Life around Germantown’s shopping district hasn’t been quite the same since Omar Gray lost his job.
For the better part of a decade, Gray tirelessly cleaned the area’s streets, cracks and crevices as an employee with the Germantown Special Services District.
Funding for the program, created to help buoy the neighborhood’s commercial corridors via a public-private enterprise, dried up in December. That left the community without a service which helped keep the bruised section looking healthier. Gray was left without the job that sustained his soul.
“It helps relax me,” said the 62-year-old, who is currently collecting unemployment. “It gives me piece of mind.”
Rain or shine, Gray would mount his motorized street-cleaning machine around 6 a.m. and ride in and around Germantown and Chelten avenues, sprucing up about 40 blocks along the way. He’d pass over problem stretches, where garbage quickly re-collected, multiple times during an eight-hour shift.
Some days, the machines would break down and he’d scour the district on foot.
Gray, a friendly, soft-spoken man, said the gig wasn’t glamorous, but it kept him active and honest. He genuinely enjoyed being part of a program he called a “vital asset.”
“It’s not the best job, but it gave me satisfaction,” said Gray, who was in and out of jail as a young man for non-violent offenses.
Bring Omar back
Gray’s work, for which he was essentially a one-man show for the last few years before GSSD went dormant, also brought great pleasure to business owners in Germantown. There’s been a real change in the area’s appearance, they say, since Gray stopped hitting the streets.
They desperately want him back.
“When he is here with the machine, it’s 100 percent better,” said Zaman Hamid, who runs 99 Cent Plus Inc., a variety store on Chelten Avenue. “If you go to any other store they will give you the same kind of support for this fella. He’s a very good worker. I miss him 100 percent.”
Hamid was right: Gray is missed.
“We need him,” said Tina Lee inside T J Breakfast House, a diner-style restaurant a couple doors down from Hamid’s.
John Churchville, who heads the Greater Germantown Business Association, said Gray always put all of his energy into his work and was personally invested in serving the neighborhood.
“There is nobody that could ever take Omar’s place,” said Churchville. “Somebody may be able to clean as well, but they’d have to go a long way to have the character, the concern for the community and the love. He’s a community treasure.”
Why isn’t he still on the job?
It’s those kinds of accolades that made letting Gray go so difficult for Rev. LeRoi Simmons, executive director of the Central Germantown Council.
“He’s a great man, but society doesn’t see that. They see a man with a broom,” said Simmons.
The community development corporation was behind the push to create the GSSD. It was formed through a city ordinance in 1995.
CGC was also responsible for securing annual grants through the city’s Commerce Department meant to provide GSSD with additional funding. Similar to the Center City District, the program also collected a mandatory property tax assessment on area businesses.
Simmons said Gray started working in Germantown as an employee with a street-cleaning company hired to cover the GSSD. When the program ran into cash-flow problems — a constant issue as the result of dwindling Commerce dollars, according to Simmons — the subcontractor was let go.
Gray, however, was kept on as a supervisor as CGC took on the responsibility, financial and otherwise, of managing the program’s street-cleaning services.
Money finally dried up
Soon, though, GSSD’s funding woes worsened. Simmons said his organization tried to keep the program afloat through “creative ideas,” including donations and state grants, but that it eventually couldn’t be saved.
“It shriveled up over time because we couldn’t keep carrying it,” said Simmons, noting that he and two other CGC staff members even became volunteers to keep Gray on the job. He said the operating budget of the GSSD was about $80,000 at its peak.
By last December, there was no choice. Gray, who Simmons likened to a “little mayor of Germantown,” had to be cut loose. It was an emotional moment.
“We cried,” said Simmons. “It was horrible.”
City wasn’t satisfied with CDC
Kevin Dow, chief operating officer with the Commerce Department, confirmed that 2011 was the last year that the CGC received city funding.
“It’s safe to say that we weren’t completely satisfied with the outcomes being achieved by the CGC,” said Dow. “We weren’t getting what we were paying for.”
Dow acknowledged that the reduction of Commerce Department grant money over the years certainly took its toll on the special-services district, but said it wasn’t entirely responsible for its collapse.
“The organization wasn’t doing its job being financially prudent, kind of transparent, openly engaging the community in which it should,” he said.
For his part, Gray doesn’t worry himself with why the program isn’t operating anymore.
“I’m not a part of that,” he said. “I just want to work.”
A possible return
City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, whose Eighth District includes Germantown, is currently working with the Commerce Department to revive the program.
Bass, sworn into her first term in January, said she thinks a strong GSSD would strengthen the neighborhood and, in turn, Northwest Philadelphia as a whole.
“This would be an area where people would want to come, want to shop, want to eat,” said Bass. “Instead of just going from one bus to another and be on their way, we want people to stay and enjoy their surroundings.”
So far, Bass said she is helping to form an interim board for the GSSD. As part of its duties, that board would help find individuals to serve on a permanent board, which would be approved through City Council.
It’s hoped that a reincarnated GSSD will be poised to receive city funds by next year.
“The sooner the better,” said Bass. “As we know, Germantown just needs so much work.”
It’s too early to say if Gray would get his old job back, but there’s no question that the call would bring a smile to his face.
“I’d be overwhelmed,” he said.