Olney: Renewing a Historic Street

Drive up one of Philadelphia’s most historic main streets and you will see longtime residents walking amongst new and vibrant residents, flashes of a city heading for the future. Stephanie Michel’s job begins at the meeting point of these two sides and it ends where they come together for the good of the community.

Michel (above, right), the community engagement coordinator for the non-profit North Fifth Street Revitalization Project, has worked for more than two years to brighten up the street and bring the community together through events like the Open Mic Night.

After a year serving the community in Olney with AmeriCorps Vista, a national program designed to fight poverty, Michel decided to stay in the area and continue her relationship with the residents and businesses there.

How did you get started with the North Fifth Street Revitalization Project?

I started out as an AmeriCorps Vista representative about two years ago. I was a kindergarten teacher in Bensalem and I was looking to get into nonprofit. I loved teaching but I wanted to get my foot wet in the nonprofit world. It was hard because for a lot of entry jobs, you need to have experience or you need to have all these things that I didn’t have. So AmeriCorps Vista provided me that opportunity. Our director Philip Green was in Vista as well and he transitioned as interim director in the spring of 2013. He told me, “I know your year of service is ending, would you like to stay on as a staff person?” He offered me a position and here I am at North Fifth Street.

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Michel has served as a community leader in Olney for more than two years

What is your impact on the North Fifth Street community?

I would like to say it’s a personal impact, where the residents feel connected with the person who is serving them. One of the complaints we’ve heard about AmeriCorps Vista is that the representative is always changing. People would build a relationship with someone. Then they’d leave, whereas I’ve been able to stay longer. Our relationship has lasted over two years, going on three years. It’s a little more personal to the point where people frequently say, “Hey, how are you? How’s everything going?” They see this consistency and I think that builds a stronger relationship with residents.

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Stephanie Michel (center) watches a performance with two interns from the Philadelphia Youth Network

What voices do you usually hear at the Open Mic Night?

Crazy voices. We have poets. We had someone come in with an accordion. Young and old, I believe our youngest was a four-year-old dancer. We’ve had Caribbean dance groups come up. We’ve had piano players, opera singers, a wide range of performers on our stage. It’s family oriented, so kids come in with their parents.

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Lex, an artist at Natural Mystics tattoo shop, plays his electric guitar at the Second Friday Open Mic night

How do the business owners feel about the work you’ve been doing on Fifth Street?

It’s a mixed reaction. We have 300 businesses on our corridor, so it’s hard to have that intimate relationship with each one. Some of them don’t live in the area. They’ll clock out right away and they go home, whereas others are invested and they see the positive things in the neighborhood. We had a meeting six months ago with the local police to address the concerns of business owners who were robbed. After that meeting, the business owners were able to say, “We don’t feel safe in the morning.”

The police officers took note of that and since then, business owners have reported that they see more police presence in the area. We’re a connector. We’re a mediator. Other business owners, however, don’t know we’re available to them. We’re constantly marketing, getting our name out, reintroducing ourselves and our services.

Have you found there is a lot of turnover in businesses?

I would say 25 percent. It’s not as high as in other neighborhoods. There are a lot of older business owners. Years past, this used to be a heavily Korean neighborhood. Up here, there are Korean business owners who have been here for at least 20 years. They may not be as engaging, young and hip as the lower quarter, where we have a lot of Latino cultures that have moved in.

It’s a new set of owners who are young and vibrant. They’re willing to participate with us on these events. The older business owners have been here for so long and they see groups like us make promises and not fulfill those promises so they’re untrustworthy and hesitant toward us. It’s more of a dismissive feeling.

Text and images by Joe Gilbride and Grace Nonnemaker.

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