Editor’s Note: Of all the epic neighborhood shopping streets and avenues in Philadelphia, perhaps none was more Philly than 52nd Street–“the Strip.” Home to the liveliest jazz scene, the most iconic 1950s-era urban shopping, and eventually Philly’s best soul food, 52nd Street is making a move yet again for another life. With the late 1980s-era red awnings removed, and with a spate of new, motivated, and energetic business owners, 52nd Street looks to defy conventional wisdom and a well-earned perception of a place of danger, crime, and fear. We sent Theresa Stigale out to talk to the people in hot pursuit of the “new Strip.”
Interview with Shirley Randleman, President, 52nd Street Business Association and Executive Director Philadelphia Beauty Showcase Museum (more on that at a later date)
Theresa Stigale: I see your name everywhere in West Philly. How did you decide to become a neighborhood activist?
Shirley Randleman: Well, it wasn’t by design! I’ve lived my life in West Philly and at an early age made a commitment to stay.
TS: What was 52nd Street like “back in the day?”
SR: Oh, it was wonderful. It was a thriving commercial corridor surrounded by a neighborhood that was financially stable. The 52nd Street corridor had five movie theaters, many high-end clothing stores, and eateries like Horn & Hardart, with the nickel automats. There were bakeries, doctor’s offices, and independent stores, like Buster Brown shoes. 52nd Street was the entertainment capital of West Philadelphia, AKA “the Strip,” and every top notch entertainer found his way there. It was more than just shops; it was the community meeting place. People were engaged in conversations in every shop and on the streets. We lived together.
TS: How did the street change in the past few decades?
SR: Of course change is a constant. With the exodus of a significant portion of the area’s middle class, the dynamics changed. They were some really hard times–“potholes” of errors we refer to them–where the street began to shift and the businesses were not of the same caliber. The neighborhood and its residents began to change as well.
Problems with crime began to rise and 52nd Street obtained a reputation of not being safe, which is not an attraction for new businesses. Long-term residents began to move out of the area while many of the new residents were of modest or low-income status, often renters.
TS: The red star awnings that were installed in the late 1980s have been removed. Why?
SR: The canopies were intended to replicate the “mall model” to visually emphasize the shopping areas along the corridor and were very effective when initially installed. However, after decades of wear and tear the canopies became an eyesore and a source of contention with the community. They became cost prohibitive to repair and very expensive to maintain. Considering the city budget crisis and limited resources, a decision was made to remove the canopies and redirect funds into other corridor revitalization projects.
TS: SEPTA’s renovation of the 52nd Street El station was didn’t help.
SR: The project was disruptive and devastating to the commercial corridor and the residents over the ten plus years project. Businesses closed in the early 1990s when the work started and vacancy rates went up–we lost about half the businesses altogether.
TS: And this has helped–you’re optimistic for the future of the street.
SR: Look at this building–we are really proud of this, right across the street from our office. Here is a guy who is making a business space on the first floor and condos on the second floor. Over there we have a new musical arts program in that storefront and we are able to attract children from all over West Philly, to learn musical instruments. Here is a building (52nd & Cedar) that was once an old garage. The new owner is completely transforming the space into multiple business units. We are proud of the new enterprises, interest and reinvestment into the area.
TS: What plans are in the works for the future of 52nd Street?
SR: There is a plan underway through city, state, and federal support to upgrade and reinvest in older communities and neighborhood business corridors across the country. Over the next several years most if not all of the city’s commercial corridors should be revamped. It’s important to note that 52nd isn’t just the 4 or 5 blocks around Market Street near the El, but a 12 block corridor that spans Arch Street south to Baltimore Avenue.
Interview with Kanwardip Singh, Owner of the Neighborhood Market, 52nd & Cedar
TS: Money, that’s a great nickname, how did you get that?
Kanwardip Singh: My sister started calling me that for some reason when she was about 2 1/2 years old and it stuck.
TS: Where are you from originally and when to you come to the U.S.?
KS: My family and I are from India, in Punjab, although I have also lived in Delhi for 10 years. I went to school at the Golden Temple in Punjab. I’ve been here in the US for two years. We had family here already.
TS: When did you open up the Neighborhood Market?
KS: We just opened up a few months ago, in January 2012.
TS: How did you decide on 52nd Street?
KS: We had a few other businesses in other parts of the city (East Allegheny Ave., South Philly) but we really liked this location, it’s a good neighborhood. So far we have only had a great experience, no trouble at all. We are part of the police logbook; when the shifts change, a police officer stops by to sign a police log, they check in and say hi and and ask us if everything is OK. The neighbors respect that–the fact that the police check in with us and all different types of businesses on 52nd Street to keep the neighborhood safe.
TS: How did you decide to combine a dollar store concept with a grocery store?
KS: We cater to the neighborhood and what they need. The customers teach us so much, we are like their students. They give us good ideas on what to sell and then we stock it for them, so the inventory is geared right to their needs. If someone has a birthday party or baby shower, we have gift bags, toys, cards, and helium balloons. Even if they need a light bulb or a battery we have it. Everything they need so that they can stay here and buy right in their neighborhood.
[While talking to Money, a regular customer walks in and overhears that Money is being interviewed; he joins the conversation without hesitation]
Shopper: Yo this guy here’s got it locked down! They have the same items I can get on the street but if I see that here it cost a dollar and the same thing cost more, of course I’m gonna come here. Even if it’s the same price, I’m coming here because I KNOW it’s fresh, you know what I mean? I was born in ‘66 and people our age respect these guys; we need them and we’re glad they’re here. Thanks man!
