North Philly entrepreneurs and artisans bring life to a former junkyard at La Placita flea market

Alexie Encarnación and Yaritza Román of Northeast Philadelphia run an artisanal ice cream business called Helados Chupi Chupi and are regular vendors at La Placita. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

Alexie Encarnación and Yaritza Román of Northeast Philadelphia run an artisanal ice cream business called Helados Chupi Chupi and are regular vendors at La Placita. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

Walking around La Placita, accompanied by the blasting of bachata music and the lingering smell of pinchos and empanadas, may transport you to Puerto Rico’s shopping and community corridor of the same name in San Juan.

At least that’s the hope for the organizers of La Placita Philly, a weekend flea market in Fairhill that opened April 10.

Every Saturday and Sunday, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., small business owners can sell their wares, from treasured antiques and thrifted finery, to handmade artwork and jewelry, to tacos and desserts, for an affordable vendor fee.

Alexie Encarnación started his artisanal paleta business, Helados Chupi Chupi, with the help of his wife and daughter back in 2018. The Puerto Rico native said the ice cream is 100% natural and made with real fruit and includes flavors such as mango, chocolate, vanilla, kiwi, pistachio, and many more

Alexie Encarnación prepares an artisanal paleta with toppings at La Placita. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)
Alexie Encarnación prepares an artisanal paleta with toppings at La Placita. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

The family, who live in Northeast Philadelphia, sells their products in local supermarkets, bodegas, barbershops, restaurants, and other businesses. They hope to have their own franchise in Philly one day. Encarnación said they plan to set up shop at La Placita every weekend this summer.

“I think it’s a great initiative because, through this flea market, we can introduce more people to our products,” Encarnación said in Spanish. “People can come and enjoy, and this way we also make ourselves known.”

The flea market, which is next to the Plaza Allegheny shopping center, popped up this month on an abandoned junkyard, next to the former location of an infamous opioid encampment along the Conrail train tracks.

The new La Placita market at 2nd and Allegheny features local vendors and aims to become a community hub for the neighborhood. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

At the helm of La Placita is David Groverman, a real estate developer who owns the ex-junkyard and the shopping center, home to neighborhood staples including Save A Lot, a pharmacy, and a laundromat.

A new business corridor for Fairhill?

The opening of the flea market is just the beginning of La Placita. Groverman and his team have big plans to turn this section of Fairhill into a booming business and community corridor that’ll include food and dining options run by the team behind the Puerto Rican bakery and restaurant El Coqui in Harrowgate.  The junkyard site includes a large hangar building that he plans to open this fall as an event space used by neighborhood residents for weddings, salsa dancing, quinceañeras, and other special events.

Sonja Caesar, a retired cosmetologist from North Philadelphia, sells arts and crafts at La Placita on Sunday, April 18, 2021. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)
Sonja Caesar, a retired cosmetologist from North Philadelphia, sells arts and crafts at La Placita on Sunday, April 18, 2021. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

“Hopefully it will generate a lot of interest in alternative ways to buy things and … actually develop business for people who normally would not have a business,” Groverman said.

A lifelong antiques dealer, Groverman struggled for over a decade to figure out how to use the fallow former dump. La Placita came to him as a natural outgrowth of his passion for old stuff and desire to activate the land in a way that suited the Fairhill community.

For repurposing the hangar building, the main section, dubbed “El Salon,” will encompass five different rooms that can be joined together as a single room, creating capacity for 250 people for seated functions and up to 500 people for events such as cocktail parties. El Salon will offer customized catering and will be connected to an outdoor, covered patio that can be used for various purposes, whether posing for photos or for COVID-safe neighborhood gatherings.

(La Placita Philadelphia/Facebook)

In a separate room within the hangar building, the plan is to offer a permanent, year-round marketplace for select vendors to have a dedicated storefront for their business, ranging in size from 100 to 600 square feet, and are affordably leased per month from $250 to $1,200 depending on size.

A mural is in the works too, inspired by some of the architecture and design of Old San Juan in Puerto Rico. The mural is being painted by students from We Love Philly, an educational nonprofit based in the neighborhood, with direction from painter Danny Torres, who’s been living and painting in Fairhill for more than 30 years.

The building at La Placita features a mural in progress by a local artist and students from the neighborhood. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)
The building at La Placita features a mural in progress by a local artist and students from the neighborhood. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

We Love Philly member Milly Hernandez was hired by Groverman to work as the community liaison and vendor manager. Hernandez, 21, just graduated from One Bright Ray Community School in Fairhill.

Milly Hernandez, vendor manager of La Placita, is pictured at the market at 2nd and Allegheny on Sunday, April 18, 2021. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)
Milly Hernandez, vendor manager of La Placita, is pictured at the market at 2nd and Allegheny on Sunday, April 18, 2021. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

Hernandez is an entrepreneur herself, selling purses and clothes online. When We Love Philly got on board the La Placita project, the nonprofit’s founder, Carlos Aponte, gave her a call about a job opportunity where she could learn skills for her future business ventures.

She’s been working there for three months, connecting with potential vendors and promoting the La Placita market as a low-cost place to sell their products.  The $50 per day rate is  more affordable than many other markets, Hernandez said.

Hernandez is from Hunting Park, about a 10-minute drive from La Placita, and her interest was piqued about this new community hub by one simple fact.

“There’s no flea markets in North Philly,” said Hernandez. “I know a lot of vendors that would like a place to sell because not everybody is successful on Facebook [Marketplace].”

For many small businesses who are in search of a location, the lack of North Philly flea markets means a commute to the suburbs for sales opportunities, limiting options for those without access to a car or money for gas.

Hernandez also added that La Placita helps create more outdoor public space for Fairhill, just in time for the warmer weather.

“It’s a good space to come shopping. A lot of people walk around here [but] I feel like there’s no space to walk around and take a cup of coffee that isn’t an inside place.”

For Encarnación of Helados Chupi Chupi, La Placita’s arrival is an oasis after a very difficult year professionally and personally. With so many businesses shut down by the pandemic, they weren’t able to rely on partners to sell and promote their ice cream.

Encarnación also contracted the coronavirus early on last spring, when little was known about it.

“I spent 22 days shut in my room,” Encarnación said. “But thanks to God, we got out of that.”

Encarnación said he plans to set up a permanent indoor spot in the hangar building once they’re able to move in. He envisions a coffee shop and gourmet cafe where they can sell ice cream by the scoop instead of just popsicles.

He sees La Placita as a mutually beneficial economic opportunity for North Philadelphia.

“We’ll be here for a long time, and everyone should support what is ours,” Encarnación said. “The local market is important for us. This way the community supports us and we support the community.”

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