The Whitewashing of Center City: Where have all the black businesses gone?

By Erica Atwood

Philadelphia has been my home for more than 20 years. Born and raised right across the bridge in Camden, NJ, I have spent my entire life cheering for our teams, playing in our parks and museums, and like many other Gen Xers, spending my youth doing teenage things in the Gallery. I have a lot of affection for this city, but our relationship status is “complicated.” Philadelphia is a city that is growing and changing, yet there are just lies some of us tell ourselves daily about the city we live in and love.  

Many of us found ourselves singing the proverbial “I told you so” as soon as we heard about the Starbucks incident. Race and class dynamics of this city, particularly Center City, are ever present; While Philly is a diverse city of neighborhoods, it feels more like a patchwork quilt stitched together with clear divisions. We are the city that touts Rizzo as a hero and only whispers about the bombing of Osage Avenue.  We are the city that designates resources to a New Year’s Day parade that wears blackface, threatens immigrants, and mocks Indigenous People yet wanted a 40-year-old African festival to move away from its place of inception because the neighborhood is changing (read: gentrifying). We are the first municipality to endow a museum dedicated to the culture of the African diaspora, yet it is chronically underfunded.

According to the 2016 Census, Philadelphia is 44 percent Black —  we are the largest racial group in the city. Yet, where is our footprint in Center City? Black buying power is at $1.1 trillion nationally and expected to rise to $1.5 trillion by 2021. Who is catering to our needs and working for our dollars?

“Today, I challenge you to name three black-owned retail businesses from Spring Garden to South, river to river.”  

Erica Atwood circa 1999 at 'Words and Sounds,' the open mic event started by Jill Scott at the Music Room in Center City. Credit: Erica Atwood.
Erica Atwood circa 1999 at ‘Words and Sounds,’ the open mic event started by Jill Scott at the Music Room in Center City. Credit: Erica Atwood. (Erica Atwood)

When I moved back to Philly after college in the late ’90s, there were numerous places owned by, or welcoming to, a diverse community downtown. Crimson Moon, The Music Room, Zanzibar Blue, Wilamena’s, Bluzette, Robin’s Books, Swanky Bubbles, and others were all safe places for the community of black professionals and creatives in Center City. It was in these spaces where I began to establish my network of like-minded people and blossomed as a young professional. Where I found sanctuary. I found sanctuary from judging “does she belong” gazes, from the embarrassment of being shushed because my laugh was found to be too boisterous, and from the lack of quality service because “we don’t tip”. For years, these establishments were filled to the brim with good people and positive energy, and were welcoming to all. Unfortunately, these places have become few and far between in the last decade, many displaced because of tripling rents and shifting priorities of a developing downtown. Today, I challenge you to name three black-owned retail businesses (coffee shop, bookstore, restaurant, or bar) from Spring Garden to South, river to river.  

Safe spaces are critical, because in our current environment, how we regard black faces, especially when our biases activate, can mean life or death. In 2011, the Opportunity Agenda examined perceptions of black men and boys and their relationship to the media. Their research brought to light a number of trends including the following three points — media over-represent black males in depictions of violence, crime, and poverty; distorted media depictions can lead to negative attitudes toward black males, such as increased public support for punitive approaches and tolerance for racial disparities; and inaccurate depictions can also affect black males’ self-perceptions and lead to diminished self-esteem.

When we, even as black people, openly declare young people as thugs, we perpetuate racist views and leave no room for discernment for those who do not have any personal relationships with people of color. Racism allows for any migrating group of youth to be viewed as pariah or menacing flash mobs. It creates an environment where two black businessmen can get arrested for not ordering coffee fast enough. We become over-policed, excluded, and underserved in our own backyard.

In different mayoral administrations, I have held two critical positions within city government that were acutely focused on race, disparity, and systemic issues: Director of Black Male Engagement and Interim Director of the Police Advisory Commission. There are some things we got right, others we didn’t, but every day there were opportunities to build a bridge or remove a barrier that could change someone’s life for the better.


“Safe spaces are critical, because in our current environment, how we regard black faces, especially when our biases activate, can mean life or death.”


There are close to 50,000 minority-owned businesses in Philadelphia, but we need more. More places in Center City that are welcoming and inclusive regardless of race or class. We need developers that understand the history of Philadelphia and devote energy to those of us here contributing to the economy across the region, as much as they look to attract a new Philadelphia. We need innovators, banks, and venture capitalist are willing invest in more Black businesses so this can become a reality. Even without being a venture capitalist we can all do our part in making Philadelphia a more inclusive city, by supporting a homegrown business.  

Every day we walk past vacant storefronts that are opportunities. I regularly meet people with brilliant executable ideas with no access to capital.  What is the mechanism by which we recognize and capitalize on the ingenuity of our citizens and the space we all occupy? Until we figure something out, we will just repeat the cycle. We will repeat the cycle that allowed for discrimination at the Woolworth lunch counters in the 1960s and by Starbucks managers in 2018.

We have to push the idea of ethical redevelopment beyond conversations, Philadelphia deserves more from all of us. Every one of us deserves an opportunity to live out their dream and find a safe space in a place we call home.

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