Neighborhood Watch: West Philly

The blocks around Baltimore Avenue are full of locals and stories, making them well worth a visit

WORDS Drew Lazor
September 2018
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Photography by Neal Santos

I’ve happened upon that brief peaceful spell between lunch and dinner at Vientiane Café, the Lao-Thai restaurant Sunny Phanthavong has run with her family for the past 16 years. Though it’s quiet now, this quaint BYOB eatery is usually mobbed, its tables populated by a mix of local residents and Ivy Leaguers from the University of Pennsylvania, lured the short distance from campus by the prospect of pad see ew and roast duck in yellow curry.

But then, anyone with a taste for something different is spoiled for choice here. Stroll along Baltimore Avenue, which runs east to west along the lower portion of West Philly, and you’ll encounter a multicultural array of restaurants and shops—Asian, Latin, African, Caribbean and Middle Eastern—that has made this one of the most vibrant “main streets” in the country. This is especially true of the section that slices through Spruce Hill and Cedar Park, just west of the Schuylkill River.

Vientiane Café has been a Cedar Park staple since 2002, but the Phanthavongs’ connection to the neighborhood dates back to the late 1990s, when they founded the highly popular (and very off-the-books) eatery the Blue Tent, which occupied a nearby vacant lot and was named for the tarp that sheltered it from the elements (and unwanted attention). Bootstrapped, informal and slightly clandestine, the enterprise was emblematic of West Philly, an area that has always welcomed its share of activists, anarchists and unorthodox entrepreneurs.

The Phanthavong family moved to the States in 1979 as refugees from the Laotian Civil War, and settled in the area through connections with its sizable Southeast Asian population. Sunny’s mother, an accomplished cook, made a living feeding neighbors—many of them field laborers who worked South Jersey farmland—with heaping plates for $3 a pop: sticky rice, chicken satay, shredded green papaya dressed in fermented crab and potent Lao fish sauce. Bowls of pho ran a buck.

Authorities caught wind of the tent and shut it down a few years in, but it marked a beginning rather than the end. With help from neighbors, community leaders and UPenn faculty, the family opened a legitimate business and thrived. “People had our backs,” says Sunny, born and raised in West Philly. “They helped us preserve our culture and our food.”

West Philly isn’t an easy neighborhood to pin down. It’s a large and indeterminate conglomeration of districts, each with its own distinct heritage and personality. The contrast is bold from block to block. University City, a moniker  used to describe the slick commercial zone skirting a cluster of college campuses, shares little in common aesthetically with a nearby enclave like Powelton Village, characterized by thick foliage and quirky, colorful residences. Both are easily distinguishable from a corridor like 52nd Street, the primary commercial district for the area’s Caribbean communities.

There are a handful of elements that tie things together, such as the gorgeously preserved Victorian homes present in many neighborhoods, holdovers from when these areas came up as “streetcar suburbs” of Center City in the 19th century. It’s also unusually lush, incorporating a large chunk of Fairmount Park, one of the largest urban parks in America. Clark Park  and Malcolm X Park, along with community-oriented urban-agriculture initiatives such as Warrington Community Garden and Greensgrow, contribute to the overall chlorophyll levels, much higher here than in other swaths of the city.

“People had our backs. They helped us preserve our culture.”

Less tangible but just as essential to the character of West Philly is its ongoing  embrace of political activism. Integral to the civil rights movement, the area is home to historic black churches and the former residences of African-American icons like Paul Robeson and Crystal Bird Fauset, the country’s first black female state legislator. While the history has some rough stretches­—the Philadelphia Police Department’s fatal 1985 bombing of black liberationist group MOVE’s residence set a tragic and lasting tone—progressivism remains a force in West Philly to this day, underpinning everything from anarchist community centers like A-Space to the cooperative grocery store Mariposa.

This quality of tolerance has encouraged the emergence of businesses like Spirited Tattooing Coalition, a parlor welcoming an LGBTQ and allied clientele, which opened on Baltimore Avenue in 2015. Owner Jas Morrell says notoriously discerning local civic groups gave them “an enthusiastic yes” when presenting the business plan. “It made sense to work in the place I already loved living in,” says Morrell, who moved here in 2004 and has tattooed all over the country. “What we’re all about really fits the vibe of the neighborhood.”

While West Philadelphia remains largely African-American, it has extended a hand to an array of immigrant-owned businesses that have evolved to serve the diverse clientele walking through their doors. The strip of Baltimore Avenue that accommodates Vientiane and Spirited is also home to Fu-Wah Mini Market, run by the Lai family, who came to Cedar Park as refugees from Vietnam in the late ’70s. Originally an Asian grocery, the Lais shifted to a broader convenience-store model as the population around them shifted, but held onto certain cherished items. They provided West Philly with its first taste of savory bánh mì sandwiches. Today, they also serve a selection of their native cuisine at Vietnam Café, a beloved spot a few doors over.

