Editor’s Note: Third in a series on Philadelphia’s commercial corridors (also including Woodland Avenue and 52nd Street), Hidden City contributor Theresa Stigale takes us inside the longtime businesses, arts, and community groups that call these vital avenues home.
Tropical produce, bakery-fresh pastelillos de guayaba (puffed pastry guava turnovers), vibrant Latin music, flamenco classes, and rows of independent shops on an authentic and historic Philly “main street.” What’s not to love?
Labeled by some as “The Badlands,” or “El Barrio” in shorthand, El Centro de Oro Business and Cultural Arts District—The Center of Gold—is the official name given to this vibrant commercial corridor located in North Philadelphia’s Fairhill neighborhood, centered on Fifth Street and running from Lehigh to Allegheny. Similar in scale to ethnic communities such as Chinatown and the Italian Market, North Fifth Street is the traditional heart of Philadelphia’s business and cultural Latino community. Puerto Rico is the homeland to many in the community but residents and business owners still arrive from many other Spanish-speaking countries, including the Dominican Republic and even Spain. This influx originally started just after World War II when nearby factories fueled the local economy with many employment opportunities and low-cost housing was readily available.
Since then, the area has seen its share of ups and downs, at times with many storefront vacancies and a reputation for illegal drugs and crime. However, community groups like HACE (Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises) have worked hard with the city and state, pushing for the corridor’s revitalization. Many residents and business owners are optimistic these days, preferring to focus on the many positive aspects of their community. Thanks in part to an infusion of government funds two years ago, the emphasis has shifted to business development and improving the quality of life for residents.
In 2011, the sidewalks were literally paved with “gold,” a swirling deep yellow path set in freshly poured concrete infused with brilliant glitter that sparkles in the sun. This $3.8 million dollar streetscape improvement was funded by the city and state. The overhaul not only transformed the sidewalks, but added new lighting, trash, recycling containers, and most impressionably, public art in the form of vibrant murals and clusters of steel palm trees.
The steel palm trees, designed by artist Wendell Turner and manufactured in California, appear strategically on corners. A beloved symbol of the many Latin American islands represented in the local population, the palms range in height from seven to fifteen feet, each hand-crafted and numbered, welded permanently to the sparkling sidewalks.
To establish a southern entrance to the neighborhood, two bright murals welcome visitors heading north on Fifth Street to the corridor: a two-story mural on the west side of Fifth, and another rising above the garden at Taller Puertorriqueño. Spanish for Puerto Rican workshop, the multi-disciplinary nonprofit arts organization Taller Puertorriqueño was founded by artists in 1974; its prominence at Fifth & Lehigh, along with HACE across the street, anchors the beginning of El Centro.
Stop by Centro Musical, a third generation family owned and operated store, on any given Saturday and you might walk in on a live performance of Latin music. The large music shop has stayed a cornerstone at Fifth & Lehigh since 1960, when Nestor Gonzalez immigrated here from Puerto Rico. Now run by Nestor’s son Wilfredo and his two children Ray and Christina, Centro Musical sells everything from Caribbean CDs, congas, and DJ equipment to original artwork, Spanish magazines and lottery tickets. The friendly Gonzalez family naturally attracts a loyal clientele, many of whom consider this prominent business the very hub of the neighborhood.
The Gonzalezes have seen the impact of politics, crime, and the economy on this area over the course of five decades. Christina talks about her family’s business and what it really means to be a part of the community. “Our customers are treated like family,” she says. “We have known many of them our whole lives. We believe in giving back to the community and have fundraisers and food and clothing drives.” At present Christina says the store is about to distribute new school supplies collected from neighbors. Another event that children look forward to is held each year on January 6th to celebrate Three Kings Day. “Everyone celebrates Christmas but we started this event to honor the three kings who visited baby Jesus, bearing gifts,” she says.
Across Lehigh Avenue, traditional cultural celebrations are among the numerous activities being planned by HACE and Business District Manager Gilbert Alfaro. Located at 2708 North Fifth Street, HACE was co-founded in 1985 by Bill Salas to revitalize development on North Fifth Street and facilitate new business. Today, HACE also creates marketing promotions to encourage local and out-of-town visitors to explore the neighborhood.
