52nd Street vendors suspicious of city’s effort to revitalize their West Philly shopping corridor.
The sunlight glints off Bashir Postley’s shades as the 24-year-old West Philadelphia street vendor leans against one of his tables near the corner of 52nd and Chestnut on a recent afternoon. People stream past on the sidewalk, some stopping to check out the jeans, luggage, sneakers, kids’ bicycles and other items he’s got for sale.
Postley has been making his living working this spot dawn to dusk seven days a week for more than a year. And until two months ago, he never had to wake up each morning praying for good weather. On Jan. 10, the city began dismantling the steel-and-glass canopies that for decades covered the 52nd Street sidewalks on both sides from Market to Walnut, leaving Postley, his fellow vendors and shoppers exposed to the elements. Since then, Postley says, his sales have taken a big hit, and despite the pleasant weather on this afternoon, he’s hardly in a sunny mood.
“The canopy was ours,” he says. “Something we called ours for years. And then they came in and took it away. It’s the same old story—the people who don’t have shit, they get fucked.”
The city says the canopy removal is the first phase of a three-year, multimillion-dollar project to revitalize the 52nd Street shopping corridor. Street and storefront repairs, intensive cleaning and other necessary steps, the city insists, will benefit the existing street vendors, stores and the surrounding community. But Postley believes the process is a deliberate effort to drive the vendors and mom-and-pop businesses out of the area, and ultimately uproot a vibrant and diverse —if not quite economically thriving—minority community to make room for their more affluent neighbors in University City who are slowly encroaching west.
“Let’s call it what it is,” Postley says. “They gonna take the urban culture out of 52nd Street and make it into a little shopping mall for white people.”
The vendor market on this stretch of West Philly street has existed in one form or another for more than 100 years. Primarily a black neighborhood since the 1950s, the area has attracted Koreans, Bangladeshis, Hispanics, Africans and others in recent decades. Together, they operate the vendor carts as well as the businesses along the corridor—clothes stores, sneaker shops, takeout joints, wig shops, five-and-dimes, dollar stores, cell phone stores and more, providing inexpensive goods and services to a perpetually low-income community.
Some of the stores employ vendors who sell their wares out on the sidewalk; other vendors are independent businesspeople with their own merchandise, handing the city $300 a year for a license to operate and paying taxes every month. In 1976, the Philadelphia Commercial Development Corporation built the canopy in order to shield shoppers and vendors—who are prohibited by city ordinance from erecting their own makeshift canopies or tarps on the sidewalk—from inclement weather and to create a more comfortable, successful business environment.
But times have changed, and Postley thinks the new revitalization project is one big scheme. “They take down the canopies because they know the vendors and the shoppers ain’t gonna come out when it snows, sleets and rains, and they know we gotta be out here every day to survive. They make us disappear, they hope, and then all the construction disrupts business and the stores go broke. They try to dry you up and then buy you out for nothin’ … Then you get Starbucks, FedEx, these big corporations comin’ in that make the city some real money, the real-estate developers comin’ in, and pretty soon we’re forced out of the neighborhood.”
Other vendors along the street echo Postley’s sentiments, although they refuse to give their names, and some are reluctant to talk. “Yeah, they tryin’ to get rid of us,” says one vendor selling knit caps and cell phone chargers. “Ain’t no fun out here when it rains,” says another, as Wiz Khalifa pours from a boom box on his table of CDs and DVDs.
“They don’t wanna tell you their name cause they afraid the city’s gonna read that and come down here and shut ’em down,” Postley says. “Me, I don’t give a fuck.”
A year and a half ago, the vendors were a lot more vocal. The canopy was originally supposed to come down in December 2009, but when construction crews showed up the vendors protested en masse. Some tied themselves to the canopy poles. The city backed down, and the project was delayed.
Philadelphia Department of Commerce Chief Operating Officer Kevin Dow, who’s managing the 52nd Street project, remembers watching the protests on 6ABC. “You can imagine the concern that I had,” he says. “Looking back, we did not do enough community engagement to prevent that from happening. We learned our lesson and we stepped back and began to engage that vendor community in a way in which they became a part of the solution instead of a part of our problem.”
Taking down the canopies, Dow explains, was a necessary first step so the city could better determine the repairs needed for the buildings, sidewalks and curbs. And since that initial failed attempt, Dow says there have been nearly two-dozen meetings with vendors “to understand their concerns, to explain what our process is going to be for the corridor and how they fit in, and to allay their concerns that this canopy removal was not synonymous with vendor removal.”
“We’re dealing with an issue that’s very common to inner-city development,” adds Neighborhood Economic Development Senior Manager Dr. H. Ahada Stanford, who’s overseeing the project at the street level. “Quite often [street vendors] get treated like outlaws, and we’ve been trying to create communication.” Stanford and Dow say the city has pledged to build standardized kiosks—at a cost of more than $400,000—for the vendors by year’s end, as well as provide marketing assistance. They also insist the city will work with vendors to draft legislation dealing with assigned spots on the corridor, potential licenses for those spots and other means of protecting their businesses.
Stanford says the city has kept vendors well-informed of what’s going on, regularly handing out fliers with construction schedules and meeting information.
But Postley says that’s not good enough.
“Don’t give me a piece of paper telling me we’re having a meeting where it’s just gonna be a bunch of city people telling me what’s gonna happen. There’s no give-and-take. There’s people coming up to the microphone and we’re getting shushed. We’re grown-ass men.”
Postley’s skeptical of the city’s promises. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” he says of the proposed kiosks, adding, “How that gonna make a difference in bad weather?”
But Azizuddin Muhammad Abdulaziz, president of the recently re-formed Philadelphia Vendors Association, is adopting a somewhat more optimistic tone. “Nobody down here wanted the canopies taken down,” he says, noting that a neighborhood petition with 4,000 signatures protesting the canopy removal handed to the city prior to the January demolition was for nought. “But if the city follows through with what they say they’re gonna do, what we get in the end will be greater than the sacrifice of those canopies.”