The corner lot on Parkside Avenue was known as a neighborhood eyesore just six months ago. After a SEPTA bus overturned, the piece of sidewalk became a popular illegal dumping ground filled with abandoned cars, sand and all manner of trash.
On Saturday, however, it was a bustling neighborhood gathering place, the site of a unique new outdoor mall and even a brief campaign stop for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman.
West Philadelphia business associations and elected officials welcomed 20 small business owners — all of them people of color, many of them women — as they set up shop in refurbished shipping containers.
Called the 4th District Container Village, the outdoor shopping center took a year of planning and coordination with city officials, community groups and businesses, organizers said, and marks the first initiative of its kind in Philadelphia.
Winding up a stack of colorful headscarves outside her new storefront, Deborah Washington, 64, of West Philadelphia, said she was excited to finally have a more permanent location for her Islamic clothing business after years of being a pop-up a vendor in malls and mosques. The retired Marine and US Postal Service employee said she had previously bonded with many of her new neighbors.
“Now we all showed up at the same place,” Washington said with a laugh.
“It’s 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 wash her floors. She said other have already shopped at her Purpose Purchase store, where each item of clothing is donated and costs $5.
Lakia Brown, 40, of Germantown, said she believes the unconventional mall will benefit not only individual businesses, but the neighborhood as well.
“I think it’s going to put money back into the community,” said Brown, a designer who owns a clothing, shoe and accessories store called Kreative LAB. “People who live nearby tend to shop elsewhere,” with fewer stores nearby than in some other neighborhoods.
The business owners were vetted and selected from more than 100 applicants in a process that organizers called similar to Shark Tank. They received free 12-week business management training, they said, and received subsidized rent of $500 a month, which includes electricity and Wi-Fi.
The village also hosts a rotation of food trucks and features a performance stage.
Fetterman took the stage briefly on Saturday, reminding Philadelphians to vote in the critical Nov. 8 election and reiterating his positions on key issues, but without commenting on small businesses.
His appearance came four days after Fetterman, who is recovering from a stroke, stumbled verbally during a critical televised debate between him and his opponent, Republican Mehmet Oz. It was a performance that rattled some Democratic Party insiders.
During his brief speech to a much smaller audience in West Philadelphia, Fetterman stammered for less than 90 seconds, appearing to stay off script. He took a selfie with a few supporters and quickly left.
The container village on the 4800 block of Parkside Avenue will be open from noon to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, though West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative President Jabari Jones said hours could be extended if all goes well.
As the largest business association in West Philadelphia, the co-op will provide private security to the village, which will also be overseen by local police, Jones said. This summer, the collaborative canceled a major block party due to concerns about rising gun violence.
“We’ve committed to the community to make this a peaceful urban oasis,” Jones said, standing in the center of the village. “We want to make sure people feel safe here.”