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Most people rush in and out of their local grocery stores. We see them simply as utilitarian structures, designed to sustain life with food. They don’t evoke feelings of pride and community.
And then there’s the Brown’s ShopRite of Fox Street in North Philadelphia.
Here, the front-end manager greets customers with hugs and handshakes. Older folks sit around the tables in the hot food section, swapping stories. Neighbors meet in the produce aisle and actually talk about how fresh the produce is. They walk past fish swimming in a tank, waiting to be filleted and a fiery grill covered with butterflied chickens that customers line up to buy hot.
These folks say the store is the best thing to happen to their community in years.
“People here need hope,” said Greg Brinkley, a former corrections officer who has lived in the area for 40 years. “This store gives them hope.”
The 71,000-square foot store anchors the Bakers Square shopping center at Fox Avenue and Roberts Street. Other businesses include a dry cleaner, clothing stores and fast-food restaurants.
For years before this, the site was empty, part of it occupied by the shuttered Tasty Baking factory.
Fox and Roberts touches the boundaries of four neighborhoods—Allegheny West, East Falls, Nicetown-Tioga and Hunting Park, most of whom have similar narratives. The factories left, taking the jobs and the money with them. Some people found new work and moved. Others stayed and many struggled.
Time passed and the infrastructure deteriorated, crime increased and the words “troubled” or “blighted” became adjectives usually appended before the neighborhood’s name.
Now, the story is changing. People are investing in homes, businesses and community ventures, and it shows. Some people say that ShopRite was the catalyst.
“This neighborhood has basically been overlooked for decades. I don’t want to overuse the term “depressed,” but it was,” said Majeedah Rashid, chief operating officer of the Nicetown CDC.
“But this ShopRite phenomena has changed that. It shows we’re committed to revitalization. We think we own this supermarket. I’ve never seen that before, where people feel like they have a part of something.”
Others note that the area’s rebirth was underway before the store, which was very much needed, finally opened in August.
“You’re beginning to see some of that long-term investment taking root and now it’s attracting private investors. Commercial improvements tend to follow residential ones,” explains Pat Smith, a senior policy advisor at The Reinvestment Fund, whose organization has funded community improvements, “That the shopping center went in on a site that was vacant for years shows there’s a lot happening in that community.”
Surely, there were other signs that this section of North Philadelphia was rising:
In 2009, Mercy Neighborhood Ministries converted a boarded-up warehouse into a family center offering before- and after-school child care and adult daycare among other services.
The next year, the Salvation Army’s Kroc Center opened in Nicetown, offering locals subsidized memberships to its state-of-the-art facility that includes an Olympic-size pool and water park, a fitness center, sports fields and multiple programs for adults and children.
And in 2011, the long-closed Episcopal Church of St. James reopened as a middle school, focusing on at-risk students. The school has grown every year since, providing what Head of School David Kasievich calls “a leafy, green, prep-school experience in North Philadelphia.”
To many, the ShopRite on Fox Street was the next significant step. Having it there has not only improved residents’ quality of life, but their outlook as well.
It makes sense. In the same way decline of a neighborhood—with shuttered stores and abandoned homes—can create a form of civic depression, the opening of a shopping center, anchored by a gleaming supermarket, can foster optimism.
It is a first-class store, clean, bright and airy, which caters its products to its community— Halal products for the large Muslim population, sweet potato-based baked goods enjoyed by many African-Americans. There’s a medical clinic and a credit union in-store.
“People in low-income communities often feel they don’t get the best or the highest quality,” Smith said, “so they’re excited to have a quality store in their neighborhood.”
For years, the closest supermarket was a Pathmark at Wayne and W. Chelten Ave., which is two miles away. There were fast food restaurants and corner stores nearby, but nothing else. The area had become what is called a food desert.
In 2006, there was talk of bringing a new business to the site—a casino.
A group of investors lead by Donald Trump signed a $1.6 million option with Tasty Baking to purchase the property with the hopes of putting a casino there. While a few groups supported the idea, the majority of local organizations were loudly against it.
“We have enough social problems in this district as it is,” said Mark Green, a neighborhood resident and a Democratic Committee member. “A casino would give us a few jobs in construction and a lot of other things: gambling addiction, prostitution, crime.”
After Trump’s group lost its bid for one of the two licenses available, other investors began looking at the site. As Jeff Brown remembers it, several supermarket chains expressed interest in the property. They balked, however, when they broke down the numbers. Serving lower income areas mean lower average sales and lower margins. More shoppers translates to higher costs for staff and maintenance. The failure rate for such stores is high.
“A lot of people thought it wouldn’t work,” said Brown, president and CEO of Brown’s Family ShopRite, which operates 11 area stores.