Alfaro’s goal as manager of this nonprofit is to establish HACE’s storefront office as the ultimate resource center for the community, fully staffed and open daily. Neighbors can stop in for information on everything from new business and street vendor permits to vocational education, child care, housing and utility assistance, and social services. At a recent job fair, HACE hosted a number of local employers, including SugarHouse Casino, in their spacious community room. Many residents are fluent in both English and Spanish and their bilingual skills are especially valuable to potential employers.
This year Alfaro is planning a collaborative anime art exhibit with the Art Institute of Philadelphia. He hopes that this will not only showcase student work, but also introduce the school and the art form to the local children. Also planned for later this year is a parade with two horse-drawn carriages and Santa Claus to kick off the holiday season. The November 30 parade route on Fifth Street extends beyond El Centro’s boundaries, starting at Girard Avenue and running north to Indiana Avenue. The goal of the parade is to promote the many small businesses in the community, encourage Philadelphians to shop locally, and to give children and their families an exciting annual event to participate in. Discount coupons for local businesses will be handed out along the parade route.
Directly across Fifth Street at Taller Puertorriqueño, executive director Dr. Carmen Febo-San Miguel has guided the group for twelve years in their mission to use the arts as a vehicle for social change. She’s excited about the future. “El Corazón (the heart) is very important to us and our culture is drawn to the symbolism of the heart expressed in art,” she says. “About twelve years ago, the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program completed a mural on education with a very large heart, and it was so moving to see people walk up to it, close their eyes and place one hand on the mural and one hand over their own heart.”
Febo-San Miguel and the ten member board are busy raising funds (in addition to city, state, and other donated funds) to construct a brand new $10.7 million, 24,000 square foot building designed by Antonio Fiol Silva of Wallace Roberts & Todd on land already acquired at Fifth & Huntingdon.
“We have raised over $6.5 million to date,” she says of the project, to be called Taller Puertorriqueño’s Corazón Cultural Center. “We expect to break ground in the fall of 2014. This project will enable Taller Puertorriqueño to consolidate and expand programs and [create] opportunities for artists and the community. We will also have a large performance space.” Silva, the architect, also worked on Paseo Verde near Temple University and on the National Museum of the American Latino in Washington, D.C.
Next door to HACE at Outkast Auto Tinting, a cobalt blue, man-sized robot guards the entrance, handmade of scrap materials like tubes and foam rollers, originally holding tinting material. Owner Jose Colon grew up in the area, watching businesses come and go over the years. He says the streets are a lot the cleaner these days and that new stores that are coming in. In the back of his shop, he and his coworkers restore vintage cars and motorcycles. Their business is steady and good; a natural hangout for neighbors with custom cars.
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A few blocks to the north on both sides of Fifth Street, visitors in search of spiritual guidance and goods have their choice among several botanica shops. Maria Acevedo came to the US from Spain in 1972 and opened Maria Arte Espiritual Botanica.
Now in her early nineties, Acevedo still maintains a strong but quiet presence in the shop, mostly behind the scenes. Daily operations are left to her son, Angel Perez. Signs at the entrance advise customers that they must have only noble intentions in order to enter and make purchases.
Small bottles of colorful oils, rosaries, perfumes, powders, and candles cram the store’s shelves. Visitors can buy a religious statue or a blessing, but only after a spiritual consultation with Angel, whose expertise allows him to match his products with customer’s ailments. Drop a few coins in a clear container and you can also buy some holy water.
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Clyde Peterson owns and runs Clyde’s Kiddie Shop, given to him for his loyal service cleaning and taking care of shop repairs by his “Irish mother,” former owner Norma Finley. Many who knew her considered Finley a living saint, operating the shop for many decades with love for her loyal customers. Today, burning incense infuses the store as gospel music plays softly in the background.