Interview with Adhanom Tesfamariam, owner of produce truck, 52nd & Cedar
TS: Where are you from?
Adhanom Tesfamariam: Ethiopia, but I came here to America in 2010. I used to work for a big company but now I do this and I love it.
TS: What is the origin of your name?
AT: Adhanom means “Abraham.” It’s a Christian name and my short name is Kahsu.
TS: I see a lot of different produce on your truck, plus some snacks, what are are your bestsellers?
AT: Bananas and oranges and white potatoes. We also sell a lot of bagged peanuts in the shell. If you want I can sell you one banana but most people ask for a dollar bag, so I can give you about 5 or 6 bananas for a dollar, depends on weight. Collard greens, a big bunch, very fresh for one dollar.
TS: Where do you buy your produce?
AT: We get it in South Philly (at the Food Distribution Center). I usually get there around 5:30AM and buy what I can then open up the truck by 9AM and we are here until 7PM, 365 days a year.
TS: That’s a really long day and a lot of hours, how do you manage to do all of that?
AT: Well, the customers depend on me and I have to be here for them. They know that I have the freshest produce around and they know that they can count on my being here for them. I even have electricity tied to the truck so I can have lights on at night in the winter when it gets dark.
TS: How do you get the same spot every day right here on the corner of 52nd & Cedar?
AT: I have a separate van that I drive to buy the produce and then I can keep the truck parked here. The customers know to look for me here in this spot so it all works out.
TS: What kinds of customers buy produce from you?
AT: It’s all people from the neighborhood right around here. I even put in an EBT machine so that I can take cards. My customers like what I sell and are friendly. They know that I only sell the freshest produce–it’s all good. Its a nice business.
Interview with Justin Song, owner of Justin’s Snackcorner, 601 South 52nd Street
TS: Where did you grow up Justin?
Justin Song: We lived in Boston when I was younger, then moved to Olney when I was 11 years old. I went to local schools then graduated from Penn State and did a year of grad school at Temple for Bioelectrical Chemistry.
TS: So, how did you get into the restaurant business?
JS: Well that’ s a funny story! My parents owned a Korean restaurant in Delaware for 15 years, which was doing great. But at some point when the business slowed down, they decided to sell. With the new money, they decided to open another restaurant in Philly. I suggested that they try an American food restaurant and they said “why?” We don’t know anything about American food! At the time, I was working at Merck as a researcher and said let’s give it a try, I will help you out for a year and well…one year turned into eight!
TS: When did you move to 601 South 52nd Street?
JS: We moved here in April of 2004 so we have been here eight years already.
TS: How did you decide to open up right here on this corner?
JS: I considered some places downtown but the rents were too high. I had looked at other places in the area, even on busier corners with more foot traffic (like 52nd & Market and down on Baltimore Ave) but there was something about this particular corner that felt right. At that time, there was a paint store and an old supermarket across the street. I didn’t even know there there was the hospital a few blocks away (Mercy Catholic Medial Center/Misericordia ) or a that a new charter school (Boys Latin Charter School) was opening up.
TS: What is the busiest time of the day for you?
JS: In the morning from 7AM to 8AM we are busy with the students from the charter school. Then from 8AM to 2PM we get the hospital employees and visitors. From 2PM on to closing–that’s the time when I sell mostly cheese steaks and cheeseburgers.
TS: Who works here with you everyday?
JS: It’s me, my Mom and Dad, and George–just the four of us.
TS: What is your best seller?
JS: Pretty much everything on the menu! But I would say my French toast and pancakes–I like them a lot and so do my customers.
TS: How has 52nd Street changed since you opened?
JS: In the past eight years, I have seen tremendous growth in the 52nd street, particularly our corner at 52nd and Cedar. The number of people we serve per day has increased year after year. The unoccupied buildings are now opened with businesses, such as Cedar Supermarket and Neighborhood Supermarket, just to name a few.
TS: What’s the best part of being here on 52nd St.?
JS: The best thing about the 52nd street is simply the people. They accept us as part of them. We accept them as part of us. We thank everyone of them for their undying love.
Interview with Ray Pitts, photographer and owner of Divine Creations Unisex Salon, 509 South 52nd Street
TS: Ray, how did you get into the hair salon business?
Ray Pitts: I grew up right around the corner so I have been here my whole life. I went to Lincoln High School in the northeast and was interested in learning to become a barber. I went to Berean Institute at 19th & Girard. I’ve been in this business since 1988.
TS: When did you open up Divine Creations?
RP: I‘ve been here on 52nd Street with my own shop since 1996–I was lucky and bought the building for a low price and the owner even took back a five year mortgage, so I own the building. I’m glad I bought it way back then because I think the street is a lot more valuable and that it will continue to get even better.
TS: I see a lot of hair salons and barber shops on 52nd Street. How do you compete with all of the other shops?
RP: Since I’m from here, I pretty much know everybody so I have a lot of loyal customers–very loyal! We do both men and women so we have a strong customer base.
TS: What is your best selling service?
RP: Me! People come in here because they know me and we do a good job so they come back and will only come here. It’s a unisex salon so we really do everything, all types of cuts.
TS: What do you see happening on 52nd Street right now?
RP: It’s changing–culturally–there are a lot of new people coming in and there’s so much competition in the hair business. But I’m really established, so it’s no problem for me. I like the street and want to be here a long time.