A tossed candy-bar wrapper or forgotten soda bottle may seem insignificant to many Philadelphians but to the North Fifth Street Revitalization Project, litter is a big deal for Olney’s safety and commercial success.
The Philadelphia Department of Commerce provides Olney with a grant to hire street cleaners six days per week. However, the cleaners’ main priority is to maintain the cleanliness of the commercial corridor of North Fifth Street.
Often, residential areas and lower points on Fifth Street don’t receive the same care, and fall victim to litter and unruly foliage.
Enter NFSRP’s clean-up crew: On Wednesday, Sept. 10 and Thursday, Sept. 11, volunteers from TD Bank, Keep Philly Beautiful and Shop-Rite gathered to spruce up some of these forgotten neighborhood corners.
“We had six TD Bank volunteers, five community volunteers and five staff members from Keep Philly Beautiful and the North Fifth Street Revitalization Project,” said Philip Green, interim director of NFSRP, of the Wednesday clean-up crews.
The crews worked at one of three North Fifth Street locations, including Fisher Park and underneath the Fox Chase Line bridge, where they disposed of abandoned food waste and trimmed overgrown weeds and trees under the blistering heat.
“These cleanups are really great,” Green said. “Clean streets are known to deter crime. Litter gives the idea of lawlessness, which gives criminals the green light to break windows [and] graffiti.”
North Fifth Street’s commercial corridor is a vibrant, buzzing hub of North Philadelphia’s economic activity. It attracts patrons from all corners of the city, and its cleanliness is vital for economic viability, Green said.
“There are people from other parts of the city who litter or don’t respect the area,” Green continued. “When they leave, the residents are left to deal.”
Michelle Feldman, newly appointed executive director of Keep Philly Beautiful, joined the clean-up crews.
“I think the problem of litter is that it has consequences in terms of economic development and crime,” Feldman said. “It’s part of a bigger web of issues for neighborhoods that have wonderful bones, but need a little help.”
“When you’re in cleaner neighborhoods,” Feldman continued, “there are more resources, which have bigger implications. Like socioeconomic status, quality of life issues do matter. You want to create an environment where communities can come together and feel safe.”
And the people of Olney – with great pride in their little pocket of the city – have been plagued for too long. Yet, change is slow-coming.
Once a “street-car suburb” for the wealthy, Olney then attracted German and Russian immigrants by the 1920s. They found employment at the Heintz Manufacturing factory, and settled comfortably. They built and renovated the buildings that still stand today and developed a commerce center independent of Center City’s.
In conjunction with Philadelphia’s deindustrialization of the 1960s, factories closed and the former workers moved on. This declining population made Olney an attractive neighborhood to the waves of immigration that flooded the city. The neighborhood is now one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse neighborhoods in Philadelphia, comprised of a mixture of 50 percent African-American, 20 percent Latino and the remainder Southeast Asian, including Cambodian and Vietnamese, Sub-Saharan African, West Indian and more.
It’s just unifying that seems to be the issue.
“This area has an incredible amount of potential – the neighborhood just needs a little bit of stability,” Green said. “It needs a binding medium, a sense of identity.”