Changing the City, One Organic Deli at a Time

In a recent blog post about Philly’s ongoing self-hatred a discussion emerged about the appalling lack of activity on the 1300 Block of Walnut Street. In one of the formerly vacant storefronts, we’re now getting an organic deli. How much does one small change mean for a city of 1.5 million people?

It seemed like the store went up within 24 hours. One day the storefront was empty — a symbol of Philadelphia’s blight — the next it was sporting a canopy for Citi Organic deli. My first thought was: Yes, the 1300 block of Walnut will survive. My second: I hope their sandwiches are good.

After a commenter on noted the 1300 block of Walnut looks “like a stage prop for a bad ghetto movie out of the 70’s. It’s a depressing 1/10th of a mile mix of vacant buildings, grungy stores, and filth covered cages + grates,” I’ve been really sensitive about the neighborhood. And then now here comes something that has the potential to shift the feel of the block — and my entire lunch routine. Organic deli! I am fantasizing about a scrumptious salad with lots of veggies and legumes that costs less then $5 and amazing vegetarian soup options! I imagine they’ll have a good juice bar where I can get shots of wheatgrass and acai! I sound like a caricature of some yuppie/hippie that causes most people to lament gentrification, I know. And that’s another thing that makes me sensitive.

The problem is that we live in a society with fairly refined tastes. Knock Starbucks all you want, but it’s pretty impressive that millions of people are drinking such fancy coffees — just 20 years ago few people would have been able to tell you the difference between Kenyan and Mozambique blends of brew. The Korean deli across the street with its salad bar of hard-boiled egg and slices of cantaloupe just doesn’t cut it any more. Not for me and apparently not for that commenter either. And yet we need businesses in Philadelphia to create a 24-hour livable city with interesting experiences and businesses that make money and provide jobs.

And yet we lament gentrification. We lament the Starbucks or juice bar drinker. But we want Philly to renew its image and reduce crime and taxes and improve education. Are we asking too much? Or are we so niche-driven that we refuse to acknowledge that we all have some pretty refined tastes and we need to find a way to accept them. Even if you don’t do acai, you probably are pretty picky about what Indie music you listen to (you probably even cringe that I wrote “indie music”). And if you don’t care about music or food, you are dedicated to your particular brand of bike or sneaker. I know, I know, this is all old consumption analysis. But what I’m getting at is a preemptive defense of the organic deli (which isn’t open yet and might still suck, so really it’s a defense of the idea of the deli), and a hope that more such businesses come to the block.

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Diana Lind is the former executive director and editor in chief of Next City.

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Tags: philadelphiagentrification

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