For many Temple students, Girard Avenue is a main street, the road to school and a place to buy the occasional late-night beer. It is the center of an increasingly large off-campus community that has grown as the avenue has prospered in recent years. While it is still by most evaluations a struggling commercial area, progress is undeniable.
Summer changes on the avenue
Even though I’ve only lived in the area for about three years, I can still remember a time when Girard was desolate and boring at best and a bit scary at worst. On my first ride down the strip after being away from Philadelphia for most of this summer, I was amazed to see a new skateboard shop and luxury condos that had popped up in Fishtown. Again I was stunned to see there was a hip new lingerie boutique near the clattering tracks of the Market-Frankford Line. I saw a chic clothing store that opened up in my old neighborhood. It was selling clothes for the trendy urban baby.
Having lived in the area, I suppose I had seen changes like this coming as part of the slow march of gentrification
out of Old City. Even so, it was still shocking to see the spearhead of upscale boutiques reach this part of the city. In one sense, it is a sign of increasing wealth in the area, which is not necessarily bad. However, in another sense, it epitomizes the alienation and class divisions seemingly inherent in gentrifying neighborhoods. These new stores were not targeted at the thousands of middle or working class families in the area or even the new student population.
Instead, these stores try to attract a smaller group of residents that have a fair amount of disposable income.
What all the development means
Since we live in a free market, there is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it sets a negative precedent for development in an area that is still poorly served by basic businesses like supermarkets, hardware stores and clothiers. I had to leave my neighborhood to buy hamburger buns for a Labor Day barbeque because the nearest food store is a mini-mart that closes at 6 p.m. That’s not just a lack of service, that’s un-American.
The problem is that too much of the business on Girard is either stuck in the past or jumping ahead to a speculative future. Low overhead stores abound from an era when Girard Avenue was just another atrophying limb of North Philadelphia, but new residents only have so many checks to cash.
The scattering of new business ventures are trying to cater to a slow trickle of condo dwellers that are probably still skeptical about shopping on Girard for anything, let alone clothes for the baby gentrifier. Left out to dry are the myriad families and student renters that have to trek outside of their neighborhood to go grocery shopping, buy clothes or pick up basic tools.
The officials discuss the future
I brought up this topic to Rojer Kern and Denis Murphy, two business organizers at City Hall who monitor and assist development along Girard and other commercial areas. Kern noted
that the intersection of Broad and Girard is one of the busiest in the city, a major transit junction for four high schools and Temple students.
“You would think there would be a bookstore, clothing store, a farmers market – something – but it’s just not there,” Murphy said.
Why wouldn’t such an untapped market be quickly pounced on?
“People want to see examples, they don’t want to be the first ones to dive in,” Murphy said.
Crosscut by dozens of neighborhoods and business associations, Girard is held to so many competing interests that a unified solution is often evasive, if one exists at all. Worse, it is stuck in limbo between Temple and Center City’s respective halos of development, with neither willing to step up to lead a large-scale revitalization effort.
Residential neighborhoods have already blossomed around Girard, but it will sadly be up to shrewd small business owners to carve out the much more daunting revival of a diverse commercial avenue, even one with as much untapped potential as Girard.
Ryan Briggs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.