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Diversity : Development News

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Neighborhood Bike Works makes a big move

For almost 20 years, staff and the youth served by the nonprofit Neighborhood Bike Works (NBW) have hauled bicycles up and down the steps into the organization's basement headquarters. 

While they've had a great time in the subterranean section of St. Mary's Church on the University of Pennsylvania's campus, the time has come to open their own center. Last month, NBW announced plans to do just that: The organization is gearing up to move to 3939 and 3943 Lancaster Avenue, one mile from their current location in West Philadelphia. 

"We're a little hidden in this basement," explains Executive Director Erin DeCou. "But we wanted to stay nearby because our neighborhood has been so good to us."

The new location is close to where three communities -- Mantua, Belmont and Powelton -- converge. Currently, NBW must carefully balance its schedule of programming for youth and adults to make use of its limited square footage space. The Lancaster Avenue site combines two side-by-side storefront properties, giving the organization plenty of room for offices and two learning spaces.

Since 1996, NBW has helped over 4,500 young Philadelphians discover a love of cycling. Through education, hands-on bike-building and group rides, the Philly youth (ages 8-18) served by NBW develop job and life skills that serve them for years to come. NBW also hosts adult repair classes and "Bike Church," a recurring event where the community can get help fixing their rides and purchase affordable donated bikes or bike parts.

Later this summer, NBW will start the move, but to get the new space fully ready, they first have to raise $150,000. The organization will start by tapping the community and corporate sponsors, and follow that up with fundraising events.

Writer: Rosella LaFevre
Source: Erin DeCou, Neighborhood Bike Works

Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse activates long-vacant Kensington storefront

Temple University alum Ariell Johnson first started to imagine opening her dream business when the independent coffee shop across from her favorite comic book store closed down. That was over a decade ago, before she graduated in 2005 with a degree in accounting.

As a self-described "geeky" woman of color who loves comics, Johnson says she’s a rare breed. She got serious about opening Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, her coffee shop/comic book store/community arts hub, in the last few years. She looked in a few different neighborhoods for the perfect spot, including Lancaster Avenue in West Philly and South Philly’s Point Breeze, before finding her 3,000-foot space at the corner of Frankford Avenue and Huntingdon Street.

Frankford's burgeoning arts corridor and mixed neighborhood demographic -- families, single young professionals, recent college grads, artists -- convinced Johnson it was the right place for Amalgam. And among a lot of "fun quirky little shops," tattoo parlors and galleries on the avenue, there still aren't any comic book stores.

"For what I’m doing, I thought it would be a great fit here," she explains.

Amalgam’s future home is a mixed-use building with apartments attached to a commercial space. Johnson says the latter has been standing empty for over ten years. Its history is unclear, but some of the leftover equipment they’ve found, along with an old painting abandoned there, hint that it had another life as an Italian restaurant. 

"We’re in the process of getting renovations done," notes Johnson. "The space is not nearly finished."

To that end, she’s running a crowdfunding campaign through March 3 with a basic goal of raising $5,000 and a dream goal of $30,000, which will help cover renovation of the plumbing, electrical and HVAC systems, as well as installing Amalgam’s coffee bar and kitchen. (If Amalgam can meet that crucial $5,000 goal, it’ll be guaranteed to receive those funds, plus any money raised beyond that.) 

Ultimately, Johnson, a Maryland native who now lives just one street away from her shop, will draw on a range of professional experience to make Amalgam a reality: her business and accounting know-how, a history in retail, and even experience as a barista and self-taught chef. The space will be a haven for comic-book lovers and the wider community, with places for browsing, sipping and snacking as well as conversation, book signings, film screenings and other events.

Johnson will carry industry staples like X-Men and The Flash, but is particularly dedicated to showcasing comics featuring women and people of color after years of being an ardent fan, but rarely seeing anyone who looked like her in the pages she loved.

"Not seeing yourself reflected in different forms of media is damaging," she explains, especially for children. "I want to actively fight against that."

Because of the variables of construction, Johnson says it’s too soon to know an exact date for Amalgam’s grand opening, but she hopes to have it up and running as soon as late spring.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Ariell Johnson, Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse


Mighty Writers poised to open a new Italian Market space

Last year, when Flying Kite checked in with Philly’s Mighty Writers, a largely volunteer-powered group helmed by director Tim Whitaker, it had just nabbed a $75,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, which it planned to put toward opening a brand-new location in the heart of the Italian Market. That space will house a bilingual program called El Futuro.

