For business owners in Southwest Philadelphia, a garbage truck of their own is the last sign of hope.

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It’s been 21 years since James Youboty moved the North Atlantic from war-torn Liberia to where he still likes to call the City of Brotherly Love, where he prints store nameplates and T-shirts at the bustling Parkside Impressions Sign Shop in Southwest Philadelphia.

“All these shops were empty when I got here,” Youboty said. “Now you see, there’s someone in each of them. There are more people and they know me, so I don’t have to struggle too much. And now there’s the truck.”

The “Truck” is the newest sign of hope in this former row house and former factory section where migrant owners from Africa, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean are starting businesses and business seems to be on the rise. The truck picks up trash from businesses in the busy retail corridors of Woodland, Elmwood, and Chester Streets in the Elmwood section of Southwest Philly on days when city trucks are not running.

The vehicle was funded by a $48,000 grant from M&T Bank, which is doubling down on its client nurturing efforts in the region. A $294,000 city grant includes one manager and a dozen workers this year. And the tool is owned and operated by the African Cultural Alliance of North America (ACANA), which it says has registered more than 600 local businesses, most of which are run by immigrants.

The response from business owners was almost dizzying.

“It’s been a month since I started working with the truck. That’s great,” said Sayed Ahmad, owner of the family. Cousins ​​Fresh Market At 6411 Woodland Ave “I can feel things turning. You don’t see abandoned places like before. You see people getting better and moving.”

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At the same time, tough challenges remain in a region where incomes and home values ​​are well below the city average. Owners echo their complaints about the high taxes and intrusive regulations common to their city counterparts, and say some businesses are moving to better locations in Delaware County, where business taxes aren’t too harsh.

“This tax on soda, the plastic bag law, the city cigarette tax [a $2-a-pack surcharge]It’s really hurting businesses here,” said Ahmed, whose family of four chain stores now also has a location in Chester. “People are moving to Delaware County. If costs continue to rise, it will be difficult for us to grow here.”

Like many urban neighborhoods, Elmwood used to attract residents for factory jobs—like building generators at the giant General Electric plant and converting oil into fuels at the Arco, Gulf, and Sunoco plants in nearby Schuylkill. The refinery complex used some of its former workforce when it closed in 2019 after an explosion and fire.

GE closed the final section of its three-block complex in 2002 and leveled the site. Last year, Amazon beat SEPTA to take over the GE site for its last-mile warehouse. Meanwhile, Giant Co. has opened a large e-commerce warehouse and fulfillment center in Eastwick. City officials said the ongoing redevelopment of old refineries and other vacant sites could add thousands of jobs.

The nearby Philadelphia International Airport and University City medical complex represent another great source of employment in Elmwood.

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The area remains a magnet for immigrants. According to census estimates, in Elmwood’s 19142 zip code, one in four residents in 2020 was foreign-born, compared to 1 in 7 citywide and 1 in 11 for the district.

Average prices are under $100,000 – less than half the city average in 2020 and a third of the regional average – homes remain a relative bargain here. policymap.orgA Philly-based data analytics company.

The median household income was approximately $35,000, less than half the regional average.

Still, things are hectic for the stores. Only 5% of business addresses in the Elmwood area are currently vacant, compared to more than 8% citywide. policymap.org and marketing firm Valassis Corp.

The activity is evident in the shopping districts along Chester, Woodland, and Elmwood Streets. Ethnic markets, restaurants, hair salons, electronics stores and worship centers now fill the busiest blocks. “Immigrant entrepreneurs are driving a resurgence here and in other low- and middle-income urban neighborhoods like Olney,” said city spokesman Kevin Lessard. “Immigrants and their families [have] It was necessary for the growth of the city in recent years”.

But owners say it’s difficult to get investment capital and bank loans, and they worry about how to attract more visitors south from the airport or north from University City and Center City.

The remaining banks and other institutions are looking for ways to earn immigrants’ jobs with some success.

Bank deposits, which were down two-thirds in Elmwood and flat in Eastwick from 1994 to 2010, roughly doubled in both neighborhoods by June 2021. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation data.

M&T Bank, like other lenders, has closed branches in old-town neighborhoods over the past 20 years as consumers and large businesses begin to bank digitally.

However, 6301 Woodland Ave. At its branch office and another on Castor Street in the multi-ethnic Mayfair section of the Northeast, M&T has decided to add staffing, training and community programs. David Femi, head of M&T’s “multicultural banking and diversified market” strategy, said the goal is to attract immigrant and ethnic entrepreneurs who still use their neighborhood branches.

