Sitting on a patch of neatly trimmed grass on Germantown Avenue is a green sign carved with golden letters, which reads “Nicetown: Putting the nice back in ‘The Town.’” Though the motto doesn’t boast much creativity, it holds a lot of meaning, particularly for the people living there. “We have a lot of dreams and we’ve been working hard to achieve our goals,” says Majeedah Rashid, the chief operating officer for the Nicetown Community Development Corp. (CDC).
Rashid isn’t just referring to making Nicetown “nice” again, but she means bringing businesses and the community together through several development projects, an issue that has taken the Nicetown CDC nearly 20 years to accomplish, says Rashid. The reason for the lack of economic development, says Rashid, was due to many different community factions, all with their own agenda and none of which could negotiate a solid direction for how to move Nicetown forward. Not to mention that the CDC’s idea of economic development focused mainly around education and less so on infrastructure, a problem that remains persistent 20 years later.
“In the past, when we first started, economic development to us meant education and it meant educating ourselves as a CDC as well as the businesses that we had to engage with,” says Rashid. Now, she says, “a lot of businesses in urban neighborhoods don’t have the infrastructure that is sufficient to run a business properly and to get the most out of the business.” But the Nicetown CDC is working hard to reverse the long years of underdevelopment through several projects.
Back in 2002, the City of Philadelphia contracted the Nicetown CDC to restart its neighborhood advisory committee. The committee was dedicated to mobilizing the community through door-to-door canvassing, holding community and block captain meetings as well as going to schools and churches to get community members involved. The objective of the mobilization initiative was to build relationships between the community and get them involved with development projects, particularly projects aimed to boost the area’s economic and commercial corridor, says Rashid.
Then in 2006, the City of Philadelphia opened the boundaries of the Nicetown neighborhood, making the CDC responsible for providing more services to more residents. Today, Nicetown extends from Germantown and Rising Sun avenues all the way to Cheltenham Avenue, an area which expands over a population of approximately 15,000 to 20,000 people, according to Nicetown’s Affirmative Outreach Plan. With such a large area to cover, bringing businesses into the area is imperative to moving Nicetown forward developmentally. “More businesses means more economic development and growth. You can’t revitalize a community without the economic base being stable,” says Rashid.
And they are doing just that. The Nicetown CDC has officially created a master plan, says Rashid, which the U.S. Department of Commerce is funding through at $50,000 grant. The plan incorporates successions of four projects which are yet to be completed and includes stabilizing, improving and developing new construction along the
commercial corridor, says Rashid. One of the biggest projects of the plan, the Nicetown Court located at the 4300 block of Germantown Avenue, is a low-income tax-credit housing project with 37 affordable rental units and 4,000 square feet of commercial space at street level, which has attracted several potential retail owners. The project is slated to begin next February.
However, the CDC is not the only organization involved with development projects aimed to mobilize the community and support businesses. The Nicetown Business Association works closely with the Nicetown CDC in order to provide support for businesses as well as involve businesses with the community. Recently the NBA hosted “A Taste of Nicetown” held at Hot Pot Cuisine, a local restaurant serving Jamaican food. The event was catered by several businesses within the 4100 to 4400 blocks of Germantown Avenue. The purpose of the event, says Tanya Wilson, president of the association, was to raise money for the organization and expose the diversity of the business community to residents and establish a strong relationship between the two. By selling tickets, the NBA was able to raise over $600. The NBA aims to create a strong coalition of businesses that are involved with the community and to provide a support network for businesses. “What we’re trying to do is get our notoriety out there, to let everybody know that there is a business association in the area, trying to attract more businesses, trying to get the community more involved as far as support,” says Wilson.
In addition to the event hosted at Hot Pot Cuisine, the NBA has also taken on some initiatives for improving the physical aesthetics of the neighborhood. The association, in coordination with the CDC and community members, recently potted some new plants on the streets. The physical improvements of the neighborhood were not as meaningful as the goal of showing the NBA is supportive of initiatives to make the neighborhood a more pleasant place to live in for residents.
The Nicetown CDC also struck a huge contract with Comcast in which the CDC will receive $100,000 a year over the next 10 years. “Comast has been a sponsor of the Nicetown CDC for some time with other projects that we do,” says Rashid, “and these funds are for CDCs that are doing economic development. So it’s a tremendous boost for us.” The goal is to use the money toward the plan as well as furthering other neighborhood development initiatives such as creating a farmer’s market in the park and possibly a health clinic in the Nicetown Court.
Other goals for bridging the gap in economic and community development are bringing retail businesses to the commercial corridor, says Wilson. “I would like to see a produce place, like a mom and pop because our neighborhood is more mom and pop oriented,” says Wilson. However, a lot of the problem with commercial development is an issue of safety as well. For the future, says Wilson, “What I would like to see is more involvement, I know there is not a lot of revenue and monies available to us…but right now we don’t have a steady patrol of police doing a street beat as far as walking up and down our corridor.”
For Nicetown, the future looks bright, and with all the initiatives Rashid and Wilson are undertaking, there is possibility for a strong long-term relationship between businesses and the community through development projects. “You can’t revitalize a corridor without identifying the needs and part of our needs is connectivity,” says Rashid. “Community and economics to me, they go hand in hand and you can’t really have one without the other successfully if you don’t nurture that relationship.”