Mighty Writers, now in its fifth year of serving youth ages 7 to 17, opened its original space at 15th and Christian Streets, and then a second one at 39th and Lancaster Avenue. Its programming includes mentoring, homework help, after-school sessions, writing classes and SAT prep.

According to Whitaker, former editor of Philadelphia Weekly, Mighty Writers launched a bilingual roster specifically geared toward Philly’s Mexican-American community about two years ago. Attendance at the 15th and Christian location has been enthusiastic and now Mighty Writers is on the cusp of opening a new space in the Italian Market, to better serve participants right in their own neighborhood.

Mighty Writers is hoping to close this week on a building two blocks north of Washington Avenue on 9th Street. The one-story space boasts about 2,500 square feet, with plenty of room for a variety of programming and new offices. After a few renovations, the group hopes to welcome youngsters there as soon as late February.

"There will be workshops for all, though focusing mostly on the Mexican community," says Whitaker. Workshop leaders will teach in both Spanish and English. Currently, Mighty Writers has five full-time employees, two part-timers and dozens of volunteers.

There will also be a daily after-school academy from 3 - 6 p.m., evening writing workshops and additional programming on the weekends.

Whitaker is particularly excited about the new location, flanked by fruit stands, a fish market and racially diverse businesses.   

"It’s really right in the middle of everything, which adds a lot for the kids to write about, a lot for them to see," he says. "It just feels like it’s the right place."

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Tim Whitaker, Mighty Writers

Massive Chinatown development project unites a divided community

The intersection of 10th and Vine Streets has been a sore spot for years in the Chinatown community -- the construction of the modern Vine Street Expressway razed countless homes and businesses, effectively splitting the neighborhood in half. But the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC) got exciting news in October: a $3.7 million Pennsylvania Economic Growth Initiative grant. It’s a major step toward making the Eastern Tower Community Center, planned for the northwest corner of that infamous intersection, a reality.

"We’ve looked around, but we haven’t found anything quite like it," says PCDC managing director Andrew Toy of the planned 23-story building, which has a projected budget of $76 million. That’s not just because of the size and cost -- which as far as PCDC knows, is the largest ever undertaken by a Philadelphia CDC -- it’s because when it’s finished, the Eastern Tower will house an unprecedented range of services and programs.

Those include 150 mixed-income residential units (which Toy estimates will mean at least 250 new neighbors on the 10th Street business corridor), a bilingual preschool and prekindergarten program from the Chinatown Learning Center, a grocery store, a recreation and community center, programming for seniors, a computer lab, and even doctors’ offices focused on preventive care for a linguistically under-served population.

Part of the story on the project’s financing is its special status through a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)-administered program: Eastern Tower is an EB-5 qualified investment project. This is a low-interest brand of international financing that targets areas of the U.S. with high unemployment and focuses on creating jobs. And it’s not just about a financial return -- foreign investors who help create ten jobs for every $50,000 they spend can receive green cards for themselves and their families.

A grant from the William Penn Foundation helped PCDC set up a dedicated regional center to act as a conduit for these investments, and since it will continue to operate once the Eastern Tower project is complete, Toy hopes it will become a permanent gateway for development in the area.

Even local youngsters have been getting involved -- for example, the Philadelphia Suns, a neighborhood sports and volunteer organization, recently raised money for the project.

“The youth of the community are getting more and more engaged, because they see this as a real thing and they’re getting excited about having a place of their own,” says Toy. “Success has a lot of mothers.”

