If only Stephen Girard could see the avenue named in his honor back in the mid-1800s today, his reaction might be one of disappointment. Or at least surprise.
Once considered one of the wealthiest men in Philadelphia, Girard was a successful merchant and businessman with big ambitions for the city. After years of deterioration and neglect, many sections of Girard Avenue now barely resemble its namesake. Yet gradual and promising evidence of revitalization can be seen along a stretch of the corridor that runs through the neighborhood of Ludlow.
Girard Coalition Inc., a non-profit organization located in the Ludlow area at 704 W. Girard Ave. is actively involved in the process of creating a new look for the avenue and has been proactive in seeing that promises turn into progress. Although the organization works with 11 neighborhoods that pass through Girard Avenue, the coalition’s executive director Angel Coleman says that Ludlow offers unique opportunities.
“For the past 30 years or so, this particular section of Girard Avenue has not been capturing its share of the local market. What we do is partner with community groups and businesses along Girard to create a vision of what the commercial corridor could look like and strategies to achieve that vision. We then work to implement that vision,” Coleman says.
One idea is to transform the portion of the corridor that runs through Ludlow into an entertainment district, with a focus on nightlife. The MARS on Girard project, which stands for Music, Arts and Restaurants Strip, has been an ongoing initiative. Up to this point, its improvements have been largely aesthetic, including a series of trees that were planted along the avenue to make it more appealing to residents. According to Coleman, Girard Coalition is now working to create more physical amenities including outdoor sidewalk seating areas at restaurants and cafes. To complement the seating and create an inviting space for nightlife, Coleman says another goal is to get lighting in the trees.
“In the day you have your hair salons and you have some retail but in the evening you’ll have nice restaurants, music venues and other entertainment options right here in the community,” she says.
Young has operated the store on Girard for the past 10 years, living upstairs for the first nine, and says that drug activity is already present on street corners during the day. The lingering presence of a police officer around the corner of the shops down the block seems to give merit to Young’s claim. Bringing more people into the neighborhood at night would only increase problems, he says.
Carolyn Walker, owner of Ms. Carol’s Shop at 514 W. Girard Ave. and lives upstairs, seems to agree that focusing on nightlife shouldn’t be a priority. “There used to be a nightclub called Samba up the street, but it seems like it was only there for a year or so before it closed down. That kind of stuff just doesn’t fit here,” she says. Although no one at the nightclub could be reach for comment, Kyle Flood, having lived less than a block away for two years, says that Club Samba is still very much in operation, usually with lines halfway down the block on Friday and Saturday nights.
Other business owners, unsure of if and when the Ludlow section of the corridor would establish a strong, positive presence in the community, chose to open their stores just blocks off of Girard, more directly in the neighborhood.
Still other store owners remain optimistic about the potential for better business conditions. Anthony Vodges, owner of Tequila Sunrise Records at 525 W. Girard Ave., says that when he opened his store in 2006 he thought that with the right set of stores the corridor could flourish like South Street in the 1970s. “Just look at Tiffin and you see the possibility,” he says.
Tiffin, a food establishment specializing in Indian cuisine located at 710 W. Girard Ave., is a good example of Girard Coalition’s vision. It started out as a home-delivery and catering service, but owner Munish Narula quickly recognized an opportunity. “He realized that people in the community wanted sit-down dining and so he approached us for help,” says Coleman.
Working closely with Narula, Girard Coalition was able to take advantage of available government resources including economic development financing, incentives and support in order to expand the existing business. Tiffin secured a $50,000 grant from the ReStore Retail Incentive Grants Program, which partnered with The Merchant’s Fund to support new and expanding retail businesses along commercial corridors. Tiffin was one of only 12 businesses throughout the city to received the money. Narula used it to open up Tiffin Etc., and “Indian street food” restaurant next door. Coleman hopes that other businesses will be inspired by Tiffin’s success and look to open up shop on Girard Avenue in Ludlow.
At Tequila Sunrise Records, Vogdes says that he sees similarities between his business and Tiffin. The record store started primarily as a mail-order service, but has gained a loyal customer base over the years. Vogdes acknowledges that word-of-mouth advertising to promote other businesses is important to establish a sense of community among businesses on the corridor. “If someone comes to my store around lunchtime, I might recommend a sandwich shop that I like down the block. I’ve recommended quite a few places around here,” he says.
To make the process of finding places of interest more easily, Girard Coalition is planning to create a directory which will categorize each business along the corridor by the type of service it offers. It will also include a short description of the store including contact information and hours of operation. The pamphlets will be distributed to residences throughout the neighborhood. Some locals admit that they are unfamiliar with the changing landscape along Girard Avenue and others find sporadic store openings and closings frustrating. Overall they agree they’d like to see a steady flow of new businesses come to the area.
For residents, businesses and community organizations alike it seems as though the Ludlow stretch of Girard Avenue has a lot of potential for development and renewal. People in the community will have to continue to support one another in order to facilitate continued progress and make more dreams become reality.