Mom-and-pops keep feeling the squeeze in West Philly.
Urban Outfitters. Così. American Apparel. The Naked Chocolate Café. Starbucks. McDonalds. Another Starbucks. Just another stroll down Walnut Street in Center City, right?
The chains have headed west to conquer a new frontier: University City. And the natives aren’t exactly cheering.
It’s common sense that “chain stores hurt local businesses,” says John Shahidi, owner of Avril 50, a local shop selling international newspapers, magazines and tobacco. According to Shahidi, chains “go for the whole area,” altering neighborhoods in their pursuit of profits.
Gentrification—or “Penntrification” as it’s mockingly called, in a jab at the nearby University of Pennsylvania— spells bad news for small businesses, such as the ethnic restaurants and quirky shops for which University City is known.
“I think generally, especially directly around the Penn campus, independent retailers will have a hard time competing with some of the growth in recent years,” says Curtis Rogers, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania.
Accusations of gentrification in University City aren’t exactly new. What makes this latest rise of chain retailers the most dangerous yet is a certain r-word that’s been hovering on everyone’s lips.
You guessed it: Recession.
According to recent surveys by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), small business’ plans to increase inventory and expand capital are at historically low levels. Small business owners nationwide are reporting falling profits, citing poor sales as their single most important problem.
As Shahidi puts it, local businesses are pressed from both sides: Instead of just having to compete with “the big guys,” now they “also have to compete with the economy.”
Could the combined punch from new chains and a hard-hitting economy put the mom-and-pops in University City down for the count?
Making its home in West Philly—you know, that West Philly—University City wasn’t always an attractive destination for chains. The actual cleanup of University City began in the 1990s, thanks in part to the nonprofit University City District (UCD). Since its establishment in 1997, UCD has sought to “conduct programs and initiatives that help to make University City an attractive place for businesses,” according to its Director of Marketing and Communications, Lori Klein Brennan.
UCD is financially tied to the University of Pennsylvania: “Penn is our largest funder,” says Brennan. “Without them we would not exist.”
And Penn is tied to the appearance of University City, for obvious reasons: As an Ivy League research university, Penn is heavily invested in making its surrounding areas attractive to students and researchers.
At that time a cleanup was, indeed, necessary. Penn professor Liliane Weissberg, Graduate Chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures says “when I came to Penn 20 years ago, the sidewalks were very dark; it was a place where you drove through and didn’t linger.”
Thanks to the installment of streetlights and the establishment of new businesses, Walnut Street is now a place “where you can linger and enjoy the area.” The quality of life, she asserts, has improved.
But that was a decade ago. Instead of cleaning up the streets, the rise of chain establishments might be cleaning out older, less upscale businesses that were the glue that held the the neighborhood together.
“Since I’ve come to Penn, I’d say the greatest change to local stores is not only that we are seeing more chain stores appear, but that those chains which do move in tend to cater to a trendier, wealthier client base,” says Rogers, the Penn senior.
Take Capogiro Gelato. The newest branch of the local gelato chain recently opened in the retail space underneath the Radian, a luxury apartment complex at the corner of 39th and Walnut Streets that is itself only a year old. A hotspot for nearby college students and families, Capogiro serves up high-quality gelato for equally high prices—practically $5 for the smallest-sized cup.