"It wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen overnight," he adds. But with local, state and federal support, the project is currently on track to finalize its financing by early 2015. They’re looking at "a shovel in the ground" this winter, with an official opening slated for early 2017.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Andrew Toy, Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation


Greensgrow Farms launches a retail gardening center in West Philly

The experimental urban agriculture organization Greensgrow Farms has been operating for nearly two decades in South Kensington where it not only runs a CSA program and a community kitchen, but also educates Philadelphians about sustainable living, and attempts to convince other communities to replicate aspects of its urban farming model.  
A little over a week ago, West Philadelphia became an extended member of the Greensgrow family when a gardening center, Greensgrow West, opened on the 4900 block of Baltimore Avenue at the former site of the Elena's Soul jazz club.  
The gardening center will remain at the Baltimore Avenue site for at least two years. They will sell plants and fruit trees, and eventually offer workshops similar to those held at the Kensington location. Greensgrow West will also be home to a farmer's market accepting SNAP and WIC Farmers' Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) benefits.
According to Greensgrow's Ryan Kuck, himself a 15-year West Philly resident, the organization saw the neighborhood "as really fertile ground," and an ideal location to further explore its mission of creating livable communities on underutilized urban land.

"We know we have a lot of support [in West Philly], and we know there's a market for greening," says Kuck, who adds that Greensgrow's mobile markets, which offer fresh food to underserved communities, are often based in West Philly. "It's also just a really interesting place for us to explore what Greengrow's future model might look like."
It's currently unclear what will happen to the site when Greensgrow's lease ends in April 2016.
Source:  Ryan Kuck, Greensgrow Farms
Writer: Dan Eldridge

Mobile Market photos by Jennifer Britton
Remaining photos by Bryn Ashburn

A commercial corridor manager brings signs of life to 52nd Street in West Philly

The intersection of 52nd and Market streets in West Philly has struggled for decades, but prior to SEPTA's reconstruction of the Market-Frankford Line, which wrecked economic havoc on the area, the 52nd Street retail corridor was better known as West Philly's Main Street -- a proud city-within-the-city where small businesses thrived.  
The Enterprise Center Community Development Corporation (TEC-CDC) has been working for five years to bring that vitality back. And thanks to a grant provided by the Philadelphia Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), they recently hired the street's first-ever commercial corridor manager, Akeem Dixon, whose job description involves returning the retail corridor to its former glory.
That's a tall order, to be sure, but according to Dana Hanchin of the Philadelphia LISC office, initiatives are already moving forward.
At a recent stakeholders meeting, TEC-CDC revealed some of the key elements of its commercial corridor work plan. It includes beautification efforts such as pop-up gardens on vacant lots, and the launch of both a corridor-specific newsletter and a business directory. A biweekly radio program covering the corridor is now airing on West Philly's community radio station, WPEB 88.1 FM, and a branding campaign is also in the works.
Meanwhile, Dixon continues to act as an intermediary between business owners and residents in the area -- something of an impartial ombudsman, whose top priority involves "getting everyone at the same table, and talking," as LISC Philadelphia's James Crowder puts it.
"I can't say that wasn't happening before," says Crowder. "But I can say it's happening in a way now that's way more efficient and productive."
Source:  Dana Hanchin, LISC Philadelphia
Writer: Dan Eldridge

Photos by Samuel Dolgin-Gardner 

Ambitious Pearl Street renovation planned in Chinatown North

In 2008, after two years of transition and multiple moves to make way for the Convention Center expansion, the Asian Arts Initiative moved into their current home at 1219 Vine Street. Now, nearly five years later, AAI is still looking for ways to make their presence known in "Chinatown North" (an area also referred to as the Loft District, Callowhill or Eraserhood).
AAI’s recent attempts to solidify the neighborhood's identity are rather ambitious -- the community-based arts center is aiming to revitalize four blocks of Pearl Street, an alleyway that runs from Broad to 10th just north of Vine Street. The goal is to turn the street into a public space, outdoor gallery and gathering spot, bringing together the area's diverse communities.
Currently in the early planning stages, the Pearl Street project has been on AAI's radar for a number of years. "Since we moved into this space we’ve been staring at Pearl Street outside our windows," says AAI Executive Director Gayle Isa. "The alleyway is a place you don't want to be right now. It has a reputation as dark and dangerous."
Until recently, the project was little more than an idea. "We were actually approached by a funder who was interested in partnering with us on one of our pet projects," says Isa. "We pitched the Pearl Street renovation and they were on board."
AAI is hiring Oakland-based landscape architect and artist Walter Hood -- he was in town recently collecting feedback from stakeholders along the alley. Hood will be back in Philadelphia this summer to conduct further research. Final designs are expected in the fall.
That group of stakeholders is exceptionally diverse: there's the homeless shelter Sunday Breakfast Mission, folks from the Philly Streets and Planning Departments, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (the group behind the upcoming Eastern Tower Community Center) and Post Brothers, the developers behind upcoming luxury condos along the alleyway.

