There is nothing on 52nd Street to mark the site of the Aqua Lounge, which once drew jazz greats such as Betty Carter and Arthur Prysock to perform in Philadelphia.
Like so many midcentury landmarks on the corridor once called West Philly’s Main Street, the club is memorialized only in the memories of people like Betty Wilson, now almost 70, who sneaked in to hear jazz before she was old enough to drink. When she walks along 52nd toward the El stop on Market Street today, she can still see the thoroughfare as it once was.
“There was a bakery,” she recalled. “There were many restaurants. Furniture stores. Dress shops. Movie theaters. Clubs, schools, churches.”
It used to be the thriving heart for West Philadelphia’s black middle class. But as industry evaporated and predominantly white store owners departed, 52nd Street fell into a decades-long decline. It hit its nadir in the mid-2000s, after years of disruptive construction on the El brought the collapse of area businesses, and in April 2007, the Daily News called 52nd and Market Streets the city’s most dangerous corner, with 11 shootings, including three homicides, in four months.
Revitalization has been slow to arrive there, but it is coming.
From 2013 to 2017, unemployment declined in the 19139 zip code, according to census data, even though about a third of the population lives below the poverty line — a rate that has remained static. No one has been killed on the corridor so far this year; 2018 had one homicide. Cultural events are popping up. Residential properties are being bought, rehabbed, and flipped. And the city and various nonprofits have plans for new investment in the corridor in 2020.
The area has attributes that make it highly attractive for revitalization, including dense commercial development and excellent public transit access to Center City and the University of Pennsylvania.
Efforts to reinvigorate the neighborhood seek to cater to the needs of residents first.
“The commercial corridor isn’t just about engaging with the business and property owners, it’s also about engaging with residents," said Jesse Blitzstein, director of community and economic development for the nonprofit Enterprise Center, which coordinates development for roughly 200 businesses on 52nd Street, between Arch and Pine Streets. “You want a retail strip they want to utilize and be proud of.”
The area remains overwhelmingly African American, but longtime residents say white faces are becoming more common and express concerns about who will benefit from a restored commercial corridor.
“That’s what gentrification means to me,” said Thelma Peake, a community leader and owner of PeaksLittle Angels day care. “Move the black folks out, and get the new people to move in.”
Vernon Andrews, a sidewalk vendor who grills a sizzling selection of ribs, turkey legs, sausage, and jerk chicken at the corner of 52nd and Ranstead Streets, has noticed the increase in white neighbors and welcomes them.
“For 45 years, you didn’t used to see no white people walking around here,” said Andrews, 64. “I’m not prejudiced toward nobody. It’s going to help the neighborhood.”
City officials, planners, and nonprofit executives working to rejuvenate the corridor say they are seeking improvement without dislocation.
"While there is discussion and concern about gentrification and what that means, that’s not a reason to not do good things,” said Jonas Maciunas, principal of JVM Studio, a Philadelphia urban-design consulting firm that is seeking public input on pedestrian-friendly improvements for the thoroughfare.
52nd Street is hardly a dead zone.
“It’s not like where you go to some parts of the city and it’s just shocking, the amounts of vacancy,” said the Enterprise Center’s Blitzstein. “We want to build off existing assets.”
The street is lined with hair salons, tax offices, clothing and sneaker stores, and nail spas. Open 60 years, one of the oldest active African American-owned bookstores in the country, Hakim’s Bookstore on 52nd near Walnut, has stabilized after long operating in the red.
DTLR, a national sneaker retailer, reopened a location at 52nd and Market in November after a $2 million renovation. Citing a “high volume of traffic” there, Jeff Bowden, executive vice president of the Maryland-based company, said: “We want to build a great store and build a great sense of customer service.”
Much of the corridor has a haggard look, though, and city officials say that improved cleaning is a priority. Large buildings that could be commercial anchors — like the former Philadelphia Savings Fund and PNC Bank buildings at 52nd and Ludlow, or Big George’s, once a cafeteria-style restaurant at 52nd and Spruce — remain vacant. There is also redundancy: The street offers plenty of hair salons but few options for a sit-down dinner, for example.
And, said Yvonne Blake, owner of Hakim’s, “There are no fruit and vegetable stores.”
She cites the lack of neighborhood-owned businesses as a significant problem. In its heyday, 52nd Street catered to the city’s black middle class, but retailers frequently were white, she said. The corridor now has black business owners, but Blake would like to see more.
“The money the stores are making — that money doesn’t stay here,” she said.
The Enterprise Center is seeking to buy as many as three properties on the corridor in 2020, Blitzstein said, though he would not specify which. Some space will be used as a satellite office for the nonprofit, but it also intends to become a landlord, he said. The organization hopes to bring a coffee shop and restaurant, both locally owned, to the area.
“It’s tricky when you’re talking about bringing [in] new businesses,” he said. “You don’t want people to think they’re being priced out of their neighborhood with a $5 cup of coffee.”
The area isn’t seeing an influx of redevelopment comparable to hot spots like Point Breeze or Brewerytown, but there are signs that it could come. Andrews, who has lived on Ranstead near 52nd since 1973, has had several offers to buy his home.
Likewise, Peake has been approached about the building that houses her day care near 52nd and Baltimore Avenue. “It really gets to me,” she said. “... Just today I had five people ask me if I wanted to sell my property.”
There are also efforts to bolster existing businesses, ranging from storefront improvement grants to online-advertising training. The city has dedicated $4 million to corridor improvements since 2008. Still in their infancy, city officials say, are a program to connect business owners with the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. (PIDC) and neighborhood progress funds to help them find loans so they could buy buildings, rather than lease space.
“We have seen businesses where they have been in a space they’ve leased or rented for 20 years,” said Aiisha Herring-Miller, director of economic development at the city’s Commerce Department. “They’ve made all these investments and then the neighborhood changes and the landlord says get out.”
Tiffany Easley has operated NV My Eyewear, an optical shop at 52nd and Sansom, for three years. Her lease leaves maintenance inside the building to her.
“If I’m going to be putting that kind of money into it, I might as well own the building,” she said.
She’d consider buying, she said, if she could contact the building’s owner. She deals with a property manager and has not been able to find the owner.
The building that was once the Aqua Lounge now houses the African Cultural Art Forum, which sells Africa-inspired art and products, as well as distributes them to other stores in the region. The heritage of 52nd Street should be mined to improve its future, said co-owner Rashid Abdul Samad. By leaning into its history as a locus of African American prosperity, he said, the corridor could become an attraction for people beyond Philadelphia.