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Mifflin Square's food vendors have been shut down. Now what?

Mifflin Square Park

A Cambodian market in South Philly

A Cambodian temple in South Philly

South Philly has a thriving Cambodian community

A Cambodian temple in South Philly

I Heart Cambodia on S. 7th Street

For the last 15 years Mifflin Square Park has been host to one of Philadelphia's little known culinary treasures. Intrepid foodies and neighborhood residents alike knew that if you headed to this modest square on the edge of the Whitman neighborhood, you could find a variety of vendors grilling in the sunshine, most of them of Southeast Asian descent. 

The park is hemmed in by the narrow streets and two-story brick row houses of South Philadelphia, punctuated by the riotous color of the Preah Buddah Rangsey Temple at Sixth and Ritner streets. The Buddhist temple subsumed the rotting hulk of Saint Andrews Lutheran Church and the empty Adath Shalom synagogue across the street, a testament to the growing Southeast Asian community in this corner of the traditionally white working-class neighborhood. The proof was in the park, too. In nice weather, customers could enjoy sticky rice, barbecued meats, papaya salad and various fried delicacies.

But those who head to Mifflin Square this spring and summer will probably be disappointed. Turns out it wasn't only the gourmands of the city who noticed the abundance of street food on offer, all of it unlicensed. Last autumn, the Philadelphia Police Department shut it down. 

The precipitating incidents occurred in mid-October, when there were two consecutive nights of gun violence in this normally quiet neighborhood. On October 13, 51 shots were fired at 6th and Wolf -- the northwest corner of the park -- but no one was injured. The following night, over 40 rounds were fired, leaving two men injured and a nineteen-year-old dead with a Glock still clutched in his hand. 

Captain Frank Milillo, commanding officer of the Third Police District, claims the conflict was between a normally subdued Cambodian gang that hangs around the park and a more volatile African-American gang based around neighboring 7th Street. The vendors were in no way implicated in the violence, but the police nonetheless felt that the illegal food sales contributed to a laissez-faire atmosphere that resulted in gambling and illicit alcohol sales in Mifflin Square. 

"When the park was full like that, and there was gambling, I believe that attracted some of the Asian gang members," says Captain Milillo. "When I was first assigned to the district, we didn't pay much attention to [the food vendors] because it was a cultural thing. But the selling of the food escalated to where they were selling beer in the park and liquor, and they started gambling and we were having fights, so we put a stop to the vending." 

Milillo cites other issues as well, principally health concerns from the unregulated cooking. He also says that some vendors were dumping used oil in the park and killing the grass. Since the explosion of gun violence last fall, Mifflin Square has hosted a permanent police presence. On a rainy afternoon in early May, with no one else to be seen, a huge police SUV loomed in the center of the park. Milillo says it will remain there as long as his resources will allow and that vendors will be barred from the park for the foreseeable future. 

Local residents and community advocates both recognize the boon that the vendors brought to the square and are searching for a way to bring them back in a legal capacity. The park sits at the nexus of four Census tracts, in the midst of the largest concentration of Asians in South Philadelphia, and serves as a leafy retreat for local residents. (It is worth noting that none of the four tracts are even close to being majority Asian; though there have been efforts to dub the area "Cambodia Town," data shows that this ethnic group only makes up a majority of the Asian population in one tract.) 

"It's the only green space that's really available to the Southeast Asian refugee community in South Philly," says Thoai Nguyen, CEO of the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition (SEAMAAC) and a 42-year resident of the neighborhood. "People wanted to have food when they were down there with their families. Then a group of people decided they were going to barbecue and sell it as a way to make extra money. But 15 years later, instead of one or two people vending, you had up to twenty or twenty-five."

The products on sale branched out over the years from Laotian and Cambodian street snacks to clothing and a variety of trinkets. As the Asian refugee communities in the area multiplied, vendors from Bhutan, Nepal and Burma moved into the park as well. Milillo claims a few people were also selling booze, even to minors, but that the great majority were not. 

There have been meetings between the police, interested city bureaucracies -- Licenses and Inspections, Parks and Recreation -- and a variety of community representatives. The municipal agencies argue that all the vendors need to do is get permits from Parks & Rec, business privilege licenses, certifications from the health department, and perhaps a special-events permit if there are going to be a lot of vendors operating at the same time. So far they haven't been notified of any interest, or seen any attempted forays into illicit mercantile activity in Mifflin Square.

Nguyen and his compatriots at SEAMAAC are trying to convince three to ten vendors to get their paperwork right with the city and reopen in the park on a legal basis. With help from The Food Trust and several other community organizations, the coalition is trying to start an umbrella group that the sellers could operate within. This new organization handle would much of the backend work for the vendors, many of whom are first generation immigrants not adept enough with English to tackle the paperwork requirements. It would also market their offerings, obtain a group license at a commissary kitchen, and provide ServeSafe training.

Although the idea of an umbrella organization is new, Nguyen and his allies have been trying to get vendors on the up-and-up for over a decade. 

"No one has been interested in doing this," says Nguyen. "People feel that going through that process of business licensing certification, training, getting a cart -- all that stuff is too expensive for them, too much to think about. And they'd have to declare their income. We think that hopefully with the police shutting down the entire operation, people will say it's time for me to step up my game."

Meanwhile, the vendors have mostly moved their trade elsewhere, selling goods in other corners of the neighborhood, especially along South 7th Street. A legal food truck, Boba & Co., has opened near the intersection of 6th and Moyamensing Avenue, and new Cambodian restaurants have continued to spring up in the area as well. The commerce below Snyder on 7th -- once a hub of the Jewish community -- is dominated by Cambodian and other Southeast Asian businesses. 

Mifflin Square, meanwhile, is still actively used by people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. But easy access to street food is certainly missed. 

"We'd like to see it come back," says Rebecca Wanner from the Lower Moyamensing Civic Association. "It provided a sort of atmosphere and vibrancy to the park that's really lacking without it. There would be more families and bigger groups using the park than there are now. But there still is a lot of vending in the neighborhood which everyone here is really happy about."
JAKE BLUMGART is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter
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