Intensive care for Phila.'s struggling Frankford Ave.

SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer
SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer
Posted: August 13, 2012

First of two parts

The scramble at Aria Health's Frankford hospital one afternoon last week was to save a life.

But this time, it didn't involve emergency surgery or blood transfusions. No operating rooms or intensive-care units.

This rescue effort went down in the cafeteria, where the greatest exposure to the hospital's nearly 800 employees could be assured. The goal was to acquaint them all – doctors, nurses, lab technicians, administrative staff – with an 11-block commercial artery just outside the hospital's tinted-glass entrance. It is a business district in critical condition.

Frankford Avenue – or simply "the Avenue," as locals refer to it – has been a corridor in crisis for decades.

To partly understand why, consider the daily routine of Jennifer Chromchak, a registered nurse from Lansdale who has worked at Aria Frankford for three years and admittedly has ignored the business district it anchors.

"I come [to work] ... and then go home," she said during a recent interview.

She was checking out Nafisah Lewis' homemade candles, part of the resuscitation mission staged last week at Aria. Lewis, owner of Just Good Scents and one other business on Frankford Avenue, Iqraa Cafe, was one of four merchants from the neighborhood invited to set up displays from noon to 2 p.m. Tuesday where Aria's health-care professionals and support staff lunched.

The idea behind "Business Spotlight" was to introduce Chromchak and others to merchants who would like more of Aria's employees to take a walk to their shops or restaurants on their breaks or before they bolt for home at the end of a shift.

Said Michelle Feldman, commercial corridor manager for Frankford Community Development Corp., co-organizer of the Aria event: "We want them to know what's right outside your front door."

What's out there, though, is a distressed – and, in certain stretches, frightening – relic of what once was.

Once a shoppers' mecca with such popular draws as Saks Fifth Avenue, Charming Shoppes, Buster Brown and, for the hungry, Horn & Hardart, Frankford Avenue saw its sidewalks overflowing with patrons well into the evening.

"Next to town [Center City], this was the hub," said David Cramer, 85, during a recent visit to the family business, Cramer's Uniforms, believed to be the oldest on the Avenue. His father, Charles Cramer, opened the store, outfitter to many of the city's private and public charter-school students, in 1937.

"It's so heartbreaking," David Cramer said of the current conditions. He is retired while his three children now run the business.

Lost to suburbs

By the 1980s, the Avenue was afflicted by merchant and customer drain. The siphon was the same thing that turned so many vibrant commercial Main Streets in America to strips of deserted storefronts: suburban shopping malls. Today, about 20 percent of Frankford Avenue's storefronts are vacant.

The business district's continued erosion has been fueled by the decay of the surrounding neighborhoods, where locals complain of a preponderance of drug rehabilitation facilities that have replaced housing for working-class families.

Store owners have also blamed a drop in business on repair and renovation work on the Market-Frankford El over the years that diverted riders from the commercial district and its three Frankford stations. In operation since 1922, the 13.2-mile transportation system running between Frankford and Upper Darby has daily ridership of 180,100. But just 22,813 use the Frankford stations.

The El is so much a part of the Frankford fabric, locals have an expression to explain why they stop in mid-conversation as the six-car trains rumble by overhead: the Frankford pause.

Arguably much more damning to the business district has been its pervasive crime, prompting most merchants to abandon late hours.

"During the day, it's fine," said Rebecca Goldberg, who has been running her father's discount furniture store, Neil's, since his death in 2010 – and ended the practice of staying open until 8 p.m. Fridays. "At night, it can get a little scary."

That had become the undeniable impression when popular clothiers and Frankford Avenue stalwarts Stacy and Russell Krass were shot to death during a burglary at the brothers' store on a Saturday night in May 1993. They were killed while trying to set off an alarm just after 7 p.m. as customers ducked under clothing racks and locked themselves in fitting rooms.

During the last six months ending July 30 in the business district, which stretches from Kensington Avenue to Bridge Street, 36 robberies and 29 assaults with a deadly weapon were reported, along with 109 thefts. SEPTA said thefts of cellphones and other handheld communication devices are especially pervasive.

Keepers of hope

Amid such daunting conditions, Frankford CDC's Feldman, a petite woman with outsized enthusiasm, is trying to ignite a business revival.

"It's going to come back," she asserted in an interview in May at the CDC's offices in a renovated Victorian house across the street from Aria hospital.