"The constituents really reflect the diversity of the neighborhood," says Isa. "The alleyway is a chance to tie them together.... Everyone we've met with has had an overwhelming sense of enthusiasm. There is a lot more openness to working together than I would have expected."
Few details have been worked out, but the overall vision involves improved public space, public art, lighting improvements and multi-sensory programmed activities meant to enliven the street. Green features will also be included, with the hope of eventually connecting Pearl Street to the long-envisioned Reading Viaduct project.
Source: Gayle Isa, Executive Director, Asian Arts Initiative
WriterGreg Meckstroth

Gay-friendly affordable housing set to break ground in Center City

When it comes to Gay Philadelphia, there’s a lot to be proud of.  After all, the city features one of the country’s most recognizable, tightly knit ‘Gayborhoods’ in Center City, acting as the focal point of GLBT civic life for the region.  Building off this identity, City, State and gay leaders will later this week officially break ground on the William Way residences, a one of a kind, $20 million gay-friendly senior affordable housing project on 13th Street, smack dab in the middle of the Gayborhood.        

“There is only one other type of facility like this in the nation. That’s in L.A.,” explains Mark Segal, who is the publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News and has spearheaded the project thus far.  He says that what makes the William Way residences so unique because of how it has been funded.  “It’s the first effort to use traditional ways to finance and build an affordable GLBT-friendly housing project.” 

By 'traditional,' Segel means 'public' - the project is being financed with a multitude of city, state and federal funds.  One of the funding sources, the Dr. Manus Hirschfeld Fund, is a GLBT advocacy group that was formed in 2004 to support the gay community.  They received an $11 million grant from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency earlier this year.  This money, combined with $8 million in already allocated government grants, allowed the project to move forward to where it is today.    
The new 6-story structure will feature 56 one-bedroom units, a 5,000-square-foot enclosed courtyard, and multipurpose spaces that residents and the community can use. Plans also include roughly 2,000 square feet of retail space that will front 13th Street. 

Living in the residences will be geared towards seniors in the gay community so they have a place to comfortably live without possible stresses of being discriminated against in other public housing.  Even though affordable housing laws dictate that eligibility to live in public housing based on sexual preference is illegal, the building is able to market itself as ‘gay friendly’ to draw special interest from GLBT seniors.  But the facility will be open to anyone that is at least 62 years old and earns less than 60 percent of the Philadelphia median income. 

Due to Hurricane Sandy pushing construction timetables back (the original groundbreaking was set for Oct. 29th), the official groundbreaking is now set for later this week on Friday, Nov. 9 at 11 a.m. at 249 S. 13th Street.  Mayor Nutter will be in attendance and will unveil the official name of the new building.  He will be joined by former Governor Ed Rendell, numerous city and state officials as well as a number of high profile GLBT civil rights pioneers.  Segal believes the project will take up to 15 months to complete and should be ready for occupation in early 2014.        

Source: Mark Segal, Philadelphia Gay News 
WriterGreg Meckstroth

Brewerytown, Fairmount, Francisville, Strawberry Mansion band together for Night Out

Acts of solidarity and partnership took the form of loud beating drums last night in Francisville as local school marching bands led groups of community members and civic leaders on a walk through city streets for Lower North/Central North Philadelphia’s National Night Out Stroll.

In its 29th year of existence, the National Night Out campaign involves citizens, law enforcement officials, civic groups, and other stakeholders from over 15,000 communities in all 50 states who band together and heighten crime and drug prevention awareness, as well as generate support for, and participate in, local anti-crime programs.  In Philly’s Francisville, Fairmount, Strawberry Mansion, and Greater Brewerytown neighborhoods, neighbors and partners showed their solidarity by leaving their porch lights on and strolling the streets together, beginning at the Arts Garage in Francisville and ending at Mander Recreation Center in Strawberry Mansion. 

