Walking up 52nd street can feel like a meditation on Philadelphia’s decline. Boarded windows and dilapidated storefronts alternate with a litany of daycares, delis and hair salons, small businesses that manage to scrape by in a neighborhood where nearly 15 percent of adults are unemployed.
But past a tax office with a dirt-stained laminated sign, and an appliance store spilling refrigerators and washing machines onto the sidewalk, a brand new business screams its splashy entrance to the block.
Café Rue 52 is slick, clean and fresh. NOW OPEN is pasted in block letters beneath the sign, backlit with red lights highlighting the swirly modern logo.
“I’m not opening cheese steak shops or water ice shops,” said Mahari Bailey, owner of the creperie and espresso bar, noting the contrast of his shop with the rest of the corridor. “There’s not many people that would take the risk and try this here.”
This was not always the case. The busy corridor was once the main commercial strip in West Philadelphia and a hub of African-American culture, home to jazz clubs, movie theaters and department stores. By the 1980s, however, suburban flight and the crack epidemic that followed had emptied storefronts. In stark contrast to Baltimore Avenue, which crosses 52nd a few blocks south of the cafe, the strip never rebounded. While Baltimore Ave. supports four cafes between 50th and 43rd streets, as well as a pricey cooperative natural food store, and a number of busy ethnic boutique restaurants, Bailey’s cafe will be the first on 52nd.
Online forums have hosted fierce debates about what Café Rue 52 means about the future of the historic black shopping corridor. Philadelphiaspeaks.com has an eight-page thread called “Rue 52 or Yupsters take 52nd Street.” On City-Data.com one user, UDResident wrote that he is “very against the gentrification of 52nd street…Baltimore Ave is already University City’s…the writing is on the wall. It’s just a matter of filling in the gentrification gaps.”
Bailey grew up in Wynnefield, another West Philadelphia neighborhood. He laughs when he talks about people accusing the café of “driving out all the African Americans.”
“When they found out I’m an African American it’s like ‘oh’,” said Bailey, who lives in Manayunk with his young family. “They really don’t know what box to put you in.”
Seated at a carved whitewashed wood table in the back of the café, Bailey pointed out the exposed ducts and the colorful art on the walls, some original pieces by local artists, some antique French film posters in line with the urban French theme.
Cafe Rue 52 is the first cafe on 52nd Street. Credit: Allyn Gaestel
Café Rue 52, opened the last week of September, is his second business on 52nd Street. Across the street he’s currently gutting his third acquisition, preparing to build a pet shop downstairs with an apartment above.
Bailey’s first business on 52nd Street was The Weave Bar, a trendy hair salon he opened in 2010, along with the 444 Flats, apartments he describes as “affordable luxury housing.” The Weave Bar shares the same sleek feel as the cafe. Exposed brick, all-black leather chairs, hardwood floors and custom mirrors suspended from the ceiling with chain illustrate Bailey’s intention to make clients “think you’re in a salon in SoHo or Manhattan.”
Bailey said he owns 8-10 properties in the city under his holding company, Mahari Yared Development Corporation. With investors in his real estate subsidiary, Love Real Estate Group, Bailey said he rode out the recession capitalizing on low prices to increase his acquisitions.
The developer has taken an active role in his adopted neighborhood. He hosted a presidential debate watching party, which drew a diverse and eclectic crowd, filling every available seat. Various church groups and community associations hold meetings in the space, at his urging.
In the quiet commercial neighborhood, the presence of the ambitious entrepreneur has not gone unnoticed. Four blocks south of Café Rue 52 sits Natural Coffee Landmark Plus. The owners intended to make it an Ethiopian coffee shop, but the shop looks more like a bi-cultural bodega. Half the store is stocked with bulk Ethiopian products: teff flour to make injera, the staple Ethiopian bread, green coffee beans to be roasted at home, bulk paprika, cumin, berbere spices. On the other side of the central shelf are classic American convenience products: Honey Buns, Twizzlers, Potato Chips.
The owners ran out of funding to pay lawyer fees to change the licensing, but said even though the store is not as they imagined, it responds to the community’s demands. “If you make coffee here, still you can make nothing,” one owner who requested anonymity said.
“You see what they are buying? We used to have organic stuff but they don’t buy it,” the part-owner said, gesturing to shelves of processed snacks. “Maybe over there is different,” she added.
Half a block south of The Weave Bar is Divine Creations salon. The interior is sunny, with golden yellow walls, massive mirrors and swept linoleum floors. It is intentional, clean, but the carpet is worn, the wood floor of the entrance frayed. Owner Ray Pitts grew up around the corner and has been in business since 1996. The emergence of the Weave Bar has put him on edge. “I got to step my game up, beautify, but it takes money,” he said. The Weave Bar also charges strikingly low rates for weaves, at $50. At Divine Creations Pitts charges $120, and he says “that’s low in comparison to other salons.”
Bailey is unapologetic about pushing the block in a new direction, and stresses his business philosophy of providing affordable, quality products. “I’m trying to not sound arrogant but people aren’t really putting a lot of money into 52nd Street,” he said. “The nice stuff, it’s me doing it and I’m trying to force everyone’s hand.”
Pitts calls Bailey’s businesses “unique and different,” though he wouldn’t recommend the café extend onto the sidewalk. “There are still some cats that think selling drugs is what they got to do to survive,” Pitts mused, highlighting the diverse populations converging on 52nd Street, “I wouldn’t have put something in so upscale.”
But Pitts is ready to support the café, “It’s a black-owned business,” he said. “I would patronize it.”
Allyn Gaestel is currently a Philadelphia Fellow for Next City. Much of her work centers on human rights, inequality and gender. She has worked in Haiti, India, Nepal, Mali, Senegal, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Bahamas for outlets including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, CNN and Al Jazeera. She tweets @allyngaestel.