Just six months ago, the corner lot on Parkside Avenue was considered a dizzying neighborhood. Once the SEPTA bus turned around, the sidewalk became a hot spot for illegal dumping, littered with abandoned cars, sand and all kinds of rubbish.
On Saturday, however, it was a lively neighborhood hangout, home to a unique new outdoor mall, and even a brief campaign for U.S. Democratic Senate candidate John Feltman.
The West Philadelphia Business Association and elected officials welcomed 20 small business owners — all of whom are people of color, many of them women — who set up shop in refurbished shipping containers.
The outdoor mall, known as the Fourth District Container Village, was a year of planning and coordination with city officials, community groups and businesses, and marks the first such initiative in Philadelphia, organizers said.
Deborah Washington, 64, from West Philadelphia, rolling a row of colorful headscarves in front of her new store, said she was happy to have been in malls and mosques over the years. The retired Marine Corps and U.S. Postal Service worker said she had previous connections with many new neighbors.
“Now we’re all in the same place,” Washington said with a smile.
“It’s such a village and such a community,” said Mercedes Dennis, a 47-year-old thrift store owner in northeast Philadelphia, noting that within an hour of opening, a fellow entrepreneur suggested Come out and mop her floor. She said others have made “Purpose Purchase” purchases at her store, where each dress is donated and sells for $5.
Lakia Brown, 40, from Germantown, said she believed the unconventional mall would be a boon not only for individual businesses but also for the community.
“I think it’s going to bring money back to the community,” said Brown, a designer who owns a clothing, footwear and accessories store called Kreative LAB. “People who live in the neighborhood tend to shop elsewhere,” with fewer nearby stores than some other neighborhoods.
Business owners are vetted and selected from more than 100 applicants in what the organizers call a shark tank-style process. They said they received 12 weeks of free business management training and a monthly rent subsidy of $500, which includes electricity and Wi-Fi.
The village also hosts food truck rotations and has a performance stage.
Feltman briefly took the stage Saturday to remind Phillies of the crucial November vote. Election 8 and reiterated his positions on key issues, but made no comment on small businesses.
His appearance came four days after Feltman, who had recovered from a stroke, stumbled verbally in a key televised debate between him and his opponent, Republican Mohammed Oz. The performance has shaken some Democratic insiders.
Feltman, who gave a brief speech to a small audience in West Philadelphia, paused for less than 90 seconds and didn’t seem to deviate from script. He left quickly after posing for a photo with several supporters.
The Container Village at the 4800 block of Parkside Avenue will be open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 7 p.m., though West Philadelphia Corridor Partnership president Jabari Jones said the hours could be extended if all goes well.
As the largest business association in West Philadelphia, the partnership will provide private security for the village, which will also be monitored by local police, Jones said. This summer, the co-op canceled a large block party over fears of a surge in gun violence.
“We’ve made a commitment to the community to turn this into an urban oasis of peace,” Jones said, standing at the center of the village. “We want to make sure people feel safe here.”