But this year, Philly’s stroll brings an extra oomph of significance, showcasing the area's ability to work together for common goals. The following organizations joined forces for Night Out: Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation, Fairmount Communty Development Corporation, Greater Brewerytown Community Development Corporation, Strawberry Mansion Neighborhood Action Center, Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation, West Girard Community Council, Project H.O.M.E., and the Arts Garage.

According to Naomi Robertson with the Fairmount Community Development Corporation, this collaboration is what sets their event apart from similar events across the city and nationwide. 

“The fact that we were able to get so many community organizations together makes our event very unique.  All of the organizations serve as community beacons, so it was extremely important to have them involved, as they would be the ones to garner support from their respective communities.”  

Event organizers believe the collaboration between neighborhoods will go a long way towards many positive outcomes, including making residents feel safer and more connected to their neighbors.  “While Philadelphia is called ‘the city of neighborhoods’ there are times when those distinctions can make it seem like every neighborhood is an island of its own,” says Robertson, “and we wanted to show that that's not the case.  It’s a way for us all to celebrate together, to walk with each other, have our children talk to each other, and break down some of the barriers we've placed up.” 

For Lower North/Central North Philadelphia, crime prevention and awareness won't stop here.  Robertson and other civic leaders hope the collaboration continues at unprecedented levels, starting with assigning responsibility and disseminating information among residents.  “A big piece of National Night Out is developing and supporting Block Watch and Block Captain initiatives, and we believe empowering block captains is the most effective way to engage the rest of the community.”    

Writer: Greg Meckstroth
Source: Naomi Robertson, Fairmount Community Development Corporation

ANALSYIS: How new Eastern Tower Community Center can be a modern symbol of immigration in Philly

There’s no question about it, these days there are a lot of hot ‘hoods in Philly’s residential real estate market.  And over the past decade, none have been hotter or healthier than Center City’s Chinatown.  According to the 2010 Census results, the area more than doubled in population and added almost 1,000 market rate housing units.  And now, Chinatown is about to get vertical with its growth spurt as the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC) plans to build the 23-story Eastern Tower Community Center.  
The Center, to be located in the northern reaches of Chinatown at 10th and Vine Streets, is an urban planner’s dream.  The building defines the meaning of mixed-use: retail and recreational space will be utilized on the first two floors, a two-story flexible community center, office space, a possible charter school, and 144 affordable housing units on floors six and up. To top it off, the tower will include a green roof, dwelling units will have operable windows, and silver LEED certification will be sought. Zoning is good to go, approvals have been met, and the PCDC plans to start construction early next year. 

To many, this building is seen as a culmination of the economic growth and overall progress made in Chinatown over the last decade. And it’s true; the Center will no doubt strengthen community values and bring people together in a facility not currently available in the neighborhood.  But on a broader level, Chinatown’s recent progress and the building of the Center is proof positive that ethnic enclaves and immigration are important assets to urban areas and prove to be economic boons for cities.    

Places like New York and San Francisco are intrinsically linked to their own Chinatowns, Italian Villages, and Koreatowns, and have long understood the relationship between them and how they promote economic growth.  Philadelphia, too, knows a thing or two about this phenomenon.  In South Philly, the famous Fabric Row along 4th Street was the commercial center of Philly’s early 20th- century Jewish community.  Originally known for its predominance of fabric and garment-related products, the area has diversified in use over the years yet remains a viable commercial corridor because of its ethnic roots, unique offerings, and associated sense of place characteristics.  

In the same era, a different wave of immigrants, this time Italian, formed an ethnic enclave of their own centered on nearby 9th Street.  Although this area wasn’t called The Italian Market until the 1970s, it earned its name from the start.  The street market featured Italian butchers, cheese shops, and other vendors that catered to the new Italian community in the area and offered niche products and experiences not found anywhere else.  Over the years, the district’s attitude towards immigrants has not changed and thus continued to thrive, more recently seeing an influx of Mexican, Vietnamese, Jewish, and Chinese vendors.    

