Shirley Armstead has been living her dream for 45 years.
About half of those years have been spent working out of her cheerful storefront office at 1455 E. Vernon Road in Northwest Philadelphia.
“When I got here the area wasn’t a nice area,” said Armstead, owner of S.E. Armstead Real Estate. “But I decided this is where I wanted to be.”
For years, the 1400 block of East Vernon was troubled. Crime and loitering gave people pause about visiting the small local businesses located on the low-rise storefront row. Businesses shuttered and neighborhood residents mourned the loss of a place that had been a convenient gathering and shopping spot.
This week, a new chapter began with the ribbon-cutting on a $310,000 revitalization project. Funded through a public-private partnership between City Hall, state agencies and Wells Fargo, the project brought new LED lights, signs and banners, planters, tree lights, and other beautifications. New security cameras and Big Belly Trash bins were installed to help keep the streets safe and clean. The new infrastructure extended to businesses like Armstead’s too. Her storefront was one of 14 to receive facade improvement grants.
“It’s only a beginning,” said Armstead. “We all have to keep it this way.”
For business owners, the complete revitalization project ends a journey that goes back to the early aughts, when the city began exploring options to redevelop the neglected strip. One option was demolition. Thanks to community organizing, the wrecking ball never came, but while the strip remained standing, its problems were never addressed. While nearby sections of western Mount Airy gentrified and saw an influx of wealthier residents move in, the area to the east that includes Vernon Road took a hit in the Great Recession and saw rates of foreclosure, eviction and racial segregation increase. The neighborhood became increasingly known as Cedarbrook even as longtime residents still considered it a section of Mount Airy.
Then in 2016, two killings within hours of each other — Alex Cherry, 21, on Vernon Road and Fayette Street, and later, Elijah Frazier, 18, around the corner — brought a sense of urgency.
“It was so important that the people in this community see that we believe in them by investing their tax dollars and private sector money that was given to physically change and make improvements,” said City Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, who represents the 9th District that encompasses E. Vernon Road. “Something that they can tangibly see, touch and feel.”
Parker is vocal about the section of her district being seen as part of Mount Airy.
“Please don’t call it Cedarbrook,” she told the website Next City in 2017. “When we bought our homes here, it was Mount Airy. Now that we’re experiencing some trouble, they want to give it another name.”
The Big Belly trash cans unveiled this week also brand the area as Mount Airy.
Alyn E. Waller, Senior Pastor of the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church advocated for the business owners and hosted community meetings about the future of Vernon Road. He said the new revitalization is a step toward changing the culture of the “working-middle-class neighborhood.”
“If you’re going to change the corner, you’ve got to control the corner store,” he said.
As Vernon Road businesses settle into their new look, Parker plans to reinvigorate other corridors in her district — Old York Road, Rising Sun, Broad and Olney, and more. By bringing people back to shop in these neighborhood anchors, she hopes to reverse income and population losses that have occurred in these places, known as "middle neighborhoods" because they are neither the wealthiest nor the poorest areas.
She also lauded the importance of public-private partnerships like the ones that kept Vernon Road alive — and funded its rebirth.
“This project models the benefits of strong public and private partnerships, as well as our commitment to investing in and transforming our neighborhood commercial corridors and stabilizing our middle neighborhoods,” Parker said in a release. “With homeownership rates greater than 70 percent and over a dozen long-term businesses on this avenue, our residents and small business owners are seeing their tax dollars at work.”
Earlier this month, the new storefront design received the Best Block Impact Award from the Philadelphia Department of Commerce and Community Design Collaborative as part of the 2018 Storefront Challenge. Neighborhood shopping districts picture heavily in Mayor Jim Kenney’s vision for how to turn around areas that aren’t getting the same level of investment as gentrifying neighborhoods closer to Center City. The 1400 block of E. Vernon Road is one of a number of districts he has pledged to improve citywide.
“Philadelphia’s commercial corridors are the lifeblood of the city,” Kenney said in a statement. “They are vital to the economy, and act as the centers of our communities. Investments like the ones made on Vernon Road will help drive revitalization across the city and breathe new life into our neighborhoods.”