“We’re moving in the direction our client wants and we’re seeing a rapid growth of multicultural and diverse communities,” Femi said. “There is so much potential in these areas. It will only grow from here.”

As part of this larger strategy, the bank increased its commitment in Southwest Philly following the evacuation of its Woodland Avenue branch following local protests against the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on June 1, 2020.

“They destroyed him; We were shut down for three weeks,” Preston Stackfield, former branch manager, recalls.

M&T suffered similar damage at its Rittenhouse Square branch. Not surprisingly, the bank was planning to repair the office in this high-rent area serving $40 million in depositor accounts; but would he also return to Woodland Avenue? At this point, after losing more than 80% of its deposits since 1994, this branch still had only $4 million on the books in its neighborhood accounts.

“I want the community to know we understand and we will be back,” said Brandon Smith, Stackfield boss, district manager.

M&T responded with 30 volunteers to clean up the mess. They also put rose saplings in empty pots along the street. And sent contractors to replace the destroyed equipment.

The bank has announced the availability of government-funded forgivable PPP loans to pay small business employees idle by the pandemic. And Youboty’s store has approved a grant program that accelerates the expansion of businesses like Desiree Shields’. GLAD Center kindergartenand Sam Perry’s Southwest Fresh Hairstudio.

In addition, the bank financed the truck that ACANA has been trying to finance since 2018.

The vehicle arrived in early March and got to work in the business district, where ACANA has placed the West African national flags, recalling those lined up on the Parkway in Center City.

Some promising signs have emerged: Deposits at the small M&T branch nearly doubled to $8 million, but bankers said they had yet to see a strong rise in loans. Many small businesses struggle to establish credit.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood maintains its global feel. In Cousins, Ahmed said, “Many people from Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Salvador said they saw it under construction. Africans, Mali, Nigeria, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the majority work at the airport” and more from Southeast Asia and the Caribbean .

“I call it the ‘multicultural tsunami’,” says Femi of Nigerian M&T. “We are seeing the non-Hispanic white population continue to decline. Multicultural Americans are responsible for all population growth in America and places like Castor Avenue and Woodland Avenue. They also provide a large part of the economic growth.”

“Twenty years ago it was easy for many people to look at places like Woodland Avenue and see a decline that is likely to continue,” said Domenic Vitiello, a Philadelphia resident and associate professor of urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania.

“People thought of it as another neighborhood re-segregated from Irish, Italians, and Jews to Blacks. But this African and African American community is very diverse. He made Woodland Avenue a cosmopolitan place.”

Count “more than 20” African grocery stores, restaurants advertising the cuisine of more than a dozen nations, and it’s clear that Woodland Street has become a “regional destination” for expats from beyond the neighborhood, Vitiello said.

Elected officials noticed. Among other grants, Harrisburg pledged $3 million last winter. redevelopment source of money If ACANA can raise a similar amount for its new headquarters to showcase its citizenship, literacy, music, public health and business programs.

“We hope to have a ballroom where we can host visitors from Africa – as you know, we are the closest part of the city to the airport,” said Musa Trawally, director of ACANA’s Community and Business Development arm. But even African visitors are instead diverted to tourist areas in Center City, he said.

First of all, Philadelphia cannot definitively accept this neighborhood revival. ”In 2015 when my cousin Sahmed Okyne opened Kings and Queens Liberian Cuisine Just off 69th Street, there were maybe two African restaurants in all of Delaware County. “I can count 20 today,” said Hafiz Tunisia, representing that neighborhood in the Upper Darby District Council.

“On Woodland Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia – we still call it African Town” before her immigrant family moved to Upper Darby in 2007 when she was 10 years old. “More than Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, African refugees and now Latino countries,” he said.

“To start your business in Philadelphia, you have to drive through City Hall all the way downtown. Here you just walk across the street to the town hall. And people see it as a safer community with less competition and more opportunity. They’re also switching to Media. “

“You know, every community reaches a critical mass when they leave restaurants and start selling groceries directly to their families and neighborhoods,” said Vincent Rongione, whose family moved from Italy to South Philly a century ago and followed the immigrant route to Upper Darby. , where he is the district manager. “We’re trying to compete and develop very actively with West Philadelphia for these residents and their businesses.”

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