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The Frankford Story: In a Free Fall

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By Mike Newall

 Kevin the Postman was working the mail route along Frankford Avenue the other afternoon. It was a cold, gray day. Dirty scraps of paper blew down the dirty avenue. This particular mail route is not that challenging to Kevin anymore. That's because so much of this part of the avenue now sits shuttered.

The Frankford El rumbled overhead as the postman came upon "Friends Restaurant & Lounge" at the corner of Frankford and Gillingham. It opened during a neighborhood revival effort a few years back. Other stores opened then too. A bookshop. A gallery. An antique shop.  They are all closed now.

 The postman peered through the dark windows. Chairs were turned up on the tables, unopened mail lay on the floor. "They go under too?" he asked a neighbor.

"Two weeks ago," the man replied. "Held on long as they could."

"Too bad," Kevin shrugged. The men wished each other Seasons Greetings and went their separate ways.

Another failed business doesn't surprise Frankford residents anymore.  Once, Frankford was a decent place for modest families to carve out a respectable life. It had identity and history, jobs, factories, pride.  Frankford Avenue was the shopping center of the Lower Northeast. Fresh fish shops. Clothing stores. Record stops. Comic books. School uniforms. Pets. New jeans. You got it all under the El.

Now, the neighborhood is failing. Like so many Philly neighborhoods, the decay began in the 1970's, but Frankford struggled on, longer than most, and even showed signs of rebirth. In recent years, things have changed for the worse. The decay is accelerating.

The Avenue is a faded parade of vacant storefronts, $1 stores, Chinese restaurants and hair salons. At nightfall, the metal gates on the surviving businesses come down. Then, besides a can of beer and a day-old hard-boiled egg at Billy's Chili Pot, the only deals on the avenue are a quick handshake with a hustler and or a short walk with a hooker.

In a city still chock-full of failing neighborhoods, Frankford is declining at the fastest clip.

 

Crime on the rise

Police Department Compstat reports reveal the depth of its fall. In the 10 years between 1999 to 2008, major crime dropped 21 percent citywide. It went down 24 of the city's 25 police districts. The lone exception was the 15th district, which includes Frankford and other neighborhoods that straddle Frankford Avenue as it winds it way north. The overwhelming majority of the 15th's violent crime happens in Frankford. In the 15th, crime has risen by 7 percent in the decade.

Take a look at the numbers.

Major crime in Olney dropped 40 percent. In the Badlands, it declined 23 percent. Point Breeze went down 11 percent. And the neighborhood surrounding Temple University dipped 11 percent. These are still some of the toughest areas of the city. But at least they're improving.

In the 15th, crime soared. Robberies doubled over the last decade. Rapes and aggravated assaults nearly doubled. All those crimes dramatically declined in most other districts. Last year, the 15th had 1,000 more crimes than any other district. There are still other districts where it's easier to get killed, but gunplay drastically increased in the 15th. In 1999, there were 17 shooting incidents. Last year, there were 112. In 1999, there were 28 shooting victims. Last year, 89 people were shot.

Why Frankford?

Talk to cops, civic leaders and residents and Frankford's perilous situation becomes clear. They point to these major causes of the neighborhood's decline.

 

Drugs head north

The drug market has expanded up the Frankford El corridor in recent years as the neighborhood grew poorer, jobs disappeared and families fled. As successful policing and city revitalization efforts improved in areas surrounding Frankford, it likely pushed drugs and crime north.

"We seeing a lot more street level activity in Frankford," said Sgt. Dan Dutch of Strike Force North, a narcotics unit. "And we're seeing more dealers with more bulk."

The drug recovery market has followed the drug trade up Frankford Avenue. A tidal wave of unlicensed drug recovery houses has flooded the neighborhood. Some are city funded or owned by well-intentioned non-profits. Too many are illegally operated flophouses -- sham efforts to milk welfare dollars out of addicts. Lower Frankford has the highest concentration of these houses in the city. Some estimates put the number at 100, with many bedding anywhere from 10-15 recovering addicts or recidivists. When they slip, they slip in Frankford.

"People need to ask the critical question about the impact of inundating communities with concentrations of houses occupied by single, unrelated people, mostly men, with addiction and psychiatric problems," said Jorge Santana, Representative Tony Payton's Chief of Staff who works out of an office on Frankford Avenue. 

 Transients have become Frankford's biggest import. The historic housing stock is being decimated. L & I has taken little action.

 

Political infighting 

Frankford also suffers from a lack of strong political leadership. The neighborhood spirals while its civic leaders and Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez busy themselves with nasty backroom political infighting. Neither camp seems willing to do anything bold for Frankford, lest the other side claim victory. The Frankford Community Development Corporation, still emerging from bankruptcy after years of mismanagement, is unable to fund or leverage any commercial development.

"You need strong community leadership to get development up and going," said Michael Thompson of the City Planning Commission. "And right now there's no development up and going in Frankford."

Frankford serves as the entranceway to the Lower Northeast. As it goes, other neighborhoods will likely follow. There are positive forces at work, like committed developers who are converting old factories such as Globe Dye Works into creative industry spaces.

But Frankford's foreseeable future is bleak. It cannot survive another decade like it just had. Can the decline be stemmed? Or is Frankford becoming a neighborhood beyond the point of saving?

 

The Frankford Story II: Crime and Drugs

           

             

           

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