She draws on a number of things for her optimism, including the turned and turning fortunes of Philadelphia communities not far to the south – Northern Liberties and Fishtown. And on what she referred to as a "national trend in our favor: Main Streets are what [shoppers] are now looking for."

Inspired by such promise, Feldman, just 25, who grew up in Philadelphia's Far Northeast, joined the Frankford CDC about 18 months ago after working in politics and political consulting in the city and Washington. She wanted to do something more policy-related and "this seemed like a perfect fit."

Feldman soon met another Philadelphia native who wanted to make a difference in Frankford – Karen Sobczak, clinical director at Aria's Frankford campus who runs its community outreach and, as a kid, "used to come over and walk on the Avenue on a Saturday afternoon."

A nurse by training, Sobczak focused on bringing the hospital's health-care services to residents of Frankford. But at a meeting in March of the hospital's community-outreach committee, member Kathleen "Kass" Milligan had another thought: What about connecting with local businesses?

Milligan, an administrative assistant at Aria Frankford, had been in need of a cobbler and had just learned from her boss, executive director John Quinn, that a shoe-repair shop was a half-block from the hospital, on Frankford Avenue.

"I just got to thinking, 'I've been here three years and I don't know there's a shoemaker across the street? That's sad,' " Milligan recalled in a recent interview.

The community-outreach committee went to Feldman with the idea of hosting area businesses in the hospital cafeteria on a quarterly basis, and the first of the "Spotlight" events took place in May, followed by last week's.

"They're our customers and we can be their customers," said Milligan, who added that discounts offered to Aria employees might go a long way to entice some out onto the Avenue.

Daunting task

In reality, enticement might require much more than a few bucks off a sale.

Merchants maintain that it's going to take more police presence, far more effort by the city to keep the Avenue's trash-strewn sidewalks clean, and a better mix of businesses.

All of that, to some degree, is being addressed.

Foot patrols in two shifts – 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. – that began in October 2010 in the area of Frankford Avenue and Margaret Street were discontinued in November 2011 when those four rookie officers were reassigned, said Capt. Frank Bachmayer, whose 15th District of 10.5 square miles includes Frankford.

In January 2012, he assigned a 14-year veteran, Clive Austin, to walk a three-block beat – the 4600 to 4800 blocks of Frankford Avenue, where there had been a history of shootings – from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Bachmayer is attributing that in part to 14 fewer robberies this year from the 4700 block to 5200 block compared with the first six months of last year.

Bachmayer said he is "committed to support any plans" by Frankford civic and business groups to enhance the Avenue and the neighborhoods abutting it. The 51-year-old Mayfair native still has fond memories of his mother treating him to a chocolate milkshake at another long-gone Avenue haunt: the Woolworth's counter.

Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez also has a soft spot for Frankford, where Gilbert's Upholstering has had a presence since 1970, the last 12 years on the Avenue, and where "half my furniture has been touched up," she said.

Now she's trying to help touch up the downtrodden business district with $200,000 in city funds for a façade-improvement program, as well as $40,000 for a commercial-corridor cleaning initiative, much of which will be volunteer-based, using recovering addicts in the community.

The Mural Arts Program also has plans for about a half-dozen sites in Frankford. Work is also ongoing to identify and market Frankford's housing stock, said Quinones-Sanchez, who contends that the business district will thrive only if the neighborhoods around it are stable.

Meanwhile, the CDC keeps working on trying to attract a better mix of businesses along the Avenue. "Too much of the same thing" is how Lewis, the candlemaker, assessed the business district now, which is heavy on nail salons, barbers, dollar stores and pawnshops.

"It has to be eclectic," said Rose McMenamin, business development officer at 3rd Federal Bank, which has a branch on Frankford Avenue. "I'd like to see a gallery."

At the Aria event last week, Chuck MacIlvain was representing Neil's Furniture – and complaining about the "snail's pace" of progress on the Avenue when hospital employee Betzaida Cruz, a liaison/interpreter in patient relations, approached his table looking for help in finding a new dining-room set.

He obliged, leafing through a stack of catalogs with her while pausing to chide her for having never visited Neil's in the 7 1/2 years she's worked at the hospital.

"It's half a block away!" MacIlvain said. "I'm appalled."

Offered an apologetic Cruz: "I will now."


Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or dmastrull@phillynews.com, or @mastrud on Twitter.

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