Twenty two years ago, Mantua’s only grocery store, located on 34th Street, burned to the ground. Since then, the neighborhood has never had a grocery store to call its own, forcing those living there to take two bus lines to two different supermarkets on Columbus Boulevard or to the more expensive option of shopping at Fresh Grocer, located near the University of Pennsylvania’s campus on 40th and Walnut streets. This has turned what is for most Philadelphians a routine weekly chore into a major inconvenience for some residents living in the West Philadelphia community. Not only is this considered an obstacle for Mantua residents, the neighborhood fits the classification of a “food desert” by the USDA.
The term food desert came into existence in 2008 when the USDA signed the Farm Bill into law. The 2008 Farm bill defined a “food desert” as “an area in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly an area comprised of predominantly lower-income neighborhoods and communities.” In metropolitan areas, the limited-access designation is based on the stipulation that either 500 residents or 33% of the area’s population lives further than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store, according to the USDA. Since the Fresh Grocer on 40th and Walnut Streets is located just outside of the one-mile radius, Mantua is technically considered a food desert.
The biggest obstacle Mantua faced with building a new supermarket in the neighborhood was the lack of a civic association. Without one, the neighborhood could not lobby for either a public grant or private investments for a grocery store to replace the destroyed one. This all changed for the community when a public housing project, the Mount Vernon Manor, recieved a Choice Neighborhood Planning Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Donna Griffin, a community engagement consultant with We Are Mantua, made a statement about how the Mount Vernon Manor grant changed the fate of Mantua at a community meeting about the recent designation of Mantua as a Federal Promise Zone.
“The revitalization of Mantua all started with the Mount Vernon Manor,” Griffin said. “The decline of the Mount Vernon Manor, The planning of the Mount Vernon Manor, the violence that went on there. Once we started rehabbing the Mount Vernon Manor, we started rehabbing Mantua.”
Since the Mount Vernon Manor was granted a Choice Neighborhood Planning Grant, this prompted Mantua residents to seek out the new designation of a federal Promise Zone. City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell was one of the main motivators to push Mantua into consideration for the Promise Zone designation.
“I went to each meeting and screamed and yelled that I didn’t know about it,” Blackwell said. “I told them that Drexel didn’t own this community and all those things that I do, you know. I was born in the ‘hood too. Having said that, I’ve learned that President Obama has come up with a plan for neighborhoods.”
Along with the Promise Zone designation comes federal assistance to set up plans for the future of the neighborhood. These plans include a grocery store.
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Without a SEPTA pass, Mantua residents using public transit can expect to spend $338 (includes two bus fares and two transfers for weekly trips) annually just to get to and from both the SuperFresh and Wal-Mart on Columbus Boulevard. The trip takes roughly 45 minutes just to get there. Even to get to the Fresh Grocer on 40th and Walnut Streets cost $234 dollars (two bus fares for weekly trips) annually. Depending on the size of a family, that money could turn into months of groceries if the supermarket gets built. The Fresh Grocer is generally more expensive than Wal-Mart and SuperFresh, which deters Mantua residents like Netta Robertson from shopping at the 40th and Walnut streets location.
Robertson, a mantua resident for 51 years, uses SEPTA for her weekly shopping routine.
“We’ve gone 10, 15 years without a supermarket,” Robertson said. “I usually go to SuperFresh or Walmart on the Avenue. I have to take two buses to get down there.”
Robertson also does the grocery shopping for her aging mother, which would also become easier with a grocery store located two blocks from her mother’s apartment.
Drexel students like Bob Mulholland living in the area are also feeling the burden of not having a grocery store within a reasonable walking distance.
“We’ve all walked to Fresh Grocer,” said Mulholland. “It’s just a big hassle to walk there and carry all of your bags back.”
The supermarket could also have an effect on crime in the area, while helping to create jobs in a convenient location for those living in the neighborhood. Mantua resident Bobby Whitaker notes: “It would help to keep the kids off the streets and get them working instead of selling drugs, and they wouldn’t have to spend money to get there.”
While many residents agree the area needs a supermarket, one man remains in opposition: renowned artist James Dupree, whose studio on Haverford Avenue is the only house left on the block that has not been purchased by the city. He continues to fight to get his “free and clear deed” back despite a $600,000 offer from the city for his property. Dupree has had an independent assessment of his property, which includes 10 rooms, multiple teaching studios and a rentable bed-and-breakfast style apartment, at $2.2 million. Dupree estimates that the cost of moving the artwork alone would amount to $250,000.
In order for Mantua’s grocery store to be constructed, a middle ground must be met.
– Story, Photos and Video by Patrick McPeak and Michael Wojcik
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