Muhammed Aslam died in the South Philadelphia business he built.
It was a cold December evening in 1999 and the shop owner’s son, Zakria, then 12, had just gone to their apartment upstairs to fetch dinner while Muhammed stayed downstairs in the family's small Southeast Asian food and spice market. In those few minutes, a robber entered the 2330 S. 7th Street shop and shot him. Aslam was number 292 in a list of homicides in the city that year published by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Aslam Market stayed open. For nearly 20 years, Zak Aslam and his mother Irshad have maintained the small grocery, a stalwart as South 7th Street has bloomed into the commercial soul of Philly’s Southeast Asian and Central American immigrant communities. Without even a sign or placard, word of mouth spread for immigrant families to shop at the unmarked S. 7th Street storefront.
This fall, the Community Design Collaborative and the Philadelphia Department of Commerce recognized Aslam Market at the 10th annual Storefront Challenge Awards, a citywide contest that celebrates remarkable storefront facade improvements. The business received the ‘Amazing Awnings' award, and the two steadfast community advocates who worked with the family on projects inside and outside were individually honored with the ‘Instigator’ award and ‘Corridor Catalyst’ award.
Aslam Market’s story signifies how small boosts of funding, coupled with personable technical support, can help stabilize and heal a neighborhood.
On a sunny day in October, shortly after the Storefront Challenge, I went down to South 7th Street to take a walk along the corridor with Somaly Osteen and Andy Toy from the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition (SEAMAAC). Our first stop: Aslam Market.
For the uninitiated, Aslam Market is a treasure trove of unique staples such as Nepalese dumpling — momo— mix, Indian sweets, Burmese sweet curry, and Indonesian instant noodles. Everyday ingredients that, when you are worlds away from home, bring back the familiar tastes of childhood.
The store started off selling Indian and American groceries and became known for a few items. When customers started to ask for specific products, Zak Aslam would find them and stock them on the shelves. Aslam’s vendors, in turn, started noticing the shift and began offering a wider variety of products. The market even became the spot for gyro carts to get their special spice blends.
The Aslam family has been South Philly for generations and neighborhood commerce is part of their story. Muhammed Aslam's uncle passed the storefront, then a furniture store, down to his father. “Mom and Pops ran the market...and we lived upstairs,” Zak Aslam recalls. Zak now runs a second business, a pizza shop started by his mother, and owns a Sunoco station as well. His daughter’s hot pink power wheels convertible, complete with big balloons, is parked next to the spices. “I can’t buy her a real Mercedes,” Zak says with a laugh. “She’s two!”
When Aslam Market received the funds from the Philadelphia Commerce Department to update its facade, the new vibrant blue awning symbolized more than a storefront makeover. It showcases a family business’ steady trust in its neighborhood organization and recognition of their role on the corridor.
South 7th Street has ebbed and flowed, Irshad and Zak tell me. At night and in broad daylight, they have seen open drug use, prostitution, and people scavenging through trash that litters the street. Why doesn’t this get reported to the police? “Many people here are immigrants and they’ve been afraid to speak up,” Zak explains. “Or they don’t know who to report to.” For many refugees who fled oppressive regimes or war, police and government represent danger. This makes the community both vulnerable to crime and overlooked for services, he says. Furthermore, the communities tend to keep to themselves, the Aslams say, and many people keep to blocks that they are familiar with, making it difficult to organize under a unifying identity when advocating for funds or services. The surrounding neighborhoods, centered by Mifflin Square Park, speak 21 different languages, PlanPhilly’s Catalina Jaramillo reported in 2016.
Is there an identity for South 7th Street? Zak believes that the businesses make the corridor distinct yet there isn't the support for neighborhood branding and commercial expansion that help similar areas thrive. They fall in an in-between — too many resources for government programs that target the poorest neighborhoods and not enough money to do it alone. “I know there are poorer [neighborhoods],” he says, “but we’re poor too and we have businesses [worth supporting].”