Up in Chinatown, the same pattern seems to be occurring.  Spurred by the existence of a community banded together by their ethnic heritage, the area has done a bit of asset building and is diversifying.  According to Center City District, Chinatown has become significantly more economically diverse, showcased by a huge influx of ownership housing in an area known for its rental-tilt. 
While these successes showcase Philly’s historic and modern acceptance of immigrant populations and their unique cultural heritage, there is cause for concern that these attitudes are not prevailing.  Based on recent United States Office of Immigration statistics, Philly sits in the middle of the greatest immigrant destination in the United States: the Bos-Wash corridor.  And yet, Philly fails to crack the top 10 regions with the most naturalized citizens.  Meanwhile, New York, Boston, and Washington continue soaking up all the foreign awesomeness and associated economic growth. 

With their entrepreneurial spirit and zeal to succeed, immigrants have proven themselves to be economic initiators and jumpstarters for city economies.  Research has proven this trend time and time again and Philly has the historical examples to back it up.  And when the Eastern Tower Community Center is complete in 2015, a more modern, significantly taller, example of Philly’s history-in-the-making acceptance of immigrant populations will take shape.  Now if only the City can find a way to crack those top 10 lists and steal some of New York’s immigrant appeal, perhaps the tide will turn for other urban neighborhoods looking for a new niche all their own.        

Writer: Greg Meckstroth

ThinkBike Workshop enlists Dutch experts to reimagine bicycling around Temple University

There's been a steady and significant increase in the number of cyclists in Philadelphia, which has been ranked first among the 10 largest American cities for bicycle commuters, according to The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2008 American Community Survey.
The area around Temple University lags behind other neighborhoods. Last week, Temple hosted ThinkBike, a cycling workshop in collaboration with the Dutch Cycling Embassy, which promotes innovation worldwide.
The Royal Netherlands Embassy, in cooperation with Philadelphia’s Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, Temple University, Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Philadelphia Streets Department and the Dutch Cycling Embassy held the two-day ThinkBike Workshops last week.
At the closing session, Bradley Flamm, PhD, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning at Temple  University, said, "There's a lot of potential to increase safety, comfort and convenience for the people of this city." At Temple, only 8% of students, faculty and staff regularly cycle to and from campus. the majority now drive alone. 
The ThinkBike team picked key routes: Broad Street, 12th and 13th Streets, Berks, Spring Garden and Fairmount Avenue, making recommendations based on street width and international precedent. One suggestion was to create a bike lane on the other side of parked cars, adjacent to the sidewalk. This setup is now in place in Holland, and it changes the dynamic considerably, allowing cyclists to traverse streets without fear of being sideswiped or flipping over car doors that open unexpectedly. The team looked into landscaping that would add green space between the bike lane and parked cars.
North 13th Street was viewed as a major opportunity for north-south commuters, given the huge amount of vehicular traffic already on Broad Street. An estimated 32,000 vehicles travel on the city's main north-south arterial daily. The team's suggestion was to create a two-way bike lane system. Another suggestion that would dramaticlly alter the cityscape is to cordon off an entire lane around City Hall for bikes only, and extend lanes on 15th, 16th, and create a two way cycle track on JFK Boulevard.
If undertaken as a pilot program, no new legislation would need to be enacted to make the cyclist friendly changes, according to the team. ThinkBike Workshops move on to Washington, DC, Miami, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Source: Bradley Flamm, Temple University
Writer: Sue Spolan

ON THE GROUND: Chic Afrique moves natural cosmetics store west to expanded shop on Lancaster Ave.

Chic Afrique has moved to a location that's double in size, but what customers see is only the tip of the company's business. "Ninety percent of our sales are online," reports Victoria Onwuchekwa, founder/chief cook and bottle filler at the natural cosmetics store now located at 3943 Lancaster Avenue.
Now offering over 30 products in its cosmetics line, Chic Afrique began as a kiosk at the Echelon Mall nearly three decades ago. Onwuchekwa had just completed her Master's degree in pharmacology at Long Island University, where she became fascinated by the chemistry of cosmetics. While in search of a dissertation topic, Onwuchekwa's mother, who is a pharmacist, suggested she pick a topic near home, and Onwuchekwa embarked on a study of shea butter, a common ointment in Africa that's been growing in popularity here in the US.

