On Monday morning Allison Weiss was standing outside the Happy Hollow Recreation Center with a wheelbarrow, a pile of large compost bags, and five heavy duty street brooms. And it’s snowing.
A man emerges from a car and hurries past her into the main building with a full cup of coffee steaming in his hand. It slips and splatters open at his feet. In his anger, the man steps over the ruined cup and lets it blow off down the street. “You could pick up the cup,” Weiss says to no effect.
The event is sadly fitting. A nearby alcohol and drug recovery facility has offered to clean up the trash along this neglected section of Wayne Avenue in Germantown starting this day, and Weiss is there to make sure the first time goes off well.
It’s not just litter, it’s energy Coffee cup incident aside, Monday’s clean up is just the kind of positive energy that could really mean something to the stretch of Wayne between Coulter and Berkley streets, a 10-block commercial corridor that has been so badly bruised over the years any average passerby probably wouldn’t give it much thought. Allison Weiss isn’t your average passerby. Since the early 1970s, her family has owned an auto body shop on Wayne just west of Logan Street. She’s volunteered countless hours at Happy Hollow, located next door to the shop she now runs. Beyond the abandoned buildings, cracked sidewalks and trash, Weiss sees the potential for change in the neighborhood. If only she could pool enough of that energy together to buff out some of the blemishes. One key, she thinks, is uniting the Avenue’s business owners and making them into a team. To that end, Weiss recently started the Wayne Avenue Merchant Association, which she says is the first business-centric civic organization to represent this part of southwest Germantown in nearly 40 years. “Germantown Avenue seems to get all of the recognition,” says Weiss. In its early stages – the group just held its third monthly meeting – Weiss is keeping the association’s goals straight forward: making Wayne Avenue clean, green and safe. But she’s also looking to get as many merchants to join as possible. Something she works on constantly. Door by door On a cloudy November day, Weiss hits the white door of Kenny Lashlee’s small music school near the corner of Manheim Street. “We’d love it if you could come to one of the meetings,” Weiss tells Lashlee after a short spiel about the association’s goals. Since starting the association in September, Weiss has visited over 40 businesses to introduce owners like Lashlee to the group. She keeps the necessary flyers in her back pocket. Lashlee, who’s been at the same location for nearly a decade, is supportive of Weiss’ pitch. For the past four years, he tells her, he’s been sweeping up his half of the block, secretly hoping others would follow his lead. He tells Weiss he’ll think about coming to a meeting, but that his schedule doesn’t afford him a lot of free time. “Of course I know what you’re doing is good,” he says. Weiss has heard Lashlee’s response before. Almost all of the businesses, which include a hardware store, laundromat and several corner stores and takeout restaurants, are small and independent. Many of the owners, says Weiss, tell her they simply don’t have the staff to leave the store for meetings. But when it comes to boosting membership or securing volunteers, Weiss is also working against a nagging mistrust many in this disenfranchised neighborhood have for community groups. In the past, she says, residents threw their support behind a number of organizations that failed to follow through on promises to improve the neighborhood. She thinks many in her neighborhood view community groups as being more about the resources they direct than about the community they are supposed to serve. “This whole area has this black cloud of people smelling the money,” says Weiss. To fight that, Weiss isn’t charging merchants a membership fee to join the association, even though the city has suggested one. She’s also making sure her initial projects – the first will be painting and planting a series of street planters – are immediately visible. Future projects, says Weiss, will hopefully include planting trees along Wayne and improving street lighting. The group is also in the process of officially registering the corridor with the city so it can be eligible to receive storefront improvement grants through the Commerce Department. Not a cookie cutter operation But Weiss isn’t patterning her plans to fit the mold of other commercial corridors like Germantown Avenue in Mt. Airy, or Ogontz Avenue in West Oak Lane. “Things have their own life and their own energy,” she says. “And I’m not necessarily a boiled leak kind of a person.” Weiss doesn’t really know what the fledgling association will be able to accomplish. Early on, she’ll rely on donations of materials and manpower to get things done. And she thinks it will take at least a couple of years for the Wayne Avenue Merchant Association to blossom into a trusted community partner. But a handful of merchants have already signed on. For Nache Young, who opened a hair salon just six months ago, the decision was easy. A safer commercial district is better for business. “Sometimes my customers leave here at eight or nine o’clock and my concern is they’ll get to their car and make it to wherever they’re going,” says Young as she looks out onto the Avenue from a large front window. Young thinks the association can help promote a tighter knit business community that looks out for one another and nearby neighbors. Weiss thinks so too, eventually. For now, though, she is taking it one step at a time, cleaning up garbage where she can and continuing to encourage local merchants to join in, despite the slow progress. By the time the snow stopped falling Monday morning, Weiss knew the cleaning crew wasn’t going to show up. She made a polite call on her cell phone to confirm and then collected the supplies to get ready for the next time. She’s determined there will be a next time. “What residents have learned about me is that I don’t go away,” she says.
To learn more about the Wayne Avenue Merchant Association email: firstname.lastname@example.org