Passyunk: Business Improvement District Works to Bring Back Community Culture

Small businesses in this not-quite-fully-recovered economy are not generally thought of to be a safe bet but on East Passyunk Avenue, Renee Gilinger has bid farewell to much of the doubts and insecurity concerning small, independent business.

“In 2009, we opened 20 new businesses when the rest of the world was crashing around us,” Gilinger explained.

Gilinger, the executive director of the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District, credits the strong local ownership that works to keep the rent affordable.The East Passyunk BID  aspires to help improve businesses in the district around Passyunk Avenue, which contains ten blocks and 270 commercial businesses.

Today, East Passyunk is an up-and-coming neighborhood known as an enclave for the city’s foodie culture. But this wasn’t the case a decade ago.

Passyunk was another older South Philadelphia neighborhood on the outskirts of the Italian Market district and facing the same problems. As older residents moved out of the neighborhood or passed away, they took their business with them, leaving behind many vacant private and commercial properties.

That changed in 2002, when the East Passyunk BID opened its doors, with the intention of expanding on the efforts of the Citizen’s Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, which was created by Vince Fumo, the former state senator. When Fumo’s famous failure left East Passyunk hanging in the balance, the BID stepped in to revitalize the business district and attract small businesses back to the area.

Image by Leah Ference

The result is a mix of old and new, with businesses like  Mancuso’s Cheese, a third generation cheesemonger who’s been on the Avenue for nearly a century, sitting just blocks from Nice Things Handmade, a gift shop owned by Philadelphia native Elissa Kara.

Gilinger explains that the new Passyunk Avenue represents a “replication of what this was 80 years ago,” something she deeply appreciates.

Kara, who recently celebrated her store’s fifth anniversary, said she has seen the avenue improve greatly even since she first arrived, when there was “only a handful of stores down here.” She credits this in large part to the efforts of Gilinger and the BID, who work with each new business from their inception, and continue to support them in various ways after they’ve been established.

“I also help folks with grants,” Gilinger said, “to help with business expansion and improvement.”

One of these grants is a facade program, where businesses receive funding to improve the street appeal of their establishment, which not only helps the sales of that business, but also boosts community morale. The facade program coordinates nicely with some of the BID’s other efforts, such as graffiti and trash removal. These projects may not raise revenue for the avenue, but clean streets attract people from all over the city to a neighborhood that ten years ago was all but forgotten.

The revitalization of East Passyunk Avenue is comparable to what’s been going on in Northern Liberties, where the 2009 opening of the Piazza served as a jumping off point for numerous small businesses and many young residents looking for a safe, hip atmosphere with all the amenities that Center City living offers but without the price tag. East Passyunk has attracted a similar crowd, with some local franchise businesses like Doggie Style and Cantina opening locations in both thriving neighborhoods.

One key difference between Northern Liberties and East Passyunk, however, is the price point. While The Piazza, Northern Liberties’ center point, was only built in the past decade, most of Passyunk Avenue’s infrastructure was built more than a century ago.

“Seventy percent of our landowners live within a zip code or two,” Gilinger explained. “So they’re here a lot and they care a lot, so they keep the rents low.”

When Kara was considering locations for Nice Things Handmade, she also considered renting space in the Piazza but found more potential and affordability on Passyunk Avenue, a decision that has paid off for her in the long run.

As a local artist who grew up off of South Street, another area known for it’s appreciation of small business, Kara understands the importance of supporting both independent business and and the arts. She has even helped to launch other artists, who have gone on to own Nicole Rae Style Boutique, Volta Market and Occasionette, also all on the Avenue.

“We can’t lose stores like that,” Kara remarked.

When these and every other business express interest in moving onto the Avenue, they enter into a relationship with Gilinger that is meant to help establish the business, but also to make sure that these new establishments are in line with the atmosphere of East Passyunk. This often includes a willingness to stay open later and on weekends, which compliments Passyunk’s many restaurants, and reflect what the younger local clientele wants.

“The BID can’t do everything for the businesses,” Kara said, “but I have yet to hear [Gilinger] say no.”

While continued support of these businesses is crucial to the continued growth of the neighborhood, another vital part of East Passyunk BID’s mission is community development.

Gilinger and the BID currently have a few projects in the works, such a walking map around the avenue, consisting of 100 signs to help guide people who are new to the area, just as Center City already has. The map, along with a planter project on Broad Street, are both two years in the making. The BID is also working on improving pedestrian access of the intersection of 12th and Morris streets and improving the lights on East Passyunk Avenue.

Image by Josh Levy
Image by Josh Levy

While these efforts certainly help boost community morale, they are only one facet ofthe BID’s community efforts. Another large part of Gilinger’s work for East Passyunk BID is coordination of the organization’s various annual events, which include the recent Easter Egg Hunt, which took place on Saturday, March 21. The free event was advertised all over the Avenue and online, and caught the attention of hundreds of parents and children aged ten and under.

Even 11th street resident and City Council candidate Tom Wyatt along with his children Lucy and Doak, came out to collect some candy and enjoy the festivities.

“The stuff going on, it’s amazing,” he said. “The BID is just spectacular.”

Wyatt, who is running on an education platform, really appreciates events like the Easter Egg Hunt, which are an opportunity for whole families to come together. As a neighborhood local, Wyatt also recognizes the importance of these and other events, such as the upcoming Flavors of the Avenue, as a unique opportunity for diverse people to share ideas about improving their district. Events that bring out the whole local community are “the fabric that keeps us all together,” Wyatt added.

Nice Things owner Kara added that Gilinger and the BID’s efforts have been nothing but positive for East Passyunk Avenue. Kara sees this neighborhood as special because it is organically changing – small, hip businesses attract young, financially secure parents to the avenue, who then catch the attention of more business owners.

It is a cyclical process that results in a unique community atmosphere reminiscent of the South Philadelphia of generations past.

[vimeo 123037838]

– Text, video and images by Leah Ference and Josh Levy.

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