A few storefronts up from Fu-Wah sits Dahlak, plating Eritrean and Ethiopian food. It was opened by Eritrean husband and wife Amare Solomon and Neghisti Ghebrehiwet, who sought asylum here in the early ’80s. Dahlak and other Eri-Ethio restaurants in the area helped introduce Philadelphia to foods like injera, the spongy bread made from teff flour, and doro wat, a chicken-and-egg stew cooked in fiery berbere seasoning.

Today, Dahlak is run by Ephream Seyoum, who despite some misgivings stepped in when his father, Solomon, died in 2005. “I honestly dreaded the idea as a kid,” he says over a can of seltzer at Pentridge Station, a beer garden he helped establish in a nearby lot last year. “I saw how hard my parents worked. I had to grow up fast.”  Under Seyoum, Dahlak has broadened its draw, hosting regular karaoke, jazz, hip-hop and Latin music nights.

“We always got a big punk rock crowd,” he says. “But people would tell me, when I was first getting into the business, that the bar was considered a lesbian bar. Then somebody else would say, ‘You have a lot of hippies!’ Now, we have a lot more young black people. It’s a mixture of everything, really.”

You’ll find a similarly unpredictable clientele at places like Dock Street, a craft brewery and pizzeria that operates out of an old firehouse at 50th and Baltimore. Founded in 1985 by Sicilian-born proprietor Rosemarie Certo, Dock Street did business in a few other locations in Philly before establishing a permanent place here in 2007. On any given day, their dining room will be populated with an odd-but-appealing intermingling—“children, anarchists and lawyers” and everyone in between, says the venue’s vice president, Marilyn Candeloro, pouring me a taste of Guava Lava, one of their limited-run ales.

“When [my mother] first arrived, she stood on the street corner and watched people walk by, and saw every type of person,” says Renata Certo-Ware, Rosemarie’s daughter, who handles Dock Street’s marketing and events. “She thought, ‘This is totally home.’”

That an anchor like Dock Street thrives alongside healthy competition like Local 44, a craft beer bar and bottle shop a short walk northeast, nods to the formidability of West Philly’s food and drink scene, which packs some unexpected surprises.

Marigold Kitchen, a charming red-brick Victorian a block north of Baltimore Avenue, has operated as a restaurant since 1934, maintaining its name and location throughout a succession of chefs and owners, including, in the early 2000s, a stint with Steve Cook and Michael Solomonov, partners who would go on to create acclaimed concepts like Zahav and Federal Donuts elsewhere in the city. Marigold’s newest chef is Eric Leveillee, a Rhode Island native who introduced an ambitious New Nordic edge to the restaurant, a former boarding house that still exudes a residential vibe.

Leveillee’s current tasting menu, a carefully wrought progression of 13 courses, uses produce—lamb’s quarters, purslane and mulberries—sourced by professional foragers from the immediate neighborhood. “We want to make people look a little deeper into what grows here,” Leveillee says, “to get a sense of what those ingredients taste and look like.” One dish, for example, uses a trio of elements inspired by the flower beds the chef passes on his daily walk to work: sunflower jam, petals and seed puree with a chargrilled sunchoke. There have been times, Leveillee says with a laugh, when he’s found himself “knocking on neighbors’ doors, asking if we can cut down some of their sunflowers so we don’t run out.”

Stroll half a mile from Marigold to the intersection of 45th and Walnut, which has earned the nickname “Little Lebanon” thanks to businesses like the long-running Saad’s, a beloved halal take-out spot known for its falafel and shawarma, and Manakeesh, a café named for the oven-fired Lebanese flatbread. “In other neighborhoods, we wouldn’t necessarily have been embraced,” says Manakeesh’s Abd Ghazzawi, whose father is a founding member of the mosque across the road.  

This sentiment is echoed by Kevin James Holland, one of the neighborhood’s most candid ambassadors. “West Philly is based on coexistence,” Holland says, referring to the dizzying variety of people who frequent Fiume, the lively little drinkery he runs above the Ethiopian restaurant Abyssinia.

Stocked with over 180 craft beers and esoteric liquors, the living-room-like Fiume has operated as a bar since 2001, an outgrowth of an anarchist-run vegan coffee shop—a quintessentially West Philly origin story if I’ve ever heard one. On any given night, it’ll be packed with college kids, punk rockers, tech types and middle-class professionals—all there to knock a few back. “This has to be one of the most delightfully surprising and beautiful collections of people I’ve ever encountered,” says Holland. “They love the world and the people in it.”

Locals, however, are frank in discussing the struggles associated with urban development. It’s a familiar narrative everywhere, beginning here in the 1980s. Since then, West Philly has become safer—and more complicated.  Large-scale new construction, subsidized by out-of-town cash flow, jacks up rents, pushing long-term residents further west, and creating disparities in resources that can play out in the form of poverty and crime.

Holland believes the old ways will endure in spite of unrelenting challenges. “I’ve found a large population that agrees with me,” he says, based on his time at the bar. “There still exists a West Philly that values people, culture and history. So even as many things transform, our soul goes on.”

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