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Food and more, now close by

PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, June 17, 2008

If you live in a disadvantaged community, chances are that shopping for fruits and vegetables is a little like going on a scavenger hunt.

Too often, there’s no neighborhood supermarket even to be found – something most of us couldn’t imagine being without.

So residents are forced to burn precious $4-a-gallon gas to drive miles away, trying to buy nutritious, affordable food that is supposed to be every citizen’s right, not some buried treasure to be found.

And let’s not even talk about the folks who don’t drive or can’t afford cabs. A neighborhood bounty awaits – a fast-food smorgasbord of chicken wings and fried rice, KFC, Burger King, Popeye’s and every other fried-food option.

The availability of healthy food has always been a hit-or-miss proposition in the ‘hood.

“I remember when I was a kid. After church we used to have big Sunday dinners at my grandmother’s house,” recalls Reinna Young, 41, who lives in West Philly. “And my grandmother went to a store way off Baltimore Pike.

“If we didn’t have what we needed, it was because she didn’t see it at that store … and nobody could run out at the last minute and get it on Sunday because the closest store was just too far away.”

So it is an enormous measure of progress that Young does her grocery shopping these days at the brand-new, full-service ShopRite at 52d and Jefferson, a few blocks from her home in West Parkside.

After almost 20 years of starts and stops, broken promises and unmet commitments, business leaders, community activists and local politicians, including Mayor Nutter, recently cut the ribbon on the spanking new $50 million Park West Town Center mall. The 341,000-square-foot complex also includes a Lowe’s Home Improvement Center, a Wachovia bank, a T-Mobile store and an expansive suburban-style parking lot that hugs it all in.

“It’s a convenience for the neighborhood,” said E. August, 53, a handyman who stopped off at Lowe’s to buy a few work materials. “I would have had to go to the one in South Philly, and that’s not so convenient, unless you’re driving – but I’m on the bus.”

Custom appeal

Inside the sparkling, airy and air-conditioned ShopRite, it’s obvious that this is a supermarket that caters to the demographic’s diverse tastes. Fresh fat, red strawberries, succulent peaches, rows of corn on the cob and dense broccoli spears sit with bins upon bins of greens – mustard, collards, turnip and kale.

In the deli section, hot trays full of soul food: fried and barbecued chicken, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese – and, yep, more greens.

And there are other offerings: fufu flour and palm-nut cream from Africa, cream soda and salt fish fritters from Jamaica, and halal chicken-leg quarters for Muslims with dietary restrictions.

“I think a lot of retail operators believe that in the inner city, they can’t make money, and they’re afraid of theft,” said Sandy Brown of Brown’s Family ShopRite. It was Sandy and husband Jeff, owners of five other stores in Philly, who signed on early to the project.

They employed local residents for close to 300 union jobs, including 40 ex-offenders. Assuring that everybody has a stake in the store’s success.

It’s been a long time coming.

The rail yard at 52d and Lancaster was cleared to make way for a new retail project. But that was 10 years ago. City and state officials – among them Gov. Rendell, State Rep. Dwight Evans, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. – have worked hard since then to make the area more appealing for business, creating state and federal tax breaks by designating the area as an empowerment zone.

Still, it seemed as if the project would never get completed because businesses were reluctant to make a commitment in the inner city.

That is, until West Philadelphia Financial Service Institution, a community-driven development nonprofit, partnered with the Goldenberg Group, the plaza’s developer.

Now the project had some community accountability. And if an employee slipped up, he’d have the neighborhood to answer to.

“This doesn’t happen unless you have community folk fully engaged,” said State Sen. Vincent Hughes, whose office helped secure $7 million for the project. “People think, ‘If we’re going to shop here and spend our money here, we have to sustain it and keep it vibrant.’ It changes people’s attitudes.” ]