He thought it would—and it has. Since opening August 1, the store has performed “above expectations, doing very well sales-wise,” he said.
The flow of customers are greeted at the front door by a cartoon-y life-size cutout of Brown. The real Brown is also a frequent visitor.
“It makes me happy to be in that store,” he said. “The people are just very nice, very helpful. It’s like we’re all working together.”
A fourth generation grocer, Brown has built his business taking on projects others didn’t think were viable. When his company opens a new store, he said, “we listen more and adapt to meet community needs.”
One thing this community has needed since the factories left is jobs. The ShopRite has about 300 employees, almost all from the surrounding neighborhoods.
Some of them, like Tyrone Page, Jr. have criminal records. After a few years of running the streets, with guns and drugs, Page decided he needed legitimate work so he could stay home to care for his mother, sister and nephew. He applied for countless jobs, but never got a phone call or an interview.
He applied for a job with Brown’s Family ShopRite—and got a call. He remembers the conversation: “I said, ‘Are you sure you’re calling the right person? You know I have a criminal record?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, but we like you.’ “
He got a job, pushing carts and working the cash register. People who knew him would give him a hard time when they saw him working, “Ha, ha, you got a job? Hey, you’re corny.”
But that’s changed. Page, a bubbly, chatting young man with a near-constant smile, is now the store’s front end manager, wearing a button-down shirt and tie to work every day. Now, he said, he often hears, “Can you pull my application?”
Page wants to serve as a model for his younger male cousins.
“I like for them to see me dressed up, belt on every day, no pants sagging. Keep my hair cut. Teach ’em how to tie a tie,” he said. “I like them to see me going to work every day.”
Page grew up in the neighborhood and knows how poor the quality of local food was before the ShopRite.
“The stores around here were terrible. The fruit was hot, the stuff was bad,” he recalled. “They say how inner city children are obese. But what are they going to eat? All they have are chips and Chinese food.”
Others, like Michelle Clarke, 23, are seeking flexible hours while they juggle other commitments. Clark is a single mother, a respiratory therapy student and the store’s front-end runner.
“I have to work hard,” she said. “My son deserves the best.”
She and her toddler live within walking distance of the store. Michelle said she loves her job. She loves interacting with people. What she likes a little less? That her neighbors know where she works.
“Not a day that goes by that I don’t get, ‘What’s on sale this week? Will you bring me home…?'” she said, smiling. “It’s not a problem, but sometimes I hide.”
Of course, those neighbors could also try ShopRite’s delivery option: for about $16, your chosen items will be packed up and delivered to your door.
This service has been a big hit with older residents. Brinkley said elderly residents of Abbotsford homes often avail themselves to at-home delivery. The public housing complex was “pretty rough” at one point, Brinkley said, but it’s vastly improved. And he doesn’t think any delivery persons would have anything to fear anyway.
“Nobody is interested in doing anything to the store we worked so hard to get,” he said.
Verna Tyner, a long-time resident who is also president of Tioga United, said this area “was starving for good food.” Now that it has that issue covered, it can focus on others, using the store as a meeting place. There’s a community room for such purposes.
“It’s like a connector, right there, in the middle of all of these communities,” she said. “Now we shop together, people from East Falls and West Allegheny, and we talk about issues that might be coming up or exciting things that are happening.”
On a recent week day, locals Danielle Zigler and Matthew Feldman bumped into each other in the store’s produce department. Usually, they said, they saw each other at another area grocery store, but they’d both found the ShopRite produce superior.
While Zigler felt the store was already making a positive difference, Feldman was more hesitant. It was all well and good to offer fresh, healthy foods. It was another to get people to buy and eat it. “You can bring a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,” he said.
Brinkley said the mere presence of the shopping center is working in another way: more people are noticing the area.
“A lot more people want to engage our community, and I think it has a lot to do with Bakers Square,” Brinkley said. “It’s spurring all kinds of life and opportunities.”
Tyner, too, has noticed outsiders taking more of an interest in the area. But perhaps more importantly, she sees something else: a return of “neighborly affection.” It’s something she noticed when she first moved to the area 40 years ago, when she thought her block and its residents were so beautiful “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”
“I foresee that same beauty again,” she said. “We have truly beautiful people in this neighborhood that deserve and desire better.”
Editor’s Postscript: On Saturday, Jan. 11, a water main broke sending water cascading into the ShopRite and adjoining stores. Employees set up ‘sandbags” using bags of rock salt, but had to evacuate when water rose to two feet. Some of the store’s stock was damaged in the mini-flood, but the ShopRite was able to re-open on Sunday.
Cover Photo: Danielle Zeigler and her six-month-old daughter, Audra, shop at the ShopRite
Photos by Maria Pouchnikova