When Thien Nguyen looks at Frankford Avenue in Mayfair she sees opportunity. She and her fiance, Meth Uon, plan to open a cafe soon called Eggspresso that will sell coffee drinks and gourmet egg rolls.
The young professional Philadelphians, children of East Asian immigrants, realized Mayfair was in need of a coffee shop. Aside from a Dunkin’ Donuts, there isn’t one on the main business corridor of Frankford Avenue or anywhere else in this lower Northeast neighborhood. If everything goes right with the city approval process (the cafe needs a deep fryer), they plan to open in late summer or early fall.
“Mayfair is so busy where Cottman and Frankford are,” Nguyen said. “I think it’s perfect.”
The neighborhood represents opportunity for them. They not only plan to start a business but to move into the neighborhood so their child can attend Mayfair Elementary. It’s not the usual perspective. For many long-timers, as well as outsiders, Mayfair is often described as declining.
Certainly, it is different than it was 20 to 30 years ago when white middle class families represented a larger share of inhabitants, and Frankford Avenue was packed with local businesses. These days, vacancies are easier to spot on Frankford Avenue. But is Mayfair declining or is it now ready for a rebound? For many residents, it’s all about realizing the advantages the neighborhood still holds and changing the perception of themselves and the rest of the city to match those of people like Nguyen and Uon.
“It’s holding where it’s at,” said resident Jim Ortlieb, who is also treasurer of the Mayfair Civic Association. “I think people need to stop bashing it as much as they do. And just kind of make it better.”
Welcome to part two of Billy Penn’s occasional series on middle neighborhoods, the areas of Philly that are seemingly stable but in danger of decline because they don’t get the private development of Center City or funding and attention available for lower-income neighborhoods. Part one was about East Mt. Airy; this piece is focused on Mayfair, an area of the city in which people believe perspective can make all the difference.
Ortlieb has lived in the neighborhood for the most part since the late 1970s, having moved there as a child with his family. He grew up like the typical Mayfairian of the time: “You were either German, Irish, Polish or Italian. That’s the way it was. Everybody went to St. Matt’s or St. Tim’s or some Catholic school.”
Some of the Catholic schools in Mayfair have experienced declines similar to those around the city. The population has gone from nearly all white to having significantly more minorities and immigrants and quickly. Census data shows Mayfair had a population of just a few hundred immigrants in the early part of the 2000s and now has closer to 3,000. While still not as immigrant-heavy as the rest of the Northeast, where approximately 20 percent of residents are immigrants, Mayfair clocks in at about 14 percent.
Though Mayfair’s home ownership rate of 68 percent is still higher than the Philadelphia average, 52 percent, it’s been declining for years. Ask just about anyone about possible problems in Mayfair, and they bring up the shift from homeowners to renters and, especially, absentee landlords.
The frustrations are compounded by the widespread belief that nobody in the rest of Philadelphia, City Hall in particular, is paying attention.
“There’s been a disenfranchisement with customers of mine saying ‘we’re not just being bought out, we’re being forgotten and left behind,’” said Sharon Owens, who’s been working as an insurance agent in Mayfair since 2001 and lived there for the last two years. “(It’s) a growing discontent with quality of life type issues.”
In late 2015, city government offered an olive branch of sorts to Mayfair. It created the Mayfair Business Improvement District, thanks to legislation from Councilman Bobby Henon. Up until this point, most business improvement districts had been reserved for gentrifying areas closer to Center City.
The goal is to diversify and increase business on Frankford Avenue and beautify the corridor. But to fund the organization, businesses must pay in through an assessed levy.
“We have a lot of folks who are frustrated for a good reason,” said Sam Siegel, executive director of Mayfair Business Improvement District. “They’ve seen disinvestment from the city. They’ve seen decades of decline. They’ve seen nothing but bad things. And I can definitely appreciate why when they see what we’re doing they’re hesitant and combative often. The biggest hurdle we’re trying to overcome is to see the benefit in the long term of getting involved.”
New businesses have been sprouting up slowly. And two years ago, spearheaded by the Mayfair Civic Association and residents, the neighborhood began hosting night markets. Other festivals and community gatherings are common throughout the summer. The biggest change since the creation of the Mayfair BID has been Frankford Avenue’s appearance.
Plants and banners have popped up on the Avenue. The sidewalks and streets are being cleaned — like they used to in the past. Sean Gao, who recently opened a corner store called G and T Deli, said the cleanliness has been one of his favorite parts about having a store in the area.
Ortlieb calls the work of the Business Improvement District a big improvement. He hopes the next step will be a greater variety of businesses.
“Once you get a Starbucks on your corner somewhere,” Ortlieb said, “you’re on your way up.”
Eggspresso isn’t Starbucks, but it’s a similar attempt to give Mayfair a business it doesn’t have. Nguyen and Uon addressed the Mayfair Civic Association at a meeting earlier this month and explained their plan, seeking approval for a zoning variance they’ll need to open their shop on a property that used to be a cell phone store.
Before the meeting, Siegel spoke with them, saying how they should stress they won’t take up much parking spots and might even hire some workers from the neighborhood. An applicant seeking approval for a zoning change before they spoke was greeted with tough questions and skepticism.
Would a minority-owned local cafe be a tough sell?
Not a chance. The people in attendance voiced excitement at the idea. Nguyen’s and Uon’s request was approved unanimously.
Mayfair should be getting its coffee shop.