Two friends share love of Brewerytown and ambivalence about mayor’s race [video]

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 Current Brewerytown residents, Max Ochester (Left) and Andre Wright met at the 30th and Jefferson Street playground. Wright is the founder of Give and Go Athletics, a youth mentorship program in Brewerytown that uses sports to teach Philadelphia kids fundamental and life skills.Ochester is the owner of Brewerytown Beats, a used record store located on Girard Avenue. (Ifanyi Bell/for WHYY)

Current Brewerytown residents, Max Ochester (Left) and Andre Wright met at the 30th and Jefferson Street playground. Wright is the founder of Give and Go Athletics, a youth mentorship program in Brewerytown that uses sports to teach Philadelphia kids fundamental and life skills.Ochester is the owner of Brewerytown Beats, a used record store located on Girard Avenue. (Ifanyi Bell/for WHYY)

While there are hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians who will not show up to vote in Tuesday’s primary, Andre Wright and Max Ochester are two people who will.

Fourth in series of election-year visits to Brewerytown, just one Philadelphia neighborhood in flux. [Part 1, Part 2, Part 3]

Check out our Pocket Voters Guide here.

While there are hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians who will not show up to vote in Tuesday’s primary, Andre Wright and Max Ochester are two people who will.

They have been friends since Ochester moved to the North Philadelphia neighborhood known as Brewerytown about five years ago.

I meet them at 29th Street and Girard Avenue, a corner that means different things to these two guys, both in their late 30s. For Ochester, it’s where he started his small business. For Wright, it’s where he grew up, before rising property values forced his family to move out.

‘My clock might run out’

Most afternoons, Wright can be found a few blocks from here at the playing fields at 30th and Jefferson Streets. Sometimes he’s on the basketball court. Lately, he’s spending a lot of his time at the baseball diamond with his pint-sized team, the Brewers. 

In 2009, Wright founded Give N’ Go, a nonprofit youth sports and arts program, with the help of childhood friends from Brewerytown. Giving these kids his time keeps him connected to the neighborhood.

Twelve years ago, while Wright was away at college, his parents’ landlord decided to sell the house they rented on 29th Street. They couldn’t afford to buy it, so they moved to a subsidized home in Mount Airy.

“I think maybe the landlord was under pressure,” he said. “The taxes on homes went up, the value of homes was going up.”

Wright came of age in the 1990s when Brewerytown was wracked by drug violence, but he says there was also a strong village mentality. He remembers the other black, working-class families who helped raise him and the owner of George’s Pizza who sponsored his sports teams and knew his customers by name. That shop and many others on Girard Avenue have since closed.

Walking down his old block, Wright sees some familiar faces, but he points to some abandoned rowhouses.

“It went from generations of families living in one house and being passed down and passed down to them not being here anymore,” he said. “What happened to them? Is it similar to what happened to my family?”

Today, Wright lives in nearby Strawberry Mansion and balances his work with Give N’ Go with his day job as a therapeutic worker based in the Philadelphia public schools.

He wants to come back to Brewerytown and put down roots again. But as property values rise, along with new developments, Wright worries he won’t be able to afford it.

“If I don’t get on the ball with trying to buy a house in Brewerytown now, my clock might run out,” he said.

Back on the corner of 29th and Girard he tells Ochester he sees plenty of “for sale” signs around the neighborhood.

“I don’t know whether that’s a good sign or a bad sign,” he said. “Maybe the more the more ‘for sale’ signs go up the higher the price is gonna be?”

“People are snatching them up left and right from what I see,” replied Ochester, who also feels the pressures of a neighborhood in flux.

‘Hoping for that change’

Ochester grew up in Mount Airy and moved to Brewerytown after stints in Seattle and New Orleans.

In 2013, he opened a record store on 29th Street called Brewerytown Beats.

Ochester first discovered vinyl as a teenager and has become an obsessive collector. The shop is a testament to that and is filled with more than 20,000 records from jazz to hip-hop to funk.

The shop helps him meet people in the neighborhood. Ochester recently got a call from one woman whose father had passed away and left behind his record collection. He went to her house and looked through the boxes of 45’s. They ended up talking for nearly three hours.

But business on 29th Street was often slow. Three weeks ago, Ochester moved his shop around the corner to Girard Avenue, giving him more room for his records and he hopes, more foot traffic.

Brewerytown Beats joins a number of new stores opening up on the business corridor, including a tattoo parlor and a brewpub.

Ochester knows he’s part of the changes happening in the neighborhood and he feels conflicted about it.

“Right now, I’m struggling, but I’m hoping for that change of people walking around. Not people that look like me necessarily, but just more people, more activity in the neighborhood,” he said. “That’s from the business point of view. From the home buying and renting point of view, it’s completely different.”

Like Wright, Ochester feels the clock ticking. He and his girlfriend are expecting a baby in November.

“If I don’t look for a house now, I’ll be priced out within the next year,” he says.

‘Nothing seems personal, it’s all politics’

Wright and Ochester got to this corner by different paths, but they share the sense that there’s a lot at stake in Tuesday’s primary and they still don’t know which mayoral candidate will get their vote.

Ochester was living in New Orleans eight years ago, but Wright says he felt then like Michael Nutter was the clear choice. This time, choice between candidates seems fuzzy to him, although the issues the city faces are in sharper focus.

“Things are really, really heated in the city right now, especially with the police and the public and the infrastructure,” he said.

I ask them why it’s so hard to choose. 

“Nothing seems personal, it’s all politics,” Ochester says. “There’s never any personal one-on-one time and I know it’s impossible to come out and meet every single person in the city, but nobody comes across as genuine.”

Wright is also yearning for a mayor who’ll make a more personal connection with voters like him and spend more time in the neighborhood.

He wants the next mayor to see what he sees: Brewerytown is quickly becoming a more appealing place with new storefronts and rehabbed houses, but it’s no longer the close-knit community he remembers.

“Are the candidates going to do enough to make Brewerytown a better community?” he asked. “Not just a community, but also something that I can invest in myself.”

On Tuesday, Wright says he’ll vote for the candidate he’s the least unsure about. Ochester says he’ll do the same.

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