Ogontz Avenue – up in a down time

It’s no boom town, but at a time when some upscale shopping districts are facing long term vacancies, West Oak Lane’s Ogontz Avenue seems to be sitting pretty.


“The market is really, really strong out here in the retail corridor of Ogontz Avenue,” said Jack Kitchen, executive director of the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation.


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So strong, he said, that there is a cue of businesses waiting for available space to open up.


And as for shoppers?


“Foot traffic? I’ve never seen it as high as it is on Ogontz Avenue,” Kitchen said.


In nearby Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill, by contrast, prominent vacancies have been a problem for close to two years.


It’s hard to overlook one major difference in the three shopping districts. OARC is a $7 million per year CDC devoted to transforming the West Oak Lane corridor, which receives the majority of its funding from government grants.


But Kitchen also thought municipal planning played a role. In Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill retail shops dominate the business corridor, whereas on Ogontz Avenue the nearby Cheltenham Mall and big box stores draw shoppers away from the corridor as they look for goods. So Ogontz has developed what Kitchen called an “eclectic” services focus.


It means you’re as likely to come across a hair salon or barber shop on Ogontz as you are a chiropractor’s office, restaurant or government service office.


If one result of this plan is a robust and very practical demand for commercial space years into a national recession, there is also a warmer, fuzzier side. For some local entrepreneurs Ogontz is a place where business dreams can come true.


“I had a friend who told me that they didn’t really have any barbershops up here and I kind of figured if I build it they will come,” said Bruce Burton who owns Pretty Boyz Barber Shop at 6813 Ogontz. “And they’ve been coming for the last 14 years.”


The same formula still seems to apply. First time restaurateur Victoria Tyson built a name for herself cooking out of her home kitchen and later the kitchen of a local masjid. This was years before she took the plunge with Victoria’s Kitchen at 7304 Ogontz in 2009.


“I was kind of scared because I didn’t have good credit and I really didn’t have any money,” she said.


She decided to borrow ($12,000 from her husband, $8,000 from her son, and $5,000 from friends) and make a formal go of it with some business assistance from OARC.


Now a year later, her narrow kitchen space hops during the dinner hours with a constant flow of customers, and she knows better than ever that she’s found her sweet spot.


“It’s so much so that I can’t leave,” she said of running the business. “So I know that I’m like in love around here.”


For Thelma Caldwell who is a bit more settled in, that sense of pride and gratitude is still close to the surface. Every chair in her Next Millennium Hair Salon on the 7200 block of Ogontz was filled on a recent, and cold, Friday night. She opened there in 2000.


“I’ve been doing hair since high school, that’s what I wanted to do,” Caldwell said. “And after I started doing hair, my next goal was to open my own hair salon.”


Eva Donaldson, owner of Eva Donaldson School of Music one block up can probably sympathize. She started her dream of teaching music to children in Wadsworth several years ago, but since a better space on Ogontz drew her away she really feels like her business is hitting the right note.


“You’ve heard of location, location, location,” she said. “I was upstairs. Now I’m down ground level and it makes all the difference in the world.”


Donaldson said even children she doesn’t know wander into her studio now because it’s so visible, and it couldn’t make her happier.


“Our children are getting lost in the streets,” she said. “But every time they are taking music lessons or piano lessons it makes a difference in their lives.”


While assistance from OARC and the West Oak Lane Business Association played an important role developing some of these businesses, it’s impossible not to see something else driving their success.


Something you might describe as determination, gratitude and even pride.


Caldwell thanked God repeatedly for being able to persevere through the tough times.

Tyson, in her bright chef’s pants, couldn’t keep from beaming when she talked about her business, and Donaldson teared up when she thought about her students, some of whom she doesn’t even charge because she knows they wouldn’t be able to come if she did.


And as for Burton, he’s still dreaming.


The plan is to keep the barbershop and expand into motivational speaking. For years he’s been doing that for free at Philadelphia’s disciplinary schools – also something he will continue.


He figures he’s got something to offer in the motivational department.


It’s about focussing on the things you love in everyday life, as you progress toward your biggest dreams. It’s a view that has kept him smiling in his work for the last 14 years.


“I won’t say I love cutting hair,” he admitted. “But I do love my clients. Since I have to cut hair to have them, I’ll keep cutting hair.”


And he’ll do it right there on Ogontz.

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