South Philadelphia: Business Climate Sees Change

 

For many in the Philadelphia area hearing the words “South Philly” probably brings to mind images of bars along South Street or the sports stadiums. What likely does not come to mind are small business owners west of Broad Street who have survived a significant change in the business climate or neighborhood organizations mobilizing to revitalize that business life.

The Point Breeze Avenue Business Association often works with the Point Breeze Pioneers, a green organization that aims to establish new green spaces, restore existing landscapes and engage residents and business owners in Point Breeze.

“The Point Breeze Avenue Business Association and [the Point Breeze Pioneers] often work together because greening the neighborhood helps their business and commercial investment goals,” said Antoinette Johnson of the Point Breeze Pioneers.

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Jennifer Harrison works out of her South Philadelphia home.

The Point Breeze Avenue Business Association and the Point Breeze Pioneers are currently working on the Point Breeze business revitalization project’s 2010-2015 plan.

The role of the Point Breeze Pioneers has been in securing a green and beautification plan for Point Breeze Avenue, including trees, flag poles and proper signs to direct foot traffic, Johnson said.

One of the first activities under this initiative has been planting trees under a project with the City’s Commerce Department and South Philadelphia HOMES, Johnson said.

“The 2010-2015 plan, in our opinion, needs work. There are no concrete drawings or indications of solid research that helps us get a clear future of everyone’s goals along the avenue. But what it does do is show the desire of the neighborhood to see progress, and bring the avenue back to the way it was 30, 50 years ago,” Johnson said.

While neighborhood organizations mobilize to bring South Philadelphia business back to its commercial roots, some business owners and managers in the area are satisfied with the current business climate.

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Hussam Jarabou is the manager of King of Appliances.

Jennifer Harrison is the owner of Elements of Health, a private holistic health practice she runs out of her home at 2231 S. 17th St. Harrison is in the process of expanding her business and moving to a larger, multi-room location within South Philadelphia. Harrison’s business predominantly offers Eastern-oriented massages, but also offers cooking classes and general holistic wellness.

“I do like operating my business here. There’s a really great, strong business community. The people who are here enjoy staying in their neighborhood and having their services provided for them here,” said Harrison, who has been a resident of South Philadelphia for 15 years.

Other business owners agree.

“I like doing business in this area. We have been here since 1977 and have seen many positive changes in the area,” said Guy Giordano, president and CEO of Vincent Giordano, which sells deli products to retailers and individual customers, and is located at 2600 Washington Ave. Giordano was born and raised in South Philadelphia, and his family has been in business in the area for more than 100 years.

“We picked the location because it was a property that met our needs to grow and is closely located to our previous facility. It allowed us the flexibility to expand our business while not having to hire a completely new workforce and extend any commuting for our current employees,” Giordano said.

Each business faces different challenges depending on the nature of that business. But many South Philadelphia businesses said the area treats them well.

Hussam Jarabou, the store manager at King of Appliance at 1632 W. Passyunk Ave. has worked at its South Philadelphia location for more than three years. Prior to that, King of Appliance was located in the Northeast but Jarabou said it moved due to a lack of business.

“I like it here. South Philly’s pretty good. It gets hectic here, but it’s pretty good,” Jarabou said. “This area is a busy area, we get a lot of traffic.”

Renee Sheeran, the manager of Melrose Diner at 1501 Snyder Ave., agreed.

During the four years she has been manager, the diner saw new ownership. “It’s OK. It’s busy,” Sheeran said. “The weekends are really busy, especially Saturday and Sunday mornings.”

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Small businesses line Snyder Avenue in South Philadelphia.

“I do like it a lot,” Sheeran said.

Antoinette Johnson of the Point Breeze Pioneers would love to see a return of the array of businesses that once gave the area distinction.

“My fiancé’s grandmother grew up right off of Point Breeze Avenue, and she’ll tell you along with the rest of the long time residents of Point Breeze about the many stories of businesses such as dentists, shoe repair, department stores, etc., that used to exist here,” Johnson said.

“We want to see that resurrected and the 2010-15 plan shows the same goals amongst most residents here in Point Breeze,” Johnson said. “The business community in Point Breeze is that of corner stores, take out restaurants and beauty salons. There is little diversity in the occupants of commercial properties.”

Historical maps of Point Breeze show a majority of blocks had C2 zoned corner properties, which means almost every corner had a business on it, most locally owned, Johnson said.

“Now, you see not only those corner properties vacant, but also plenty of abandonment along [Point Breeze Avenue],” she added.

Of the neighborhood demographics studied by Syracuse University economist Stuart S. Rosenthal in his paper, “Old Homes, Externalities and Poor Neighborhoods, a Model of Urban Decline and Renewal,” only 27.62 percent of upper-middle income tracts in 1950 were still of upper-middle income status in 2000.

As Rosenthal points out, change in neighborhood economic status is the norm, not the exception, so neighborhoods go through economic cycles.

“When the war ended, there was an immediate decline in employment,” said Herb Ershkowitz, emeritus faculty at Temple University who is currently working on a study of Philadelphia during World War II with an emphasis on race and ethnicity. “And to a great extent, industry in Philadelphia never really recovered after the war.”

Ershkowitz said the largest center of employment in South Philadelphia was the Navy Yard, which in early 1945 had about 55,000 workers and an immense impact on employment in the city.

“Some of the problems tend to come from Philadelphia labor, which was well organized, and labor in the South was not organized at all, in fact there were laws against collective bargaining in the South,” Ershkowitz said.

“What you seem to get is a real drop in employment, and in South Philadelphia in general, you had a really interesting ethnic mix as well,” Ershkowitz said.

Point Breeze Pioneers’ Johnson is confident that community hopes for seeing a change in the business climate are not unrealistic.

“The current climate of commercial investment in Point Breeze is an economic phenomenon. We have seen a huge growth in residential sales, and our neighborhood is located only 1.5 miles south of Center City and Rittenhouse. Yet we’re certified as a blighted neighborhood, with [more than] 80 percent of our blocks experiencing a 20 percent plus abandonment rate,” Johnson said. “This is cause for serious change.”

Entrepreneurial activity tends to concentrate geographically, according to a study from the Small Business Association. Lawrence A. Plummer’s “New Business Clustering in U.S. Counties” suggests that a community’s reputation for hospitality toward new business ventures could correlate with entrepreneurial success, among other factors.

“Point Breeze could be the contiguous link to Newbold, East Passyunk, Packer Park, Rittenhouse, the Schuylkill River Trail and more,” Johnson said. “Leaving it as such would be a severely negative thing for the City of Philadelphia.”