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A Fishtown native helps steward her neighborhood's radical revitalization

Sandy Salzman in her Fishtown Office
Sandy Salzman in her Fishtown Office - Michael Persico
Sandy Salzman's desk at the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC) is surrounded by winged pigs. The keepsakes from friends and neighbors include a paper mache hog from a former VISTA volunteer and a painting from the NKCDC board of a smiling swine flying over Fishtown.

When asked about her offbeat collection, Salzman doesn’t hesitate: "We do the impossible," she says.

If you want to understand the cultural renaissance happening in Fishtown—a neighborhood Salzman says was redlined by banks as recently as the late '90s—you can't find a better guide than the executive director of the NKCDC. This fourth generation Fishtowner remembers the neighborhood before it was cool.

Fishtown is a very different place today than it was 40 years ago. These days, it boasts a stable of galleries, hip bars, artist workspaces, urban farms, cutting-edge educational institutions (Kensington High School for Creative and Preforming Arts is one of the city's first LEED-certified schools) and a couple of Philly’s best breweries. The slate of neighborhood small businesses includes Walking Fish Theater, Craft Foundry, Johnny Brenda’s, Philadelphia Sculpture Gym and, most recently, Little Baby's Ice Cream and Pizza Brain on the Frankford Avenue Arts Cooridor. There are new neighborhood traditions that draw revelers from throughout the city, including First Fridays, Shadfest and the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby. Trees and gardens have replaced trash.

Salzman credits that transformation to the NKCDC staff, partnerships with various city agencies and organizations like the Philadelphia Horticultural Society and Mural Arts. Individuals, independent businesses and artists make Fishtown what it is today, she says, tears coming to her eyes as she gushes about her dedicated neighbors. Modesty, no doubt, is part of her charm. In a city known for well-earned cynicism and political gridlock, Salzman's leadership has created remarkable opportunities.

As for those flying pigs, the longtime community advocate has long ignored assurances of impossibility from city officials and local residents. She keeps a picture from 1998 of a trash-strewn lot at Montgomery and Frankford Avenues. The photo, explains Salzman, signifies over 1,100 vacant lots scattered throughout Fishtown in the nineties. On the other side is an image of the same lot in 2004 -- it reveals a well-tended pocket park with several trees. Today, that lot has new development.

"We decided we would clean it up," says Salzman. "We pretty much trespassed. We wanted to take down the jersey barriers and plant trees because we thought it would make it look like somebody cared. License & Inspections said it will never happen but those little trees did what a jersey barrier couldn’t do. The city now incorporates [tree planting] when they take down a house."

So began NKCDC's Vacant Land Management Program, an effort to clean and make use of hundreds of vacant lots. It marked a turning point for Fishtown. With Salzman in charge, NKCDC was accepted to the congressionally-funded program NeighborWorks America, an honor bestowed on 235 organizations across the country (there are no other members in Philadelphia). More recently, NKCDC earned the 2011 "Blue Ribbon" for Excellence in Community Development from the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations (PACDC).

The top of Salzman’s filing drawer is crowded with awards from city agencies, the Knight Arts Foundation, Bank of America and Health Partners Philadelphia. She jokes that when NKCDC gets a real office -- they currently operate in adjacent converted rowhomes -- she’ll finally get all the trophies off the floor and into a display case.

Salzman still lives on Marlborough Street, in the house where she raised her children. Her daughter and granddaughter (generation six) live on the next block. An unlikely trailblazer, Salzman protested the Vietnam War and fought for Women’s Rights in the sixties but never considered community activism until 1978, when the promise of a grant and loan program for low income homeowners lured her into a volunteer position with the Fishtown Civic Association (FCA).

At the time, Salzman -- who worked in the office of a textile factory after graduating from high school -- was a housewife and mother with some free time. She was soon hired by FCA and through the years has held various community leadership positions. In 1998, she became executive director at NKCDC.

"When I started [at NKCDC], Frankford Avenue was a mess," says Salzman. "We decided that we were going to make it into an arts corridor. We didn’t have one gallery; there was no artist living on Frankford Avenue. We didn’t even have a coffee shop."

NKCDC obtained grants to improve lighting, benches, signage, bus shelters and sidewalks on the avenue. They opened a public garden center at Frankford and Berks, and purchased and renovated properties that became Rocket Cat Café, several galleries and artist work spaces.

Salzman's taste for the offbeat also came into play. NKCDC commissioned decorative "art racks" for bikes along Frankford Avenue and helped Little Baby's Ice Cream and Pizza Brain (the country's first pizza museum) convert an adjacent parking space into a parklet equipped with bike spaces. 

"People said, ‘Are you crazy? There’s no artists here,’" recalls Salzman. "Now we have one of the best First Fridays."

As Frankford became a cultural attraction, Salzman was concerned that inevitable rent increases would push those artists out. NKCDC held workshops to teach creative types how to buy property while it was still inexpensive. They encouraged artists to renovate their buildings: put their business on the first floor, live on the second and rent the third for an extra income stream. NKCDC also renovated an old factory, the Coral Street Arts House, subsidizing 27 artist live-work spaces.

Ironically, Salzman is grateful for the recession. She believes it helped slow down development long enough for new, younger residents to move in alongside older ones. Many of those new residents have taken up Fishtown’s tradition of community involvement. In the past decade, NKCDC has established East Kensington Neighbors Association, Olde Richmond Civic Association, Somerset Neighbors for Better Living and the Fishtown Area Business Association.

"In the early 2000s things started happening pretty quickly," says Salzman. "There was a lot of gentrification and a lot of new people moving in. You could see a lot of the conflict starting to form. We helped form a number of civic associations because we felt that people really needed to have a voice in their neighborhood."

In 2008, Salzman declared Fishtown would be the "greenest neighborhood in Philly" and NKCDC launched Sustainable 19125. Her slice of post-industrial Philly has recently been named a NeighborWorks Green Organization, one of only 16 in the country.

While Salzman believes her organization will be working in Fishtown forever, NKCDC is extending its influence beyond Lehigh Avenue to the 19134 area code (a section credited by local writer Steve Volk as having the number one and number two drug corners in the city in 2011). The organization has already begun renovating houses, has organized a civic association and worked with the Community Design Collaborative on a neighborhood plan.

"When I was a kid, Fishtown was not the nicest neighborhood," says Salzman. "The 19134 zip code was a lovely neighborhood. Now it’s the opposite. My goal is to make that neighborhood look like it used to look. It’s our next ‘When pigs fly.'"

DANA HENRY is Flying Kite's Innovation & Job News editor.
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