"Science, chemistry and pharmacology came easy to me," says Onwuchekwa. "I decided to do something extra on the side." Combining art and science, she developed simple emulsions that are still the basis for an extensive offering that includes body butter, souffle, lotion, soap, hair oil and butter, shampoo, conditioner and even candles.
Onwuchekwa's philosophy in developing products comes from the life cycle. Watoto has ingredients gentle enough for a baby; Karite is meant for a growing child's scrapes and rashes; Okuma is for a young girl who wants to smell nice; Saronia has a potent scent meant to attract suitors, and Ife, which means love, contains turai, a Senegalese aphrodisiac. Onwuchekwa counts all ethnicities among her loyal patrons, and also offers custom labeling for business to business sales locally, nationally and internationally.
Chic Afrique moved from the Echelon Mall to The Gallery at Market East, first in a kiosk and then in a retail shop. Onwuchekwa then expanded to 7th and Walnut streets for a decade; after a brief period doing only wholesale, she opened up another retail spot at 3874 Lancaster just last year. 
Less than two months ago, Onwuchekwa's landlord called to offer the much more spacious storefront a block west. It allows shoppers a peek into Onwuchekwa's open kitchen/laboratory, which occupies the entire back half of the expansive space. The business also has three employees.
The building was previously occupied by Grace Church and Community Center, as evidenced by the sign that still hangs above the door. Business hours are Monday through Saturday from noon to 7 p.m.

Source: Victoria Onwuchekwa, Chic Afrique
Writer: Sue Spolan

Philly Painting: Money follows art as Haas & Hahn transform Germantown Ave.

It's not your typical tourist destination, but a stretch of lower Germantown Avenue is now in the process of becoming world famous. This week, Mural Arts Program kicked off Philly Painting, led by Dutch artists Jeroen Haas and Dre Urhahn, AKA Haas & Hahn.

"The first part will go on from where we are standing now as far as you can see," said Urhahn, pointing north from the corner of Germantown Avenue and West Huntingdon Street. The One+Seven Variety Store, owned by Mrs. Tokhui Kelly, is the starting point for the massive 100,000 square foot project. The corner store at 2601 Germantown Avenue has been transformed with blocks of color Kelly chose from a palate of 50 options offered by the artists. "I chose bright colors," says Kelly. "Everybody pays attention. It helps this neighborhood look good."

Urhahn says he and Haas settled on the fifty color set by doing a photographic analysis of the city of Philadelphia, choosing hues most commonly seen on the streets. Each building owner has the option of selecting color combinations. "Some are not interested, and some think it's important. They might come back twenty times, while other shop owners tell us just to make something nice."

Located just steps away from the Village of Arts and Humanities, the Germantown corridor project has hired a paint crew of 21 local young people, but this summer, Elizabeth Grimaldi, director of the Village, says she'll be running a free summer camp to attract some of the 1800 kids in walking distance of the project.

Mayor Michael Nutter stopped by for Wednesday's kickoff, and highlighted $3.5 million in improvements to the Germantown Avenue corridor, funded mostly by the Department of Commerce and assisted by the Planning Commission. The project was among those funded by the Knight Arts Challenge.

"In reality," adds Urhahn, pointing to cracks in one store's facade, "these buildings need a lot of attention. But this project is the first step to more businesses coming in, and more money moving around."

Source: Dre Urhahn, Elizabeth Grimaldi, Mrs. Tokhui Kelly, Mayor Michael Nutter
Writer: Sue Spolan

Planning Commission working with community group to boost quality of life in Eastern North Philly

Despite being a short owl’s flight away from Temple University, the West and South Kensington and Norris Square neighborhoods in Eastern North Philadelphia have been afflicted with the urban ills seen in other inner-city neighborhoods. Not oblivious to this, Associacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha (APM) has set out to re-define the communities. One way in which they’re looking to do this is by partnering with the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC) on its Eastern North Philadelphia quality of life plan, "Our Community, Our Ideas."

APM and the City Planning Commission are studying the neighborhoods between Lehigh and Cecil B. Moore Aves., 9th and American Sts., and a small sliver of Ludlow, according to David Fecteau, the Commission’s community planner who’s tasked with studying the area. He adds that this study comes at an appropriate time, as the city is applying for a $30 million federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant for the area. So far, PCPC and APM are reaching out to community members, a process that has included “well over 200 residents and other stakeholders,” says Fecteau.

