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ON THE GROUND: First the avenue, then the neighborhood

These days, Frankford’s commercial corridor is hard to characterize. From one block to the next, the vibrancy of Frankford Avenue ebbs and flows—it's pockmarked with vacancy and neglect, yet blessed with unique small businesses reminiscent of the Avenue’s heyday as a regional shopping destination.

In fact, it was the stretch of Frankford Avenue running through Frankford that earned the corridor its nickname, "the Avenue." Thanks to the El and the Frankford Transportation Center, folks from across the city could easily access the centralized shopping district's prodigious offerings.

But in the late 1950s, urban decline began to take its toll on the Frankford community. Industry disappeared, and by the '90s much of the Avenue was vacant, a shadow of its prosperous past.      

A proud bunch, Frankford residents and community stakeholders refuse to sit idly by—they are leading efforts to return the Avenue to its former glory. After years of false starts and setbacks, a critical mass of enthusiasm and investment seems to be paying off. With an emboldened community development corporation (CDC) spearheading unique campaigns under the banner "Revitalize the Corridor, Revitalize the Neighborhood," the area seems to be on track for an urban reboot.

According to Michelle Feldman of the Frankford CDC, recent efforts aim to revive community eyesores. "We're working to bring life to the vacant spaces along the corridor by filling them with the arts," says Feldman. "Specifically, we're working to bring the artists (and the positive energy) from Globe Dye Works to those vacancies."

Globe Dye Works on Worth Street is a community of artists, artisans and fabricators housed in a repurposed yarn-dying factory. Feldman says connecting with the folks at Globe Dye makes a lot of sense, and that their model is a useful one. Frankford CDC wants to tap into that same entrepreneurial and artistic spirit of renovation and reuse for the Avenue.

The project is simply titled "Art in Vacant Spaces," and is still in the beginning stages of development. "We're currently in the process of seeking funding and lining up properties," says Feldman. Established partners include PhillyRising, ArtsRising and Philadelphia Sculptors.

Though the project is in its infancy, Feldman hopes that community engagement will be an integral part of the process. "We'd encourage all of the [Globe Dye] artists to include an interactive component in their project so that once the program is over, the whole community still feels increasingly invested in those spaces and in Frankford," she explains.

Ultimately, the CDC has multifaceted goals for the project. "We want to market vacant buildings to potential business owners, to continue creating buzz around Frankford and drawing in new visitors from around the city," explains Feldman. "We have some beautiful spaces at lower prices than other areas of the city. And many of those spaces are perfect for live/work studios for artists, which we know are in demand."

The CDC's efforts build off the already-established arts-focused project "Imagining Frankford," a collaboration between the community and Mural Arts that supports murals along the Avenue reflecting the corridor's strong history.

That project—along with other big-ticket, short-term efforts—is a boon for a neighborhood on the rebound, but the CDC hasn’t lost sight of smaller housekeeping issues that can have a lasting impact. They have a slew of initiatives available to assist existing business owners in sprucing up their spaces, improving the aesthetics of the Avenue. Thanks to the efforts of Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, the entire 4600 block of Frankford Avenue is set to receive $200,000 in targeted facade improvements as part of the Commerce Department’s Storefront Improvement Program

"We want to make a big bang," says Tracy O’Drain of the Frankford CDC. "That’s why we’re targeting the 4600 block of Frankford Avenue. It’s in the heart of the business district, has the highest concentration of businesses and has the potential to catalyze additional revitalization efforts nearby." 

The program joins a commercial corridor cleaning program that the CDC is spearheading with funds from the Commerce Department. "We know that a cleaner Frankford Avenue will lead to increased commerce and safety, and add to the sense of pride that we should all take in Frankford," says O’Drain.

The cleaning program is a one-time, year-long event, but O’Drain and the CDC have high hopes for the lasting impact of facade improvement. "In the future, commercial corridor manager Michelle Feldman can use the facade improvements as an example of how other blocks can implement similar changes," says O'Drain. "And keep the blocks clean for a more sustainable Frankford Avenue."

The CDC is building momentum through a coordinated PR blitz. "Over the last year or so, we've strategically decided to up our PR efforts through an increased [social media] presence and efforts to get the positive word out about Frankford in the Inquirer, Daily News and, of course, Flying Kite Media," explains Feldman. "Like lots of business districts in areas like Frankford, part of what we battle is negative perception—and that's why we think our focus on media is so important. We want to make sure people hear positive news, too." 

Feldman says that while the amount of projects, events and PR meetings can seem overwhelming at times for the two-person CDC staff, it’s a good problem to have. Plus, it’s important work that needs to be done. "Frankford has many great social service agencies, so revitalizing the corridor is key for those in need," she says. "Also, we believe that a thriving commercial corridor will help lead to a thriving neighborhood. The more shopping being done on the corridor, the more money is flowing into the neighborhood, leading to more job creation—and the good cycle continues."

Feldman sees revitalization moving forward rapidly. “I'd say the corridor has a lot going for it right now," she explains. "We have the bones of a great shopping district, there's a lot of positive energy from within and outside of city government, and a real focus on revitalizing Frankford."

With an eye towards the future, Feldman and O’Drain remain focused on the tasks at hand. In the New Year, getting the Art in Vacant Spaces effort up and running is a top priority.

"We're working to make sure those vacancies are filled with good, viable art installations or businesses that meet the needs of the community and create a destination for new folks to visit and see what Frankford has to offer," says Feldman. "We're very optimistic we can make this happen. It's a good time to be in Philadelphia right now, and there's a lot of focus on not just Center City, but all of the city's really great, unique neighborhoods."

GREG MECKSTROTH is Flying Kite's development news editor.
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