Out of the darkness, into a brighter future

Vibrant signs hang over Ogontz Avenue proclaiming, “Something’s happening in West Oak Lane.” And something is.West Oak Lane has come from being a neighborhood of blight, run-down homes, to a vibrant cultural community. The epicenter

Vibrant signs hang over Ogontz Avenue proclaiming, “Something’s happening in West Oak Lane.”

And something is.West Oak Lane has come from being a neighborhood of blight, run-down homes, to a vibrant cultural community. The epicenter of this culture lands at around 72nd Street and Ogontz Avenue, with lively community businesses like the Ogontz Grill and Sidewalk Cafe, Cornbread and Coffee and Art Noir.

The Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation is responsible for bringing businesses and events to West Oak Lane. The corporation has created more than 1,000 jobs, 200,000 square feet of commercial space and affordable housing. The OARC also opened the West Oak Lane Charter School, an elementary school with an enrollment of more than 600 students.

In 1983 concerned residents established the OARC for the promotion of safety and appearance in their neighborhoods. The corporation is led by State House Representative Dwight Evans. More than $20 million has been invested into neighborhoods through developments made by the OARC. The OARC bought businesses like Ogontz Grill and Sidewalk Cafe to West Oak Lane. The grill, famous for its delicious seafood, opened four years ago and has become a popular restaurant to the area.

“A restaurant like this is unheard of,” said Keith Freeman, manager of the cafe, which hosts a number of weekly events like Sunday jazz nights and a gospel brunch, where customers can show off their singing skills. According the U.S. Census Bureau, West Oak Lane’s population is 96 percent African American. Accordingly, most of the businesses are owned by African Americans.

“This is a growing area,” said Freeman. “If you improve the living conditions, people will come back.”

Another thriving business there is Cornbread and Coffee, a wireless coffee shop owned and run by April Hidouri. This is far from an average cafe. The four-year-old Cornbread and Coffee serves breakfast and arguably has the best cornbread in town. Hidouri has lived in West Oak Lane all her life, and loves the positive changes she’s seen.

“It brings out culture and diversity,” said Hidouri. “It makes people want to see their neighborhood.”

A mural showing African Americans in a park covers one of the walls of the Cornbread and Coffee. The mural also shows a smiling father and son playing ball as elderly men sit on a bench. Hidouri designed the shop herself, and wanted to positively depict African American men in the mural.

“You see so much negativity in the news about our community, but that’s not all of us. It’s only just a handful of people,” she said. Every year in June, the community comes alive with the West Oak Lane Jazz and Arts Festival. This year the free admission event is scheduled for June 22 to 24. Festival-goers can experience food, poetry
and of course, jazz music. Featured to perform are Roy Ayers, Pat Martino and the Ohio Players.

The festival was originally created to bring shoppers to the 7100 and 7200 blocks of Ogontz Avenue. Established in 1983, it was called “Super Saturday” until 2003, when the OARC decided to change its name to attract people to the artistic style of West Oak Lane. The festival highlights the neighborhood and the talent that Philadelphia has as a whole. Dancers, artists, jazz musicians, artists and spoken word performances are showcased every year.

Despite recent improvements, politicians
and residents alike are calling for more changes in West Oak Lane. Evans, a Democratic mayoral candidate, has proposed a plan to redevelop sections of West Oak Lane, especially the intersection of Ogontz and Cheltenham avenues.

“The corridor has been slow to attract new, high-quality retailers, the public environment is in poor condition, and pedestrian safety is a major issue,” Evans’ report said. Although the neighborhood has grown, some sections of West Oak Lane have vacant lots and low property values. The problem is that West Oak Lane sits at the border line of Montgomery County.

Because of this location, Evans wants to improve West Oak Lane so that is has a greater suburban feel. Some shopping areas are in need of redevelopment because they were built in the 1940s, and many stores on even the busy streets are deteriorating, bringing an unattractive look to businesses around them.

Evans’ report also calls for billboards and rooftop signs to be removed and to support further business development. Sidewalk cafes and smaller packing lots are examples of business developments Evans would like to see, along with tree-lined sidewalks and attractive landscaping.

The report proposes building 198 more townhouses and possibly a hotel in the area, removing the Tyler School of Art and using one of its former practice fields for the site of a 3,000-seat church.

“The next decade will bring significant change to Cheltenham Avenue corridor,” the report said. With Evans making big plans, West Oak Lane is coming out of its dark past and into a bright future.

Jacqueline Covey can be reached at jacqueline.covey@temple.edu.

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