“If you lit a match and held it close, the whole thing would probably go up in flames,” Marsha Moss, owner of Oxford Circus speciality boutique, said as she looked out her storefront window – past colorful toys and fantasy stuffed animals – to across the street.
There a row of vacant stores stand, paneling and facade stripped off, bare, blackening wood exposed. Compared to the rest of the Avenue it looks like a set of graying cavities in what should be a Hollywood smile.
“We want to make this a kid friendly two blocks; that’s my vision,” Beth Milley, owner of children’s clothing store Villevillakula, said. A chalk-drawn hopscotch leads into her brightly colored store, where sourdough pretzels are handed out to little hands and whimsical dresses are purchased by parents.
Milley and her store are new to Chestnut Hill. It resides at the bottom of the hill on the Avenue, closer to Mount Airy’s district. Oxford Circus stands a few shops down. “Less foot traffic comes to the bottom of the hill and people do not really know that we are down here,” Milley said.
The amount of empty storefronts grows as the hill declines. “We need a banner hung across the Avenue. That catches people’s attention,” Moss said.
That is one idea the women have for drawing crowds toward their shops. They also want to see a family restaurant with specialities for children open near them.
Paris Bistro and Jazz Cafe, which is one of the closer restaurants, only opens in the evening or for Saturday and Sunday brunch. Roller’s at Flying Fish, another restaurant located at the bottom of the hill, does not have a specific children’s menu.
According to 2010 Census data, around 21 percent of the homes in Chestnut Hill have children. For comparison, Philadelphia in general has around 26 percent of homes with children.
Chestnut Hill does draw families to the area because of its location on the outskirts of Philadelphia and the numerous good schools surrounding. It is a wealthier neighborhood where high-income couples with children find the benefits of suburbia without being too far from the city.
Creating an area that caters more to children’s needs could be beneficial to the area and could be a way to combat the amount of vacant storefronts.
“My store is named after Pipi Longstocking and I have her spirit in me, so when I want to get something done I put all my effort into it,” Milley said about her determination to transform the bottom of the hill.
Most shops seem more concerned about migrating up the hill, however. O’Doodles, a popular and long-standing toyshop, moved to Evergreen Avenue and Germantown Avenue. Style Camp, a clothing boutique, also moved shop to a more visible location at the top of the hill.
“Me and my kids are always in O’Doodles, it’s a great place with a great location,” Kate Katchen, Chestnut Hill resident and mother, said when asked where she shopped.
It seems to be good for business, to move to larger stores near the beginning of the Avenue in Chestnut Hill. The Welcome Center is located there, more parking lots are available, and more stores in general as well as more places to eat are located there.
Milley hopes to work with the new retail recruiter to make changes though, and transform the dismal sight of vacant storefronts that she and Moss see when they look out their windows.
– Text and images and video by Logan Wilson and Sinead Cummings