Well past its heyday in the 1950s as a robust neighborhood commercial corridor, South 60th Street between Market and Catharine Streets had suffered a slow decline—to a point of appearing abandoned in long stretches. Anchoring the northern end of the stretch towers the Market-Frankford Line’s 60th Street station, which as part of the El’s reconstruction in West Philadelphia was completely rebuilt over a ten year period. The much needed improvement came at a huge cost: from the early 2000s to its completion in 2009, merchants and neighbors endured years of blocked streets, dirt, and noise. Lack of foot traffic and easy access to the shops resulted in the closures of over half of the shops. But now, a coalition has 60th Street poised to turn the corner.
Back in 2002 and 2003, Wachovia Bank completed a Development Plan for the Cobbs Creek neighborhood, focusing on housing and economic development. In 2007, the bank also sought to rebrand the street in order to help it rebuild from the economic disaster of the El’s reconstruction, with a goal to create a shopping zone from Market to Spruce Street. But with many parties involved, the plan dragged on without a solid footing. In 2009-10, the bank (by then Wells Fargo) teamed with the Urban Technical Assistance Project and Columbia University to compile another assessment.
Now, the street finally has a working long-term revitalization plan, under the guidance of 60th Street Corridor, LP. In 2011, as both nonprofit and for-profit entities found themselves competing to buy properties as the El’s reconstruction wrapped up, a singular group coalesced to satisfy the efforts of each and move 60th Street forward together.
The entities involved include the nonprofit Partnership Community Development Corporation (TPCDC), operating under the City’s Department of Commerce, and the for-profit Neighborhood Restorations/West Philadelphia Real Estate, comprised of partners George Bantel, Scott Mazo and James Levin. Mazo and Levin founded Neighborhood Restorations, LP (NRLP) in 1989, buying properties scattered across West Philadelphia for renovation. With a large portfolio to work on, they evolved into West Philadelphia Real Estate (WPRE) in 2008. Now one of the largest landlords in West Philadelphia, NRLP/WPRE manages a portfolio of over 850 individual properties and 1,100 residential units.
Founded in 1992, The Partnership CDC is now headed by executive director Steve Williams. TPCDC maintains a dual mission: to improve the lives of community members through affordable housing and programs promoting home ownership, and to form community partnerships to build a successful commercial corridor. “We’ve been working on the plan from 2008 to 2014. It’s been a long haul but it’s now really gaining momentum”, says Williams.
The plan he refers to, the Development Strategy for the 60th Street Commercial District, was prepared for the groups by Urban Partners, establishing a criteria for priority and focusing on transit oriented development closest to the El—taking advantage of what had for so long been a hindrance.
Operating as 60th Street Corridor, TPCDC and NRLP/WPRE remain separate entities, but they jointly own 45 properties on 60th Street: freshly rehabbed apartments above an influx of new stores, restaurants, goods, and services for the neighborhood, boosted by façade improvements, new construction, and additional parking.
“It’s a good marriage of nonprofit and for-profit groups as we definitely have the same vision. We want to make sure that the people who live here benefit directly from this new development,” says WPRE’s Bantel.
Williams agrees. “It took a lot of heavy-lifting, both politically and financially, to make this development happen. We also wanted to make sure that the minority participation was fulfilled in a meaningful way and to provide jobs to people living in this community.”
Both men also agree that in order to get this far, the lingering negative perception of the strip had to be overcome. Williams says, “in addition to the mess and lack of business created by the El restoration, there was a perception that these blocks were vastly abandoned, with little diversity in goods and services. Another problem was that the shops that were still open, mostly closed around 3PM which was too early for commuters getting off the El to shop on their way home. We already have the best public transportation available right here, with at least seven connecting SEPTA routes, let’s encourage everyone to extend their hours and add foot traffic for the stores.”
Tami Hansbury is coordinator of economic development programs for TPCDC. Well known on the corridor, she strives to attract new businesses there and to also network with the current shop owners. She continuously surveys the inventory available for rent or sale on 60th Street and helps clients with loans, grants and storefront improvement programs. Another priority is sharing information with business owners on the very latest city ordinances that could affect their properties, such as removing boarded up windows and replacing with glass, or adding accessibility ramps. She has many success stories such and loves to talk about growing businesses, such as Destiny Smallwood’s at Home Health Care Plus at 60th & Market.
Moving forward, Hansbury hopes for a diverse tenant mix. “There is a wide economic demographic in this community and the money is here for customers to spend on goods and services at all price points,” she says. “We are looking at major chains but realistically they have to see the foot traffic before they invest here and might hold off until the development is further along. But there are a lot of great opportunities for existing or new businesses to relocate here. We would love for this corridor to be the one-stop shopping destination of the old days.”
