The corner lot on Parkside Avenue was known as a neighborhood eyesore just six months ago. Once a turning point for SEPTA buses, the sidewalk became a popular spot for illegal dumping sites, filled with abandoned cars, sand and all manner of trash.
On Saturday, however, it was a lively neighborhood gathering place, the site of a unique new outdoor shopping mall, and even a brief campaign stop for US Senate nominee John Fetterman.
Business associations and elected officials from West Philadelphia welcomed 20 small business owners – all black, many of them women – as they set up shop in refurbished shipping containers.
The outdoor mall, dubbed the 4th District Container Village, took a year of planning and coordination with city officials, community groups and businesses, organizers said, and is the first initiative of its kind in Philadelphia.
Deborah Washington, 64, of West Philadelphia, unfurled a stack of colorful headscarves in front of her new store and said she’s excited to finally have a more permanent location for her Islamic clothing store after years of working as a retailer in pop-up malls and mosques. The retired Navy and US Postal Service employee said she has previously bonded with many of her new neighbors.
“Now we all showed up in the same place,” Washington said, laughing.
“This is such a village and such a community,” said thrift store owner Mercedes Dennis, 47, of Northeast Philadelphia, noting that within an hour of opening, a fellow entrepreneur offered to sweep her floors. She said others have already shopped at her Purpose Purchase store, where each garment is donated and costs $5.
Lakia Brown, 40, of Germantown, said she believes the funky mall will be a boon not only for the individual businesses but also for the neighborhood.
“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 here are more likely to shop elsewhere,” with fewer shops nearby than some other neighborhoods.
The business owners were screened and selected from more than 100 applicants in what the organizers called a Shark Tank-like process. They completed 12 weeks of free business management training, they said, and received a subsidized $500-a-month rent that includes electricity and Wi-Fi.
The village is also home to a number of food trucks and includes a stage for performances.
On Saturday, Fetterman briefly took the stage, reminded Philadelphians to vote in the critical Nov. 8 election and reiterated his positions on key issues, but made no comments about small business.
His appearance came four days after Fetterman, who is recovering from a stroke, stumbled verbally during a critical TV debate between himself and his opponent, Republican Mehmet Oz. It was a performance that shook some Democratic insiders.
During his brief speech to a much smaller West Philadelphia audience, Fetterman spoke haltingly for less than 90 seconds and didn’t seem to deviate from a script. He took selfies with a few supporters and quickly left.
The container village on the 4800 block of Parkside Avenue is scheduled to be open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 7 p.m., although West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative President Jabari Jones said hours could be extended if all goes well.
As West Philadelphia’s largest business association, the cooperation will provide private security for the village, which will also be monitored by local police, Jones said. This summer, the collab canceled a big block party over concerns about rising gun violence.
“We have made a commitment to the community to transform this into a peaceful urban oasis,” said Jones, standing in the center of the village. “We want people to feel safe here.”