In Brewerytown, weary of trash and wary of whether a mayor can help

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Twenty-ninth and Girard is Angela Vendetti’s least favorite corner in Philadelphia.

Vendetti is the owner of Mugshots Coffeehouse in Fairmount and five years ago, she decided to open a second location on this corner in Brewerytown, just two blocks away from her house on 27th Street.

Second in series of election-year visits to Brewerytown, just one Philadelphia neighborhood in flux. [Part 1]

Twenty-ninth and Girard is Angela Vendetti’s least favorite corner in Philadelphia.

Vendetti is the owner of Mugshots Coffeehouse in Fairmount and five years ago, she decided to open a second location on this corner in Brewerytown, just two blocks away from her house on 27th Street.

She hoped the new coffee shop would encourage other businesses to open up on Girard Avenue, the neighborhood’s tattered commercial corridor.

But after just three years, Vendetti closed her doors. In that time, her take on the possibilities in Brewerytown had gone from enchanted to disgusted. Vendetti says the street seemed always to be littered with “tumbleweeds of trash.” She watched in horror as people opened their car doors and dropped rubbish into the street. 

“The rage is indescribable,” she said, “And it’s like, what are you going to do other than pick it up?”

‘Two hours after I sweep, it’s right back’

The people running to be Philadelphia’s next mayor all want to show just how much they care about the city’s neighborhoods. But how well do the grand visions they recite at forum after forum connect with the day-to-day concerns of rowhouse Philly?

When asked what they want to see change, trash is a common theme for many residents in the gentrifying North Philadelphia neighborhood Brewerytown. It’s an issue that seems to irritate longtime residents and newcomers alike.

“Just walking our dog around the neighborhood, there’s a ton of trash all over the sidewalks,” said Nicole McDonald, who has lived in Brewerytown for a year and a half.

“The sanitation guys leave more trash out on the pavement and on the street than they pick up,” said Warren Hill, who has lived here most of his 53 years. 

Bessie Jones sweeps the sidewalk in front of her home every morning. 

“Two hours after I sweep, it’s right back,” she said.

When Jones moved here from Harrisburg in 1987 with her husband and fourchildren, she was shocked by her new surroundings.

“I didn’t know anything about blight,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about an abandoned building — I had never seen anything like that.”

Nearly 30 years later, Jones says not much has changed on her block of 28th Street.

Her row house sits across from an empty lot littered with plastic bags, soda bottles and other debris — it’s what remains after the city recently knocked down a dangerously dilapidated house.

Jones says residents have a personal responsibility to deal with the litter problem.

But when pressed her on what she thinks the next mayor could do to help neighborhoods like Brewerytown, here’s what she says:

“The mayor? Do I see the mayor come and walk through here? Even if you just say once a month, I’m gonna go through North Philly, I’m gonna meet and greet with the people and see what’s what. The people feel like you’re what? You’re connected, that you care about them. You don’t see them unless it’s election time, we need your vote.”

Actually, Mayor Michael Nutter was here last month for a ribbon-cutting at a new coffee shop at 29th and Girard.

But Jones’ answer reflects why voter participation is often so low in Philadelphia.

Many voters don’t see a clear connection between the mayor’s race and the issues that bug them, like trash, when they walk out their doors every day.  Or they feel like Angela Vendetti who, along with some of her neighbors on Girard Avenue, worked with a local community development organization to put more trash cans on the sidewalk. 

“We hired a guy from the neighborhood to clean up the streets and he happens to know the guys that drive the trash trucks and he was able to get the trash cans emptied,” Vendetti said. “You gotta know somebody in this town.”

And while it’s the mayor’s name that gets printed on the blue recycling bins handed out by Philadelphia’s Streets Department, trash hasn’t come up much among the six Democrats running to be Philadelphia’s next mayor.

“As much as we want the government to help us, and the mayor just had the 8th annual big Philadelphia cleanup, we have to prevent it,” said Judith Robinson, a longtime community activist in North Philadelphia.

She agrees with Jones that residents need to step up in their neighborhoods and she gives Mayor Nutter a lot of credit for organizing citywide spring cleanups every year and for supporting local efforts to keep streets clean by giving out grants to community groups to buy brooms, gloves and other supplies.

But the trash problem persists and Robinson sees a very good reason for residents to care about it.

“When people come to a community and they see short dumping, litter all over the place, they have a negative connotation about who lives in the community,” she said.

That negative attitude, Robinson says, can lead to bigger problems like crime.

“Any time you see things looking out of order, then you feel as though it’s OK to do other things that are out of order,” she said.

That’s something Crystal Evans understands all too well.

Last spring, her 19-year-old brother, Devin Bullock, was shot — hit by a stray bullet during a turf dispute between neighborhood cliques in Brewerytown. He died two weeks later.

One day, sometime after his funeral, Evans picked up a broom and started sweeping up trash on Girard Avenue.

“I just decided to clean up the neighborhood and just try to project some love and some care, something where it’s not just about my brother, but about everybody,” she said. 

Back in the 1980s, Evans’ parents owned a clothing store on Girard called A Touch of Velvet. Evans remembers sweeping the sidewalks in front of the store for her father.  

She says cleaning the street where she and her brother once played hide and seek and body-slammed in the snow was like a form of therapy. Soon, it also became a way to expand Bubbles, Bubbles, Bubbles, the janitorial business she started in 2009.

Not long after Evans started sweeping up on Girard Avenue, local real estate developers at MM Partners hired her as a contractor. She also worked with the city’s parole office and the nonprofit People for People to hire ex-offenders who need jobs.

Just about one year later, Evans wants to hire more workers to help pick up trash on Brewerytown’s more blighted side streets, but says she doesn’t have the money to pay them. 

Evans wants the next mayor to support small businesses like hers that are picking up where the city has left off.

“A project like this, there should be grants or whatever funding is available, allow me access to it so I can make it happen and employ some other people as these people transition into better jobs,” she said.

Supporting small business? All the mayoral candidates have a plank in their platforms promising to do that. The question is: Will their ideas ever trickle down to Crystal Evans and her employees sweeping up on the corner of 29th and Girard?

Brewerytown is just one Philadelphia neighborhood undergoing intense changes. Join NewsWorks on April 21 at WHYY studios for a public discussion, “Philadelphia Neighborhoods in Flux,” to dig into what neighbors throughout the city want from city leadership. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

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