“I call this particular site here ‘one stop,’” Lenora Jackson-Evans beams from her seat at the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation’s conference table. “We try to do whatever we can for the neighborhood as a whole.”
Jackson-Evans is the executive director of the Strawberry Mansion Neighborhood Action Center (NAC), an organization that shares its headquarters with the CDC. “We are primarily a resource center, but we also help people get back on their feet,” she explains.
The Strawberry Mansion CDC, in conjunction with the NAC, is a unique location because the space also acts as an energy center for the community. “We help residents with their gas bills, because those things get especially tough around this time of year,” says Jackson-Evans. Special weatherization workshops are held by the organizations to equip residents with items like plastic for lining storm windows and caulk guns, and a demonstration is given to educate residents on using these tools to help them lower utility costs. All neighborhood residents are welcome and are supplied with the free items, regardless of their level of income.
Tyrone Williams, who serves as the community liaison for Strawberry Mansion’s NAC. sheds light on the complexity of the utilities issue. “A lot of people that have had jobs but were laid off are now having to utilize these programs, and for some of them it’s humiliating,” Williams says. “And for those that do have jobs, for lack of a better term the ‘working poor,’ aren’t quite eligible for certain programs but they still need help.” Residents who have recently experienced emergencies or problematic situations, like lay offs, can look to the CDC and the NAC for assistance.
The modest building located on West Diamond Street, nestled cozily in between 28th and 29th streets, bustles with locals and cheerful staff members. The CDC staff has good reason to be in high spirits, as the neighborhood has recently been experiencing a great deal of residential renewal. In addition to the three major projects already underway, including the Strawberry Mansion Townhome Project located on 31st Street and the revitalization of the former site of the Prince of Peace Church, a few other projects are in the preliminary stages. “There are also a couple of proposed development areas on 27th Street in between Dauphin Street and Susquehanna Avenue,” explains Tonnetta Graham, Strawberry Mansion CDC’s president.
“One of the major complaints about the usage of this lot space is residents’ concerns about commercial development,” says Graham. “As a community we do need a banking service here, as well as more laundromats and day care centers. So commercial development does fall into the realm of the Strawberry Mansion CDC and is at the forefront of our agenda.”
According to Plan Philly, over a century ago Strawberry Mansion was known for housing Philadelphia’s wealthy elite. It grew as a predominantly Jewish neighborhood until the 1920s when the demographics began to change. In the middle of the 20th century, the neighborhood experienced exponential deterioration as commercial corridors decayed and urban blight took its toll. Today, Strawberry Mansion is still trying to rebuild a commercial presence, but it is a slow process.
Williams stresses the need for new business growth in the neighborhood. “We need more local entrepreneurs to join the community,” Williams says. He emphasizes that residents’ money needs to remain within the community. “Members of the neighborhood, rather than going to center city or other places outside Strawberry Mansion, should be able to uplift the community by putting money into local businesses. The neighborhood needs to be able to get basic goods and services in their own area,” Williams explains.
Graham also articulates that the CDC has been working with Councilman Darrell Clarke’s office as well as the community in developing commercial options. “We’re working to put together a Strawberry Mansion Businessman’s Association,” she says. The hope is that a cohesive and organized group will attract entrepreneurs.
Another major concern is the state of the area’s public schools. Many schools suffer from a lack of funding, which in turn impacts the students. “Blaine Elementary is using a storage closet as a library. Another school up here doesn’t even have a gym. Something must be done about this,” Williams says.
As a way to combat this, the CDC has a small network of computers available for all members of the area to utilize. Students who do not own computers at home have a place to do their homework, right in the midst of their own neighborhood. “A lot of job applications are online these days,” Jackson-Evans explains. “This acts as a station where people can search for jobs, fill out resumes and students can work on school projects.”
While the school system needs improvement and commercial development is progressing at a slow pace, Strawberry Mansion residents have a lot to look forward to. The residential renovations taking place are increasing at a rapid rate as developers recognize the assets of this particular neighborhood. Vacant lots are often viewed as a drawback, but at the same they time offer insight into the future. “Many for-profit developers are becoming interested in our area because of these expansive lots. They are prime for development,” Graham smiles. “We have a lot to be proud of.”