Part 2 of 2: Frankford takes steps toward revitalization

This is the second of a two-part look at revitalization in Frankford. You can read the first part here.

In the early 20th century, Frankford was a bustling neighborhood. With a growing middle-class population, it attracted residents from throughout the tri-state area, many of whom shopped at the popular businesses on Frankford Avenue.

In the 1950s, however, it lost a large amount of its population due to a great number of Philadelphians moving to the suburbs. White flight became a major problem in the 1970s and by 1990, more than 30 percent of the storefronts on Frankford Avenue were vacant, with more becoming vacant as the years went by.

Janice McDuffy, a former resident of Frankford for more than 11 years, witnessed Frankford’s downslide firsthand.

“When I lived there as a kid, it didn’t seem so dirty and there weren’t so many abandoned houses and businesses,” McDuffy said. “On the block where I used to live, there are now two empty lots that used to be homes. People dump their trash there.”

“All of Frankford is dirty and filled with litter . . . it’s a mess,” McDuffy said.

McDuffy said she quickly realized that there was a lack of economic opportunity in Frankford and moved out of the neighborhood after graduating from college, pursuing a law degree and an acting career. She said she hopes her family can move out of Frankford as quickly as possible.

“They [her family] couldn’t open a business in the future, if they wanted to . . . just look at all of the vacancies on Frankford Avenue,” McDuffy said.

“I don’t know why Frankford has deteriorated so drastically, but it’s a shame.”

Fortunately for McDuffy’s family and other Frankford residents, a few local organizations in Frankford are working to revitalize the neighborhood, including the PhillyRising Collaborative, the Frankford Special Services District and the Frankford Community Development Corporation.

PhillyRising, a program bred from the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director’s Office in February 2010, is working in neighborhoods throughout the city with community leaders and residents to address concerns introduced by those groups, including quality of life and crime concerns.

Manny Citron, assistant managing director of Philadelphia and coordinator of PhillyRising in the Northeast, said one of the organization’s current initiatives is to address green space needs. In current partnership with the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC) to develop a map of Frankford’s green spaces, PhillyRising will partner with local parks and recreation organizations to revitalize the areas.

“PhillyRising can work within the city. . . and see about turning over city-owned vacant land into green space for the community to use as park space, pocket parks or as community garden space,” Citron said. “Other [parks and recreation] groups have said that they would love to take care of green space. . . and hopefully, we can do that.”

PhillyRising has also created an action plan to combat Frankford’s surging crime rates, but Citron would not elaborate on the details. In a 2009 study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Philadelphia Neighborhood Information System, Frankford was listed as No. 3 in Philadelphia’s top five neighborhoods with the highest number of Part I crimes, including robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft and arson. Homicide and rape; however, were excluded from the study.

Since November, more than 335 crimes of all types, including three homicides, were reported in Frankford.

Robyn Perry, a longtime resident of Frankford, said crime should be PhillyRising’s main focus.

“Crime is the No. 1 obstacle that Frankford has,” Perry said. “People need to feel safe.”

“Crime, without a doubt, needs to be reduced.”

Both the Frankford SSD and Frankford CDC work to improve the neighborhood’s failing businesses. The Frankford SSD, specifically, works to revitalize the overall perception of them. Its current initiative is revitalizing the storefronts on the 4600-block of Frankford Avenue — along with Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez’s office, State Rep. Tony Payton’s office, the CDC, the Frankford Business & Professional Association, the Frankford Civic Association and the Northwood Civic Association  — providing business and property owners with new signage and lighting for the outside of the stores.

However, since the Frankford SSD works with other outfits to improve the entire Avenue, the organization’s overall goal is much bigger.

“Our primary initiative as an organization is to make Frankford Avenue clean and safe,” said Tim Wisniewski, executive director of the Frankford SSD. “Right now, we have safety ambassadors that patrol Frankford Avenue during business hours. They direct shoppers, hand out maps and check in with the merchants on a daily basis to find out if anything needs to be reported.”

“In addition to that, they also keep Frankford Avenue clean,” Wisniewski said. “They actually sweep up litter themselves. Whenever they come across graffiti, they remove it themselves. It’s all an effort to make Frankford clean.”

Perry said she is glad the organization recognized this problem.

“Frankford Avenue under the El  is always dim, dingy and littered,” Perry said. “It needs better lighting.”

The Frankford CDC is not only concerned with the businesses’ physical perception. It also addresses how the businesses can sustain themselves.

“A lot of small business owners don’t have the support that they need or want, so it’s nice to have a warm body walk in the door and not go anywhere,” said Michelle Feldman, commercial corridor manager of the Frankford CDC. “I’m going to walk in the door week after week and if I don’t know the answer to a question, I’m going to find the answer to that question.”

Promotion of small businesses is another daily task of the Frankford CDC.

“A lot of small business owners don’t really have the time to do a lot of marketing and promotion, so we’re able to help them with that,” Feldman said. “It’s very hard these days to find the time to go on Facebook. . . so I’m able to fill that role for them.”

For the businesses that have managed to survive, the Frankford CDC’s ultimate goal is to make people aware that they exist and encourage people to support the businesses. Feldman said people should be aware the established businesses on Frankford Avenue are a part of the neighborhood’s rich history.

“People don’t usually think of Frankford when they think of places to go, and that’s unfortunate because it really has a history of being an artisan’s neighborhood,” Feldman said. “You know, the upholstery at Gilbert’s Upholstery…it fits into this larger tradition of artisans.”

“We try to let people know that Frankford is a really special place and encourage it.”

Gilbert Pons, owner of Gilbert’s Upholstery and Antiques at 4529 Frankford Ave., has noticed a change in business during Frankford’s gradual deterioration.

“Years ago, [business] was very predictable [and] we knew the different periods, the slow periods and the high periods,” Pons said. “Now. . . with the economy. . . it’s not as predictable as it was.”

Pons said he is fortunate his business is surviving in Frankford at this time. He practices a unique trade: upholstery.

“We try to do the best projects possible, so we do have a lot of repeat clients,” Pons said. “My dad [the original owner of the business] would travel 10 miles for a project. Now, we’re traveling a lot further because the client base seems to have spread further out.”

As reflected in Frankford’s history, Pons said his customers were mostly of middle-class status. Now, his services have become too expensive for most residents in the neighborhood.

Of the initiatives in Frankford, Pons said he is not too hopeful. He said he has witnessed revitalization programs in the neighborhood since the 1980s.

“I hope [the initiative] does help…but it usually dies out,” Pons said. “We do, however, need to bring more jobs into the area.”

McDuffy agreed and shared the same dimmed hope as Pons.

“They need jobs generated by these programs to help Frankford’s economic problems,” McDuffy said. “These initiatives will only work if local residents are included in the planning, implementation and are working afterwards. Too often, outsiders enter a community intending to do good, but end up alienating the local residents.”

The Frankford CDC and PhillyRising joined forces earlier this year to combat Frankford’s growing problems together, including jointly hosting a resource fair for parents and their children in the summer. With the help of the Frankford SSD, the organizations have produced paper editions of The Frankford Gazette, an online blog about the Frankford community.

Despite their joint efforts, McDuffy is still skeptical of their success.

“Working together, they may do more for Frankford, but they have to include the people,” McDuffy said.

“People need to be personally involved for them to feel committed to a program’s success.”

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

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal