The corner lot on Parkside Avenue was known as a neighborhood eyesore just six months ago. Once a SEPTA bus turnaround, the patch of pavement became a popular spot for illegal dumping, filled with abandoned cars, sand, and all kinds of trash.
On Saturday, however, it was a buzzing 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 whom are 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.
Rolling a rack of colorful head scarves out in front of 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 vendor at malls and mosques. The retired Marine and U.S. Postal Service worker said she had previously connected with many of her new neighbors.
“Now we all popped up in the same location,” Washington said with a laugh.
“This is 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 mop her floors. She said others have already shopped at her store, Purpose Purchase, where every clothing item is donated and costs $5.
Lakia Brown, 40, of Germantown, said she believed the unconventional mall will be a boon not only to the individual businesses but also to the neighborhood.
“I think it’ll bring money back into the community,” said Brown, a designer who owns a clothing, shoe, and accessory store called the Kreative LAB. “People who live around here tend to shop elsewhere,” with fewer shops nearby than in some other neighborhoods.
The business owners were vetted and selected from more than 100 applicants in what organizers called a Shark Tank-like process. They underwent a free 12-week business management training, they said, and received a subsidized rent of $500 a month, which includes electricity and Wi-Fi.
The village also hosts a rotation of food trucks and includes a stage for performances.
On Saturday, Fetterman briefly took to the stage, reminding Philadelphians to vote in the critical Nov. 8 election and reiterating his positions on key issues but not making any comments about small business.
His appearance came four days after Fetterman, who is recovering from a stroke, verbally stumbled during a critical TV debate between him and his opponent, Republican Mehmet Oz. It was a performance that left some Democratic insiders shaken.
During his brief speech in front of a much smaller audience in West Philadelphia, Fetterman talked haltingly for less than 90 seconds, appearing not to deviate from a script. He took selfies with a couple of supporters and quickly left.
The container village, on the 4800 block of Parkside Avenue, is set to be open from noon to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, though West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative president Jabari Jones said the hours could be extended if all goes well.
As West Philadelphia’s largest business association, the collaborative will provide private security for the village, which will also be monitored by local police, Jones said. This summer, the collaborative called off a large block party due to concerns about surging gun violence.
“We have committed to the community to turn this into a peaceful urban oasis,” Jones said, standing in the center of the village. “We want to make sure people feel safe here.”