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Changing City: Frankford Ave.

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By Nick Gilewicz

When the idea of turning Frankford Avenue into an arts corridor first started making the rounds in 2005, a common joke was that avenue had everything but the art. Today, no one is laughing.

 Frankford Avenue, the main street that cuts a swath through some of Philadelphia's grittiest neighborhoods, does have art - and artists - with more arriving each month to live and to set up galleries, studios and storefronts in Fishtown, East Kensington and Kensington.

In some ways, it is an old story: artists, in search of places to live and work, gravitating to down-and-out neighborhoods, lured mostly by low-priced housing, good studio spaces and cheap rents. But, there is a new twist.

Government and community development agencies have grasped the role that arts and artists can play in revitalizing neighborhoods and are centering their plans around them. Along Frankford Avenue, the effort is being led by the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, which sees the avenue as the spine of a growing arts-related business corridor.

Rocket Cat Use This.jpgOriginally a housing assistance organization, New Kensington CDC worked--and continues to work--to keep low- and middle-income residents in their homes. But, its mission has expanded over the years to reviving these old, rowhouse neighborhoods that were once factory towns within the city.

Five years ago, the idea of repositioning Frankford Avenue from a mangy street dotted with vacant lots to a vibrant arts corridor was difficult to envision.

"It was a little smoke and mirrors in the beginning," admits Sarah Corlett, a former professional ballet dancer and the economic development director of New Kensington CDC, "but people wanted to be by Bambi and Rocket Cat."

In other words, the corridor already had two anchors.

Bambi, a gallery and artists consignment shop was one of New Kensington's first arts-related developments, appearing in 2005. Its first-floor space on the 1800 block of Frankford Avenue was one of the first to bring people to Frankford Avenue at night, for its openings. The two apartments upstairs are low-income rentals. Bambi has since moved to a different space, and a vintage shop, two percent to glory (all lowercase, as they prefer), now occupies the space.

Rocket Cat Café is a popular coffee shop at 2001 Frankford Ave which also draws the local arts crowd.

This will not be an overnight transformation.  It can take years to build, piece by piece, but the city and others are willing to invest in making it happen along this stretch of Frankford Avenue.

The New Kensington CDC has had its share of success in working on improving the look and viability of Frankford Avenue.  Ten years ago, it partnered with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society on a project to promote the greening of Kensington by cleaning up vacant lots in the neighborhood, planting trees and creating community gardens.

The lots were unsightly and visible signs of the neighborhood's deterioration. "The lots on the west side [of Frankford Avenue] all used to be waist-high in trash," Corlett said.

From 1995 to 2002, and society and New Kensington cleaned up vacant and abandoned lots, planted trees, and installed the now-familiar wooden fencing that now marks lots cleaned up by the Horticultural Society, which has since expanded its program to other city neighborhoods.

The spin-off effects were good to Kensington and Fishtown. A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School found that property near the cleaned-up lots increased in value by as much as 30 percent.

In 2003, the neighborhood started working on a plan to revitalize Frankford Avenue by relying on the arts and arts-related ventures. "Neighborhood artists helped direct the vision for its transformation into a commercial arts corridor," Corlett said.

One of the organizations that wanted to be near Bambi was the Highwire Gallery, a co-operative artist-run gallery that lost its previous home due to the expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Highwire's welcome was mixed. New Kensington maintains an inventory of rentals available in the neighborhood; through that list Highwire found their space at 2040 Frankford Ave.

Some neighbors were warm, like those across the alley behind the gallery. When Highwire moved in, Waring said, they brought a bottle of Champagne--not something, Waring said, that he expected.

But not everyone acted so kindly. At Highwire's very first opening, a group of kids threw rocks at their window from across the street.

"I think part of it is art is an unknown entity with [some] neighborhood people," Waring said. But he's optimistic about the gallery's future relationship with the neighborhood.

"I think they see that [Highwire] is people trying to put stuff together," said Waring. "A co-op is different than another Starbucks."

Highwire makes a point of welcoming neighborhood work into open-call theme shows, according to Waring.

"We get stuff like color pencil drawings of hockey players on the wall alongside contemporary artwork," Waring said."Highwire has been open to what art can be. It embraces the outsider movement, but doesn't like those terms."

Corlett spoke of a neighborhood resident, Kate Simon, who had been making masquerade masks her whole life, and who showed her work at Highwire. "She was super proud of it," said Corlett. "She had never thought of herself as an artist before."

New Kensington also has become an advocate for artists' housing. The organization renovated a former textile mill into 27 live-work spaces for low-income artists, a building now known as the Coral Street Arts House on the 2400-block of Coral St. in Kensington. Corlett told me that New Kensington has pledged to keep the building as low-income rentals for 30 years, and that she expects artists to be somewhat transient. Little Berlin Gallery.jpgWhen one artist recently won a Pew grant, that person had to move out because the income limits were exceeded for that year.

New Kensington has leveraged its expertise as a housing agency to help three former Coral Arts residents to find and purchase homes in the blocks near the building.

Turnkey projects for artists and businesses have also been a crucial element of Frankford Avenue's redevelopment.

The building that houses the Rocket Cat Cafe was owned by the CDC, who sold the building to Thomas Roach and Karen Reese to start the cafe. The price was "below market rate," according to Corlett. City records indicate the sale price was $9,000.

A few blocks north, the New Kensington has also stabilized the building that now houses Walking Fish Theater--Corlett described their work as "keeping it from falling down"--and then sold it to Michelle Pauls and Stan Heleva, who run the theater.

Pauls and Heleva live upstairs with their daughter, and their deed requires the maintenance of an art space in the building. The price for a building that has become a home, a theater, and, rapidly, a neighborhood institution? $62,000.

Some neighborhood artists see signs of improvement. Tim Pannell, a printmaker and a member of the Little Berlin arts collective on Montgomery Avenue near Front Street, said that in the three years he's worked in the neighborhood, the prostitutes who frequented the corner have walked a few blocks further up the street.

There are other newcomers as well, among them Angler Movement Arts Center, Circle Thrift and Viking Mills, an former mill turned into artist's spaces, which is near the Coral Street Arts House.

With each success, however, New Kensington's job gets more challenging.

"Before," Corlett said, "we could buy a building like that for $20,000. They now cost $100,000, so I don't know that it can go on."

The New Kensington will shortly start spending $3 million of city and federal funds on neighborhood improvements on Frankford Avenue between York and Palmer Streets. The money will go to plant 33 new trees; repair sidewalks and curbs and install new pedestrian-friendly lights on buildings.

In addition, the grants will be used to add four additional sculptures that double as bike racks - much like the metal fish in front of Rocket Cat; construct 15-foot-high metal structures, cantilevered over the street with a large "F" and "A" to brand the street, and build two new sculpturally designed bus shelters; and steel-and-copper benches, in a nod to the industrial history of the neighborhood.

 "The marketing of the corridor as an arts corridor was key," Corlett said. "Pushing to the city, the neighborhood, the arts commission that this has a reputation as an area where artists are making things. It's 'The Workshop of the World,' right? People are making things."

 

Tomorrow: Big changes along what used to be the hippest street in town.

  

 

 

Masthead Photo: Coral Arts House apartments/studios.

Photo 1: Rocket Cat Cafe

Photo 2: Opening at Little Berlin gallery

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