Part 1 of 2: Frankford takes steps toward revitalization

This is the first of a two-part look at revitalization efforts in Frankford.

For the residents of Frankford, neighborhood revitalization efforts are nothing new.

The once thriving historic community has fallen on hard times and has succumbed to blight in the past few decades, evidenced by the empty storefronts, the graffiti and trash that decorate the street, and the lack of pedestrians going out and buying wares from the local shops.

Business is not booming, that much is clear. But the bigger problem is no matter how many programs have come through the area, not much has changed for the people who still linger in the area.

“We’ve been going over this since the ‘80s,” said Gilbert Pons, owner of Gilbert’s Upholstery. “I hope there’s change.”

Enter PhillyRising, a city program that is working to build up confidence in Frankford. Taking place in several “rising” neighborhoods – a new program in Lawncrest was just announced in November – the program targets areas that are dealing with crime, drugs, vacant businesses and empty lots.

Starting its operations in Frankford on April 13, 2011, PhillyRising came up with a detailed action plan this October on how it plans to improve the neighborhood.

“The idea is to come in and integrate preexisting services,” said Manny Citron, assistant managing director for the City of Philadelphia and coordinator for the Northeast division of PhillyRising.

With the focus on creating a clean, safe environment for residents, two areas are being targeted: creating green space for both community gardens and play space for children, and revitalizing businesses along Frankford Avenue. With a variety of plans in the works, from children and youth programs to community health initiatives to infrastructure developments, it seems as though PhillyRising’s battle plan is to attack the blight by a series of small yet meaningful changes.

So far, these changes have included a Thanksgiving dinner for needy residents, which 137 people attended; a Villanova Service Day in which students teamed up with the PhillyRising staff to clear a community garden at Penn & Foulkrod Streets; and a public safety day at Mastery Charter School.

However, with the magnitude of problems that face the community, it’s hard to tell if these measures will be enough.

One of the most recent developments was the Philly 311 Neighborhood Liaision training, in which four members of Frankford were trained on various methods to enter service requests into the system. A plan is in the works to create a VIP account for Frankford, with each liaison having access to it.

“We picked folks who are going to the neighborhood meetings, who are involved,” Citron said. “Those people will then tell others how to access 311 at meetings. It’s all word of mouth.”

PhillyRising is coming to the city at a tough economic time. In fact, the program doesn’t even have a budget, except for the salaries of the employees.

“The budget is tight but there are still ways of utilizing resources that are already there,” Citron said. “I’m there to train people. These people do have the resources.”

PhillyRising is not the only group working to save this neighborhood. The Frankford Community Development Corporation has been tirelessly working to enact change itself, especially when it comes to local businesses.

“I think probably one of the best things about PhillyRising is that . . . [just like] we’re that resource to residents and to businesses for information that they need, well PhillyRising is that to us,” said Tracy O’Drain, the Managing Director for the Frankford CDC. “When we are not getting through our contacts, they help us to pursue that.”

One of the major initiatives spearheaded by these organizations is the improvement to The Frankford Gazette, the local news source that was once solely online and is now publishing print editions. Working along with the Frankford Special Services District and the Frankford CDC, PhillyRising is trying to get the publication out in print and in the homes of Frankford’s residents.

“Right now, we’re at 300 copies but we hope to build that up significantly,” O’Drain said.

With all of these organizations working together for a common goal, change seems to be on the horizon. But the residents aren’t so sure.

When it comes to revitalizing the storefronts, an issue that both residents and business owners are adamant about, Citron said while PhillyRising can’t provide the money, the city of Philadelphia can.

“There’s money in the city budget to revitalize these storefronts from the Commerce Department,” Citron said. “Any property owner can apply as long as they are up to code.”

But to the owners of such stores, it’s not so easy.

“I think if all these grants went through so far as redoing your stores, to give grants to independent businesses on the street . .  . that would help,” said Sue Ellen Cramer, one of the owners of Cramers Uniforms.

Other residents want to see physical change in other ways.

“Cleaning the streets. Definitely,” said Jon Jager, an employee at Mark My Flesh Tattoo Shop . “It looks dirty. And it’s so dark.”

With a variety of other, larger plans in the works, including replacing vacant storefronts with art installations and putting lights and cameras under the El, it seems as though PhillyRising has a shot at enacting real change in the neighborhood. But in order to win the complete trust of the residents, follow through needs to happen.

In an effort to be truly be successful, PhillyRising has set its own bar. The action plan for Frankford states: “The basic goal of PhillyRising is to lower crime, in both a real and perceived sense, and to increase residents’ self-sufficiency and involvement in their community.”

For PhillyRising, that means programs to not only bring residents together to inspire pride in their neighborhood again, but also to help them facilitate their own change.

“Putting money in helps in the short term, but the real priority is to train and educate – and empower – the people to enact these changes themselves,” Cirton said, “and take advantage of the resources available to them.”

Pamela Seaton and Kirsten Stamn are students reporting for Philadelphia Neighborhoods, the publication of Temple University’s Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab.


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