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Taking it to the streets in West Philadelphia

Commerce along 52nd Street

Commerce along 52nd Street

Kiosks for the 52nd Street Corridor

Kiosks for the 52nd Street Corridor

Commerce along 52nd Street

Commerce along 52nd Street

On August 19, the street vendors of 52nd Street gathered in a large unfinished room above a barbershop and a cell phone store to complete a process that began nearly five years ago: incorporating the corridor's informal sidewalk economy into larger revitalization efforts along the iconic West Philadelphia thoroughfare. 

The main purpose of the gathering, organized by the Commerce Department, was to help vendors confirm that they had a business bank account, liability insurance, a Tax ID number and city licenses -- all the trappings of a legitimate business. In exchange for turning in the form, up to 32 of the vendors will receive a custom-designed kiosk for their merchandise and a designated home on the corridor.  

For the Commerce Department, which has been working directly to improve the corridor since 2008, getting to this point has been a long journey. All along 52nd Street from Spruce to Arch Streets, vendors line the sidewalk. Their fold-out tables and metal racks are piled with purses, sneakers, watches, luggage, oils and sunglasses. Figuring out how to respect the street economy's contribution to the corridor, while also formalizing it and improving it, has been a balancing act.

"There have always been vendors on 52nd Street," explains Aiisha Herring-Miller, director of economic development zones and point person on 52nd Street for the Commerce Department. "That's been a well-known thing: People visit the corridor to patronize the vendors as well as the businesses...They [just] had to learn what it means to be a good vendor." 

That meant complying with city regulations and following basic good business practices, such as obtaining insurance and learning how to better display their products. Herring-Milller led a series of classes on these topics last summer; over 25 vendors attended. 

The City also had work to do -- they needed to earn some trust. 

For decades, street vendors on 52nd Street did their business beneath bulky steel canopies that sheltered and protected their goods. Then in 2011, the Commerce Department tore the canopies down as a part of an initiative to give the corridor a new face. Sidewalk repairs, street cleaning and storefront improvements soon followed. While civic leaders and storefront businesses celebrated, the street vendors felt embattled. 

"Our initial thoughts were basically maybe these guys are tying to get us out of here," recalls Sadat Abdul Mu'min, a street vendor for the last 10 years who sells oils, incense and t-shirts. "So we banded together and protested."

Tension had already existed between vendors and storefront businesses on the corridor. Now brick-and-mortar shops were getting new investment while vendors were losing the protection of the canopies. 

"At one point the relationship [between businesses and vendors] had been really edgy," explains Arthur Williams, head of the 52nd Street Business Association. 

Within months of the canopies coming down, the vendors formed the 52nd Street Vendors Association -- it serves as a unified voice and single point of contact with the city. Protests subsided and a series of talks began. 

"When we set up a table to talk to the Commerce Department, they assured us that it was not their intention to get rid of the vendors," says Azizuddin Muhammad Abdulaziz, president of the Vendors Association. "Their intention was to change the look of the corridor and bring in more patrons. At the same time, they extended their hand to us to help us and allow us to work with them."

There had to be a compromise: Vendors wanted a secure place on 52nd Street and the Commerce Department wanted them to comply with city regulations and become more organized. 

In March 2011, an ordinance -- introduced by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell -- established set rules for vending on the corridor. These included a limit on the total number of vendors (56), as well restrictions on how and when they operate. But even with a new legal framework, it took time to find the right incentive. The kiosk program was the "carrot," as Herring-Miller calls it, to drive real change.

The kiosks are white-paneled boxes with wide doors, wheels underneath and space inside for the proprietor to stand. Herring-Miller worked with the vendors to come up with the design. Then, using a combination of funding sources including state and federal grants, the Commerce Department procured the structures at $10,000 per unit. 

As for the stick, Herring-Miller says there will likely be increased enforcement by the Department of Licenses and Inspections on the corridor. 

"If you don't have a license, you shouldn't be out there," she insists. 

According to Muhammad Abdulaziz, the 52nd Street Vendor Association will help monitor the corridor and make sure the rules are being followed. 

"There's some people that aren't going to comply, but it's a matter of the law now," he says. "We're going to help enforce it among our members."

So far, many vendors appear ready for a new reality on 52nd Street. 

"I think its something new," enthuses Abdul Mu'min. "It's something that could be used as a merchandising tool. You have to use your imagination. I think this is what's going to separate the true businessmen and the true entrepreneurs." 

ALEX VUOCOLO is a Philadelphia-based freelance reporter who has written about community development, urban planning, state and local government, and the nonprofit sector. He is also editor and co-founder of SPOKE magazine, a print quarterly about people who bike in Philadelphia.  
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