Will development whitewash 9th Street?
The Lower Italian Market Revitalization Project (prepared by Interface Studio in 2008 for the Passayunk Square Civic Association and available on the PSCA’s website) reads like an article from The Onion satirizing hipsters:
Awnings with skylights!
Thankfully, that particular project will have to wait a while.
Michele Gambino, the business manager for the South Ninth Street Business Association (which is leading the 9th Street and Washington Avenue Business Improvement District planning), told us: “We are not anywhere close to major construction on the street yet, and we really wouldn’t do anything out there until the Ice and Coal building got developed”
As it happens, that Ice and Coal building project from Midwood Management of New York is worrisome enough.
The “five-story, mixed-use development” is slated to include 70 apartments and 18,000 square feet of street-level retail “that would front Washington Avenue and wrap around 9th Street,” as well as underground parking.
At risk are many of the about 200 active Mexican businesses in the area, at least 35 of them on 9th Street between Washington and Federal — and some of which were crucial in taking area from blighted to vital (therefore making it interesting to those hoping to develop the area).
Speaking with the Mexican and Central American merchants who would be impacted by the project, we heard grave concerns about plans to make the open-air market stands move inside the building, about the annual costs involved, and about skyrocketing rentals.
The majority of the Mexican businesses on 9th Street, indeed the vast majority of Mexican residents of the area, are tenants in buildings owned by remote landlords or management groups — something that makes them very vulnerable to displacement.
Juan Carlos Romero, the owner of Taquitos de Puebla (which is a longtime participant in the Night Markets and has won numerous “Best of” awards from Philadelphia Magazine and other mainstream entities) thinks most of the businesses along the 9th street stretch between Washington and Federal will be displaced by the Midwood Ice and Coal building project.
There are several factors that contribute to this probability. One, many of the business owners are undocumented and though they pay taxes with ITIN numbers (a number of them are also eligible for DAPA if it were to be released from litigation), they cannot secure loans (or even open a bank account) without a Social Security number.
If they want to purchase the building that houses their business — as Alma Romero and Marcos Tlacopico who own the fish store on 9th Street did in 2007 — they have to have gathered enough cash to buy it outright.
The other problem is that Mexican immigrant business owners have been pretty isolated from the greater community’s discussions about development, and have been fending for themselves (day-to-day and in the long-term) sometimes without a good understanding of English.
Romero, along with Edgar Ramirez, Miguel Ortiz and Karenina Woff propose to change that by establishing the South Philly Latino Community, and to draw those 200 Mexican businesses into an association. It will give them more say in what happens on the street they reclaimed from blight. The Midwood building is, regrettably, a done deal that they cannot impact, but they hope to have a stronger voice at the two public meetings before the Business Improvement Development plan for the area is finalized. Every Latino with a business or residential interest in South Philly should join.
There is an opportunity here, and not just for Mexicans or Latinos. The rest of Philadelphia must make sure that — unlike that orange cheesteak joint on 9th — we’re not putting up a metaphoric “This is America, Speak English” sign when we talk to our neighbors, and about our neighborhood development.