Peterson makes sure to point out the Bible and angel displayed on a shelf high above the door. He pulls from the wall a thirty-year-old photo of the shop’s stocked shelves, just before he met Finley in the early 1980s, when she was 65. The inventory is a little different these days, but still primarily children’s clothing. Peterson carries hand-crocheted newborn clothing safely displayed behind heavy plastic, airbrushed t-shirts, and he takes special orders on anything that his customers might need.
Many longtime restaurants still serve familiar Latin dishes including Isla Verde Cafe at 2725 N. Fifth, El Bohio at 2746 N. Fifth, and Tierra Colombiana farther north at 4535 N. Fifth Street. Brightly lit Vivaldi Restaurant offers sit-down and take-out offers sandwiches, salads, and colorful tropical juices, each colorfully displayed on posters in the storefront window. Owner Sagrario German serves her native Dominican food, which has both Spanish and African influences. Her dishes include empanadas, conch, shrimp and octopus salads, stews and la bandera—“the flag”—a nickname for a typical meal of rice, beans, and meat (pork, chicken, or fish.)
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Like Centro Musical, Jerry’s Fashions is a third generation owned and operated clothing shop at the corner of Fifth & Cambria. Jerry’s opened around 1925 and multiple generations have bought their fancy Quinceañera and Sweet Sixteen dresses there. They also carry prom and bridal gowns, shoes, and accessories.
Jerry Schaff, now 88 and retired, ran his father’s shop for years before turning it over to his son Kevin, who operates the store now. In a 1998 Philadelphia Daily News article, Jerry Schaff commented, “my sales girls actually wait on people; if you go to a mall, no one even says hello.” Indeed, walking into Jerry’s is a step back in time, the very antithesis of franchise and mall shopping. Fluorescent bulbs light the Caribbean-blue painted walls and well-worn floors; hundreds of customer photos showing off store purchases fill the entrance wall.
The Schaff family built themselves a mini-empire of retail in the 20th Century. On top of the ladies fashion store founded by his grandfather and run so long by his father, Kevin’s uncle Nate owned a men’s and boys shop, and another uncle Murray sold curtains and drapes. All of them of course have stories of the good old days and the hard times on North Fifth Street. Back then, customers were mostly poor Irish and German immigrants with jobs in nearby factories. With little disposable income in the neighborhood, his father and uncles struggled at times to keep their doors open. Some shops packed up their signs and inventory and stealthily move overnight a block or two away, skipping out on one landlord to rent from another.
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Lifelong resident Erica DeJesus recalls shopping on the street as a child. Like similar avenues in other Philadelphia neighborhoods, she says having stores like the old five-and-ten within walking distance was of the utmost importance. Many families had no car or were unable to take the bus downtown to shop with children in tow; they needed convenience and the stores met those needs.
“We had it all right here, literally everything a family would need,” DeJesus remembers. “Grocery stores, doctors offices, clothing stores, restaurants. This is where all of the families shopped and still do today. We know everyone and shopping is like visiting with family, which some actually are.” DeJesus says that it’s important to emphasize the positive attributes of the neighborhood. She would love to see more murals of local residents’ faces celebrating educational, artistic, or professional achievements, rather than hand-painted memorials, and talks about her neighborhood as “The Goodlands”—not “The Badlands.”
Though worn by the years, El Centro de Oro still feels very much a center of gold; to some, it can feel like a different country, or at very least a different time. The North Philadelphia Mural Arts Tour and family restaurants are reason enough to brush up on your Spanish, and street festivals and parades provide incentive to pay a visit soon.
On Sunday, September 8th, 2013, from noon to 5:30PM, North Fifth Street will be blocked off for the The 29th Annual Feria del Barrio, “a celebration of Latino families, arts and culture.” Visitors will enjoy live musical performances, Latin foods, arts, crafts, community information and a Philadelphia Museum of Art-sponsored art workshop for children, among many other activities. A collaborative of three other neighborhood groups will host the event in addition to Taller Puertorriqueño: HACE, Congresso de Latinos Unidos and Raices Culturales Latinoamericanas, Inc.