The Aslams’ observations are not off. “South Philly is a great example of a true mixed-income, multi-ethnic community, where the average resident is middle class, but there are also many wealthy families and just as many in poverty,” says James Onofrio, the Community Development Corporations Manager for the Commerce Department. However, he adds, “poverty is concentrated in pockets, and ethnic groups (especially immigrants) are also very concentrated, sometimes down to the block level.” This stratification of affiliations plays out in social services, and perception of ‘services for whom’: “Some of the broader neighborhood-serving organizations like neighborhood councils and civics are perceived to be exclusive or ‘only for Americans’ by immigrant groups,” Onofrio explains. Beyond that, “leadership of these organizations is concentrated in the hands of a few well-connected, politically active long-term residents.” Word of mouth—about an organization or program—is crucial for credibility.
What is necessary, then, are the human links between the businesses, the residents, and the money.
‘Free money’ to help their business sounded too good to be true, Osteen, SEAMAAC’s community development specialist, explains. Through the Commerce Department’s Storefront Improvement Program (SIP), which aims to incentivize commercial property owners along our targeted commercial corridors to improve their facades, Aslam Market was eligible for a 50 percent reimbursement. The impact and opportunity for small businesses that receive these funds cannot be overstated. As Patricia Blakely, the former executive director for The Merchants Fund, a private foundation that provides financial assistance to Philadelphia businesses facing hardship, put simply: "SIP is one of [Philadelphia’s] most powerful civic tools to invest in our corridors and small businesses. Upgrading the facade of a business is a marketing and branding investment that says to potential customers either come in or go away. Add some lighting and you are increasing neighborhood safety as well." However, there is fine print. The business would need to pay for the full cost upfront, supply bids from several contractors, show proof of payment and services, and be clear of any outstanding taxes and liens.
In the Aslams’ case, the family had become entangled in accumulating back taxes from when Irshad Aslam used all of her available funds to help her son open his business. “She fell behind on taxes and the interest and penalties were piled on top,” Toy explained. SEAMAAC worked with the family to trace back the fees and develop a payment plan with the city that allowed some of the interest and penalties to be waived. “None of this is possible without a lot of care, trust and relationship building, time, understanding of the systems...and staffing at the ground level,” Toy says. It took more than a year to remedy the back taxes, apply for the program, and select the contractor for the job. The nonprofit also lent the business the money upfront to pay for the facade improvements until the city issued the reimbursement, another hiccup for small businesses with limited funds.
To then take money from a government agency, and to trust the translator at your door to surrender your financial documents, fears, and confusing mountain of debt, is no small feat. For many immigrant-owned businesses, the dominant culture is cash. This can be for a variety of reasons ranging from a lack of trust in banks or government dating back to experiences in a home country to the need to move around quickly (and often discreetly), and, if there is anyone in the network who is undocumented, a desire to keep money within a small trusted network. While this instinct can be a survival tactic, it also means that many immigrant-owned businesses do not have a record of borrowing that allows them to take part in many of the services offered by the city to boost businesses in exactly their situation.
The Commerce Department tries to work around the delicate dynamic. “Often, low-income and immigrant corridors require unique and strategic efforts to increase awareness, so specialized outreach and assistance in applying to our programs is necessary,” says Giana Lawrence-Primus, who manages SIP. “We know that immigrant entrepreneurs are driving growth throughout the city and we want to continue to support that growth,” Lawrence-Primus continues, crediting SEAMAAC, and Osteen’s corridor management skills in particular, for the increase in SIP participation in the area. “South 7th Street is a big win for us, and that project will have a short-term and long-term economic impact on the corridor.”
Walking down South 7th Street with Osteen is an experience. She stops every few feet, to say hello to a business owner or to answer a question when someone pops their head out. She laughs easily and she weaves seamlessly from English to Khmer in the same conversation. Watching her talk to neighbors is like watching a small reunion; it is clear that they trust her. “Can we come in to take a picture Miss Phally?” Osteen asks a seamstress who looks at us curiously.