Walking by a newly rehabbed site at 60th and Irving, Hansbury points out the 1,100 square foot space with its wide sidewalk she says would be ideal for a new restaurant tenant with outdoor seating. There’s also a lot of discussion on how artists can help build up an area with pop-up shops and storefronts, and the idea of “living above the shop.”
Williams noted that all of the new rehabbed and newly constructed properties on 60th Street are LEED certified and have Energy Star ratings, the first corridor in the city to do so. They also have “visitability” units for rent, with zero steps at the entrance to accommodate handicapped visitors.
The main focus of the plan covers Market to Catherine Streets, and renovation work on the 45 buildings within those areas is well underway with commercial space on the ground floor and apartments above. Currently, the City is replacing the main water line and gas lines and the 60th Street Corridor and LP is restoring façades and creating new affordable housing and stores. With most of the work scheduled to be completed by March 2015, residents and shop owners are excited to see the changes.
Since 2005, Abdul Salaam has held the position of president of the 60th Street West Market Street Business Association. Stand for just a minute on the street with him and you might just hear “Hey Fish Man!” That handle carries over from his days as the owner-operator of Cream of the Sea Fish Store at 206 South 60th Street. He hopes to reopen his shop when the street develops further. In the meantime, Salaam works with other merchants to solve problems and navigate the City’s red tape. He also helps local residents and young adults prepare résumés, so that they can seek jobs in the community. Salaam moved onto the street in the 1970s and can rattle off every merchant and their storefront, and in many cases, an entire succession of merchants in any given store.
Kee Ho Nam opened her children’s clothing store, Nam’s Kiddie World, on 60th Street, 38 years ago. She sells all types of children’s clothing, from school uniforms to dresses, suits and shoes for weddings and holidays. Mrs. Nam experienced firsthand the downside of the recent economy but is hopeful for all of the new activity on the street. “The El construction was messy but yes, I do think that business will improve,” she says. “I love it here on 60th Street; it’s really a great place to have a business.”
Mariann Viassy has owned her own shop, Bantu African Imports, for three years. She sells everything from costume jewelry to imported dried fish and bitter herbs from Africa. Welcoming customers with a big smile, she clearly loves her shop. “Working in my own business here on 60th Street is much better than working for someone else. I have a lot of repeat customers and they are diverse,” she says. “They rely on me for special ingredients and items that are hard to find. I import foods from many countries in Africa.”
Dried cola nuts sit in a plastic candy container on the front counter, a popular item at $1 for those looking for quick energy boost. Marble chalk is extracted from the sea or mountains and ground into a paste for a natural facial—a bargain at $2.00. Bitter roots soaked in gin or boiled in wine allegedly help people with diabetes or even malaria. There’s also eshu tea, a Nigerian remedy for women who have just given birth.
But just like any Philly neighborhood, not all merchants and shop employees agree on the impact that new development will have on their own businesses, especially those located north of Market.
Troy Yancey is a barber working in his friend Antonio Hall’s Barber shop on North 60th Street, just steps above the Market Frankford El station, called Ali’s Barber Shop. His customer, Ron Tolbert, is also a long time friend. Yancey grew up in the neighborhood, around the corner from the shop and knows just about everyone. He had his own barber shop on Market Street but lost the business and his building to a fire during the reconstruction of the El. The fire trucks had no clear access to his building because of the construction, he says, and before he knew it, it went up in flames.
Yancey sees many area properties being bought up by outside investors anxious to capitalize on the proximity to the El Station. The problem he sees with those investors is that many are buying and sitting on the properties, leaving them to decay. He points out several units on the first block above Market that could easily be rehabbed and brought to life, bringing more customers to the street and into the barber shop. He also thinks that public investment funds should be equitably distributed both north and south of Market Street, so that businesses located north of Market can reap the same benefits as their peers on the other side of the El.
Back below Market Street, on 60th Street at Irving, a powerful mural will soon be lost, a good problem to have in a redeveloping neighborhood. Like Steve Powers’ nearby Love Letters series, the mural was created by Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program. But this one, Choices (by Cavin Jones in 1998), is considerably darker, with a man in the casket at street level and a strong overarching message to the neighborhood: there are easy outs, but hard work pays off.
It’s been a long time since every store was open and 60th Street was packed with commuters and shoppers. But with the redevelopment plan starting to show tangible results, there’s a notable sense of optimism—a long desired restoration of dignity and vitality—infecting the important West Philly artery.
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Click any of the photos below to launch a gallery of life on South 60th Street in Cobbs Creek.