Welcome back, Girard Avenue: A street reborn
Philadelphia Inquirer (http://www.philly.com)
- January 9, 2004
Just as Philadelphia has traditionally been a city of many neighborhoods,
it has also been a city of many Main Streets. From north to south, the
city's fine-grained grid is inlaid with wide streets that serve as major
transportation arteries, firebreaks and retail hubs.
But here, as elsewhere in automobile-oriented America, Main Streets are
an endangered species. For every success story like Main Street in Manayunk
or Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill, there are many more thoroughfares
such as Girard or Lehigh Avenues where the tinkle of cash registers has
steadily grown fainter over the last half century. Punctured by stand-alone
convenience stores, fast-food drive-ins and empty lots, these wide streets
are struggling to remain not only viable retail corridors, but real urban
While many of the city's neighborhood shopping streets have already
declined into cluttered suburban-style highway strips, Girard Avenue should
avoid that fate. The east-west boulevard is emerging as the latest contender
for a Manayunk-style comeback. Thanks to the population spillover from
Center City and the steady migration of residents toward more affordable,
more edgy neighborhoods, Girard Avenue might soon claim title as the
northern border of Greater Center City.
The transformation couldn't have happened to a more interesting street.
In the four miles between I-95 and the Philadelphia Zoo, Girard Avenue spans
the globe, drawing in communities of Albanians, Ukrainians, Brazilians,
Puerto Ricans, Irish and African Americans. East of the Schuylkill River,
the avenue bisects 11 distinct neighborhoods whose names alone could tell
the history of Philadelphia, from Fishtown to Brewerytown.
Girard's resurgence has not been entirely by accident. The street got a
big boost during the Rendell administration when the city demanded that
SEPTA make good on its promise to reinstate the Route 15 trolley line. The
track work is now complete. By June, SEPTA hopes to have 15 refurbished,
Streamline Moderne streetcars trundling along the center right-of-way,
sporting the original green, cream and maroon colors of the former
Philadelphia Transportation Co.
It seems almost everyone loves a trolley. The $56 million transit project
piqued the interest of city agencies, which began to focus seriously on
Girard Avenue's future. Behind the scruffy exterior, they discovered a
Amazingly, given the amount of life-sapping, blank-walled government
architecture imposed on Girard Avenue during the last 20 years, the street
still supports such venerable retailers as Rutberg Furs, Young's Candies,
and a ladies' hat shop in Brewerytown, all still housed in their '50s-era
It also boasts attractions such as the Roman Catholic shrine of St. John
Neumann and the zoo, distinctive 19th-century architecture, and great subway
and El connections to Center City. In recent years, an eclectic batch of
restaurants, bars and clubs have enriched the mix. The New Acropolis Diner,
at Frankford Avenue, is surely among the last places in America where not
only do all the patrons smoke, but so do all the servers.
A local rescue plan
After the trolley work started, the Philadelphia Empowerment Zone, a city
agency, invited the nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corp. to come up
with a rescue plan for Girard. LISC, which lobbies nationally for Main
Streets, organized civic groups from the 11 neighborhoods into the Girard
Avenue Coalition. That coalition is raising money to repair broken
sidewalks, install street lights, and launch a marketing campaign.
Investment in infrastructure - or, more accurately, basic upkeep - is a
time-honored way to make a fading neighborhood seem more attractive to
business and residents. The improvements don't guarantee that people will
come, but they generally make them feel better about being there.
The challenge will be to unify the long avenue. Even in its heyday, when
workers piled onto the trolleys for the breweries and shipyards, Girard
Avenue was never one continuous retail corridor. Few pedestrians are likely
to walk the four miles from Zeka's Albanian Grocery at Front Street to the
zoo at 34th Street.
The weakest stretch of the avenue is the area around Broad Street,
despite the presence of the subway hub. Blame several poorly planned and
government-subsidized projects, such as the half-built Heritage Plaza strip
mall. A community center being completed at 12th Street also deadens that
stretch of Girard by turning a blank wall to the avenue.
It's unfortunate that some of SEPTA's track work also makes Girard Avenue
feel less pedestrian-friendly. Metal car barriers, which are meant to
protect people while they wait on the trolley platforms, look as if they
belong on an interstate highway rather than a city street.
Despite these design weaknesses, Girard Avenue is still managing to
attract private developers, especially in the parts adjacent to the booming
Northern Liberties and Fairmount neighborhoods. In Brewerytown, just a short
bike ride from Kelly Drive and Fairmount Park, builder John Westrum is
clearing a large tract for more than 200 townhouses. Developer Bart
Blatstein has been promising a similar project on the site of the former
Schmidt's plant, at Second Street.
Given that drug chains and fast-food restaurants are what passes for
economic development on many other Philadelphia shopping streets, Girard
Avenue is more than holding its own. Like the pilgrims visiting St. John
Neumann's shrine, the street can count its blessings.