Up and down the corridor, the answer is the same: “For you, yes.”
The results of the trusting relationships Osteen has built can be quantified: six participating SIP businesses, four window display design projects in partnership with Drexel University’s Visual Merchandising program, and three grants from the Merchants Fund. For this work, Osteen received the Storefront Challenge's 2018 ‘Instigator’ award.’ Her work and style is extrordinary, according to the Design Collaborative’s Robin Kohles, who oversees the program. Somaly is “energetic, positive… and very pragmatic,” Kohles says. “For example, she brings sign fabricators and other contractors along with her on visits to businesses. They are able to work out a project scopes and budgets on the spot. That has helped a lot with merchant buy-in on this diverse, dynamic corridor.”
This fall, the Community Design Collaborative and the Commerce Department celebrated a decade of improving storefronts through their improvement program. Storefront Stories, an exhibit curated by Collaborative volunteers, including Eyes on the Street contributor Ashley Hahn, showcasing before and after pictures of storefront facades, along with a map of every single SIP project from 2008 to 2018, is currently on display at the Center for Architecture and Design through November 2. Special recognition is given to the storefronts that have won honors over the years such as, ‘Bang for the Buck,’ ‘Honor the Past,’ or ‘Best Bay.’
The 10th anniversary also celebrated the work of one of the program’s longtime advocates, Patricia Blakely, who helmed The Merchants Fund, for 11 years. What Osteen helps facilitate, Blakely helps finance. Both work slowly and steadily, playing the long—and often unglamorous—game of acquiring absolutely indispensable capital. To do this, they have spent years building relationships and earning community trust.
Blakely received the ‘Corridor Catalyst’ award—what one might liken to the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Awards in the economic development community—for her work in providing crucial support to small businesses in Philadelphia. Merchants Fund grants often helped supplement improvements for SIP businesses: a business owner could qualify for facade improvement monies from the city and utilize Merchant funds for capital improvements such as new flooring, a HVAC unit, or equipment.
If one is unfamiliar with the Merchants Fund, the charity’s behind-the-scenes work resonates throughout the city. Greensgrow Farms’ bookkeeping and financial reporting system? Merchants. The energy-efficient freezers that helped Klein’s Market in Fairmount compete with Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods? Merchants. The 50 new honor boxes that allow Philadelphians to pick up the latest issue of the University City Review and support hyper-local neighborhood journalism? Merchants. The fresh floors and functioning air conditioning at Ray’s Cafe, the beloved Chinatown coffee shop with a cult following? Again, Merchants Fund.
Like Osteen, Blakely’s personable personality compliments the paperwork. “Patricia is so approachable and curious,” Kohles says. “She’s not afraid to ask a lot of questions and really get to know her businesses—the personalities of their owners, their families, and exactly how they run their businesses. She always knows the inside story about the businesses she is helping...I also love the fact that she travels only via public transportation.” Blakely visits 40 to 50 businesses each grant cycle and there are two grant cycles each year. That's a lot of bus rides.
Herman Nyamunga, the Director of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, has worked with Blakely for years. She “was the best friend neighborhood businesses ever had,” he said. Nyamunga, who works with immigrant-owned businesses across the city, has worked with Blakely to help 10 businesses receive funding for inventory, equipment, and technology upgrades. “The Merchants Fund has been critical in filling...gaps for our businesses,” he says. “We are all going to miss her.”
People on the ground were not the only ones who appreciated working with Blakely. “I learned more about economic development from Patricia Blakely over the years than just about anyone,” says Jonathan Snyder, the Business Financial Resources Director at the Commerce Department. “She has been a mentor, a friend, and it has been a privilege to work with her...She understands food and retail businesses as well as artisanal and advanced manufacturing, and moreover, she understands how a business ecosystem works together.”
An ecosystem that is blooming on South 7th Street. Aslam Market has a new energy-efficient fridge stocked with goodies and new shelving units on the way, courtesy of Merchants. You can’t miss it—just look for the bright blue awning.