PCPC is working closely with the enterprising neighborhood group APM to truly understand the region they’re studying. APM is focusing on seven areas, says Jennifer Rodriguez, the deputy vice president for Programs and Sustainable Communities. The areas are:
  • Income and wealth 
  • Economic development
  • Education
  • Leadership
  • Healthy environment and lifestyle
  • Arts and culture
  • Children and youth

APM’s focus areas are modeled after the Local Initiatives Support Corporation’s Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI). Rodriguez says that one impetus for these particular concentrations is that a third of land in their coverage area is vacant. APM hopes to develop this vacant land, without forcing existing residents out. “The neighborhood wants a diverse community of mixed incomes and family make-ups,” says Rodriguez. 

It should surprise no one that environmental sustainability is playing a large role in PCPC and APM’s study. Rodriguez says APM is already partnering with the Water Department, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), and the School District to provide rain barrels at local schools. Finally, she says that a new transit-oriented development (TOD) will break ground on April 10 along 9th St. at the Temple University Regional Rail station. APM makes it clear that use of and development around rail and transit nodes will be closely studied by the City Planning Commission. 

Sources: David Fecteau, Philadelphia City Planning Commission and Jennifer Rodriguez, APM
Writer: Andy Sharpe

Priorities for Germantown United CDC take shape, include business corridor and historic preservation

Germantown is a neighborhood that is characterized by the remnants of its past colliding with the challenges of its present. It is definitely one of the most famous historic sections of Philly, right behind Old City in the eyes of many. Yet, this storied history comes with the backdrop of crime, poverty, trash, and neighborhood division on many blocks. This neighborhood division has been manifested by the corrupt Germantown Settlement, which was a social service and community development agency that ran out of money, and a tiff over retail development on Chelten Avenue. 

It's why Germantown residents are even more motivated to redevelop and cultivate a sense of community. In fact, the Germantown United CDC (GUCDC) was formed toward the end of last year to reinstate transparency to the neighborhood. The CDC is currently in the process of selecting its Board, and serves the racially, economically, and religiously diverse area from Chew Ave. to the north, Wissahickon Ave. to the south, Wayne Junction Station to the east, and Johnson St. to the west. 

John Churchville, the president of GUCDC, is passionate about making a difference. "I'd have to say that our first priority is to establish our trustworthiness as an organization in Germantown," says a motivated Churchville. He says this means reaching out to local businesses, residents, civic associations, and developers. The president also detects a hardy sense of optimism among those who are interested in serving on GUCDC’s Board. 

Once GUCDC becomes more entrenched in the neighborhood, one of its priorities will be re-utilizing the historic Germantown Town Hall. Churchville says that the re-use of Town Hall will be a personal commitment of his. He wants to take advantage of the Civil War-era building’s location across from Germantown High School by turning it into a building of learning that will feature post-secondary level science, technology, and math and high-school level "green entrepreneur" training. The building is up for sale by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC)

Another GUCDC priority will be to clean up the Chelten and Germantown Ave. business corridors. The corridors form perpendicular Main Streets feature a diverse selection of small businesses, but are pockmarked by trash and other quality-of-life problems. The CDC has already held clean-ups along Chelten, and has proven its intimate concern with the avenue since its days speaking out against the new shopping center at Chelten and Pulaski. 

It’s not hard to guess that GUCDC sees Germantown’s history playing a vital role in the area’s future. Barbara Hogue, the executive director at Historic Germantown, is hoping to assist in this effort. She says her organization has submitted a grant application to the Pew Charitable Trust for "the interpretation of the enduring search for freedom in Germantown." If they receive the grant, Hogue foresees Historic Germantown working setting up pop-up exhibits at vacant storefronts and organizing lectures at local coffee shops in an event commemorating the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. 

GUCDC held a forum last week to examine CDC best practices in Philadelphia and New York and strategize ways to make a community like Germantown more livable. The forum was keynoted by Colvin Grannum, president of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. Other speakers were Econsult economist Steve Mullin, Rick Sauer with the Philadelphia Association of Economic Development Corporations, Historic Germantown’s Hogue, Sandy Salzman at New Kensington CDC, and Andy Frishkoff with Local Initiatives Support Corporation

Writer: Andy Sharpe
Sources: John Churchville, Germantown United CDC and Barbara Hogue, Historic Germantown 

Photo courtesy of Dana Scherer
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