salim's 16-bean soup.

Lewis' handmade candles and scarf-and-hat sets sell out as quickly as she makes them, so winter afternoons often find her seated at a table near the window, knitting away - or taking a backgammon break with a neighborhood woman named Edna, 82, who has shown up every morning for the past three years.

"I'm mopping the floor at night, getting ready to close, and she's still here," Lewis said, smiling. "She must like it here."

Lewis takes Edna home every night, part of the compassionate neighborhood giveback that includes hiring ex-offenders from nearby streets. "I've known them for years," she said. "It's worked out well."

Lewis is thrilled that by spring, her eatery will have a new facade and new lighting, which could bring in new customers and support her intensity about keeping the sidewalk clean on days when Ray and his crews are elsewhere.

"When I sweep, I sweep the whole block," Lewis said, "because when you come to this block, you're not just looking at me, you're looking at everybody else. And I want you to feel good about coming here because I want you to come back."

A few doors away at her nephew Mukhtar Lewis' seven-chair Taha barbershop and school, co-owner Omar Jamaladdin echoed Lewis' enthusiasm about the spring makeover.

"Frankford was always known as a family town, a small town in the city," he said. "If you're not family, you become family when you live here. I've lived here my whole life. I want to bring that atmosphere back."

After visiting with Lewis and Jamaladdin, Dawkins stopped by Bamba Sissoko's B&S Produce, where Awa Diop, holding her two-month-old baby, Adama, said she comes from Bustleton to buy vegetables because "every time I come here, everything is fresh."

"People love my fresh fruit and vegetables," Sissoko, now in his fifth year on the avenue, said proudly. "When they come in here, they don't want to leave."

Willie H. Morrison, who said he lives so close he "can roll out of bed and be in the store," has hung out at Sissoko's since it opened, peering through the front window at passersby, keeping an eye on the Avenue.

"I am telling him, 'You are supported,' " Morrison said. Sissoko smiled. In the darkening late afternoon, Morrison pointed to a bright streetlight.

"You know, that light didn't come on for four years," he said. "It's on now. You can see people before they see you. That's a good thing."

Dawkins said fixing the light was Sanchez's doing.

"The councilwoman likes to ride under the El at night to see where there is darkness," he said. "Then she'll pull over and email the [streets] commissioner."

Karen Lockhart Fegely, director of the city Commerce Department's Office of Neighborhood Economic Development, which is funding much of Frankford Avenue's revitalization, said that keeping the avenue clean and well-lit and replacing deteriorated old facades with bright new ones has fueled business-corridor transformations from Roxborough and Manayunk to Fishtown's Girard Avenue.

"It tells residents that this is a place where people care and are doing their part," Fegely said.

And that is what will reconnect Frankford's main street with the safe, lively past that Dawkins, Sanchez, Lewis and Jamaladdin so fondly remember, and are working so hard to enjoy again.