By Tom Ferrick Jr.
The revival of East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia has come at warp speed, as measured in standard urban time. In just five years, the five-block stretch of shops has gone from being a charming but declining relic of another age to one of the hippest and liveliest sections of the city.
Every month, it seems, a new business opens on the stretch of Passyunk that runs in a diagonal from Broad Street east to Dickinson Street. Chartreuse, a European-style florist, and Green Aisle Grocery, an organic food store, are two recent arrivals. A dozen new restaurants have opened on the block in recent years.
Every day, it seems, newcomers arrive to inhabit the rowhouses and apartments that radiate off the avenue. What was once an Italian-American enclave is being re-populated with gay and straight young singles and couples whom local realtor Greg Damis describes thusly: "They don't have an automobile....They are usually carrying a computer and they are doing business at cafés and corners. I have never seen them out of sneakers and shorts, but they are not broke. They are sitting on 100 grand they can put down on a house."
Sounds very much like the "Creative Class" cities everywhere are yearning to attract.
The arrival of the "New People," as the older residents call them, has contributed to the East Passyunk Renaissance.
But, most of the credit should go to "that guy in Kentucky," as City Councilman Frank DiCicco called him: Vincent Fumo, the former state senator now serving a 55-month sentence in a federal prison in Ashland, Ky,. for his 2009 conviction on corruption charges.
Fumo supplied the vision and cash to serve, in effect, as developer of East Passyunk: buying a strategic mass of properties, redoing them as retail storefronts with apartments upstairs, recruiting tenants to appeal to the New People and giving them reduced start-up rents so they could get off the ground.
The money came from Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, Fumo's now on-the-ropes non-profit that once had $27 million in its coffers, $17 million of it from settlement of a civil suit Fumo had filed against the Philadelphia Electric Co. over its rates. The PECO money arrived in 1998, the same year the senator and his allies turned their attention to Passyunk's revival.
Some of the Citizens Alliance money went for the baubles and perks Fumo bestowed upon himself - the Tiki lamps, the Oreck vacuum cleaners, the restaurant meals, the sets of tools, etc. for his mansion in Fairmount, his farm outside Harrisburg and his condo in Florida. This was the spending that got the FBI on his case.
But, most of the Citizens Alliance money went for legitimate and worthy causes, as Paul Levy, the overseer of Citizens Alliance, pointed out in a June 2 report to the state judge presiding over the non-profit's case. Levy, who is also head of the Center City District, was appointed by the judge to examine the non-profit's finances and make recommendations.
We know what Citizens Alliance and Fumo did wrong. East Passyunk is an example of what they did right.
DiCicco said the plan was born out of frustration with the existing way businesses operated along East Passyunk.
The avenue had once been a premier shopping district, a collection of 150-plus shops, most of them single storefronts, that catered to an Italian-American clientele. It's the place where girls went for their First Communion dresses, boys their first pair of dress slacks, women for fashionable Italian shoes and men for jewelry as Christmas gifts for their wives. Up until the 1970s, recalls Joseph F. Marino, a fourth-generation resident who is president of the Passyunk Crossing Civic Association, it was "a promenade, a place where you went to meet and greet" your neighbors.
Marra's Restaurant, at 1736 East Passyunk, with its black-and-white tile façade, its 1950s neon signage and its front-window montage of Italian-American crooners of the '60s, is an exemplar of a classic Passyunk business.
Then and now, people use the same phrases to describe the area. Two examples: "a village within the city," and "a very walkable European-like neighborhood."
In short, it had charm, but it was fading by the 1980s, as the world changed but Passyunk did not. Upstairs living quarters were converted to storage areas by shop owners who had moved to New Jersey. Shops closed at 5 p.m. Owners refused to open on Sunday. Retail vacancies were common.
Anthony Criniti, who has spent a lifetime on the block as a realtor (1633 E. Passyunk) describes the situation then this way:
"The people who had been here a long time, they got content and refused to change with the times," he said. "Basically, what happened was that retail dropped off, the next generation [of the family] didn't pick it up. People would come in at noon and leave by 4 p.m."
Enter DiCicco, then an aide to Fumo, assigned as the senator's liaison to the East Passyunk Businessmen's Association. DiCicco had grown up in the neighborhood during the time Passyunk was a promenade, but its decline was exemplified by this anecdote from the 1980s.
"It was Christmas Eve and I was on the block looking to buy some jewelry," DiCicco said. "I went to two different stores and they were closed. On Christmas Eve!"
DiCicco worked with the businessmen's association to no result.
"The question was: how to revitalize the avenue? Just about everyone in the room had been there for several generations. They had become very complacent. But they were always complaining they were not doing enough business and it was the city's fault. The meetings would go on for two hours and I would sign up for a beautification committee and other committees and when it came time for a meeting no one would ever show up."
DiCicco said he went in and told Fumo: "I have had it. It has been five years. I can't deal with them."
DiCicco knew that change would not come from the existing business owners. The goal became to import new blood. As DiCicco recalls:
"Vince said when he get the PECO money, we've got to control a critical mass of those properties and almost run it like a mall. Renovate the properties. Get the right mix of tenants and we would write into the lease that they would have to be open nights and weekends to attract a new crowd."
Using the PECO money, Citizens Alliance purchased 19 properties on or just off Passyunk, oversaw the renovations and put them up for rent. To get an idea of the mix, the list of tenants includes: Karina Restaurant (1520 E. Passyunk); Black 'n Brew Coffee Shop (1523); 1540 Hardware (1538-40); Izumi, a Japanese restaurant (1601); Jimmy's Scooters (1737) and Aci Nae (1928) a woman's clothing boutique.
With the Citizen's Alliance properties serving as a catalyst, other retail soon arrived.
Renee Gilinger, director of the East Passyunk Business Development District, said that 23 new businesses opened their doors last year and 20 have survived. The district has about a 7 percent vacancy rate, lower than Center City.
"Those new businesses yielded 79 jobs - in the middle of the recession," said Gilinger. "I would say that for over half it was their first business ever. "
To create a visual landmark for the block, Citizen's Alliance bought the vacant Mugsy's, a cheesesteak shop on a triangle of land at Passyunk and Tasker and built (for a reported cost of $700,000) an Italian-style fountain, called the "Singing Fountain" because it has speakers that play music. On a recent day, Frank Sinatra crooned while the water flowed.
In his report, Levy wrote that through his Passyunk project Fumo may have created a model that could be replicated in other neighborhoods in Philadelphia.
Fumo purchased a mass of properties without having to borrow money, so they are owned outright by the non-profit and provide a continuing stream of money through rents, which can then be invested in other neighborhood improvements.
Levy estimated that the Citizens Alliance properties gross about $730,000 a year through rents and net about $200,000. He also recommended that the group - under a new name and with a more focused mandate - continues on.
In his report, Levy wrote: "My assignment...has been to determine whether, in colloquial terms, there was indeed a baby immersed in a lot of dirty bathwater. If so, could it be lifted out, nurtured to stand on its own, and set forth on a new path of community benefit, transparency and self-sufficiency?...I conclude that the answer to each of those questions is 'Yes'."
To continue Levy's analogy, Vince dirtied the bathwater. But, he also made the thriving baby that is East Passyunk today.
Tom Ferrick is senior editor of Metropolis.