Community members working together to revamp Mifflin Square Park

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The Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition just received a $175,000 grant to bring back its Vendor Village as part of an ongoing effort to revitalize Mifflin Square Park.

“Vendor Village in the Park: Vending to Vibrancy” is one of 33 Knight Cities Challenge winners announced last week, and one of five Philadelphia winners. SEAMAAC’s project calls for “connecting diverse communities by opening a marketplace for immigrant cuisine in Mifflin Square Park,” which serves as a hub for the nearby residents and business owners who speak a combined 21 languages.

The park at Sixth and Ritner in South Philadelphia was long home to food vendors selling a variety of Southeast Asian delicacies. But the market was shut down last year following a series of problems that included gang violence, litter and illegal food vending.

Since then, more than 17 organizations have been making plans to revitalize the park.

Billy Penn spoke to Andy Toy, development and communications director at SEAMAAC, about the entrepreneurial and communal expectations for Vendor Village.

How did the idea for Vendor Village come about?

It came about because there were vendors already, they had been there. We were thinking, ‘how do we get them back?’ A lot of people believed they were a positive force.There were some people that think there was a lot of trash because of the vendors.

There was some beer and drinking and some gambling before. We want to take the good parts of what the vendors were bringing and leave the other parts behind. Trash will be contained, and we won’t allow beer or alcohol, and definitely not gambling either.

What is the plan for Vendor Village?

What we came up with was we needed to have a facility that would be licensed properly by the Health Department and L&I, and then we could also control the vendors that go in there. Let’s say we have a Burmese vendor every once a week or a Cambodian vendor. Different cuisines, and we could promote them in a bigger way. We could really do social media, and push it out there, and bring more business to them.

Our hope is that more people will come to the park. It’s a very well utilized park already, but the more people that come to the park and more families that use it, the safer it’s going to be.

A model of what the community hopes Mifflin Square Park will become Credit: Courtesy of SEAMAAC

What kind of cuisines will be incorporated?

A lot of Cambodian, Vietnamese. There’s a lot of grilled meats and papaya salads, that kind of thing. We’re open to everybody. We would love to have a really great diversity. Even beyond Asian food. It’s just a matter of who’s in the neighborhood because that’s the first priority, the people in the neighborhood.

What, specifically, does SEAMAAC plan to do with the grant money?

The initial plan will be to develop a pop-up food establishment. It will be in a shipping container. Most of the funds are for the physical outfitting of the space. The other part of the funding will be for managing the process and working with vendors. We want to make sure they are operating safely, understand the rules, and are making really good food. There’s another piece of marketing, all of that. Making sure that people know that it exists. So that’s a lot for 175, it’s probably — believe it or not — not enough money, but we’re going to do it all.

What are the next steps going forward?

Right now there are some steps we have to do with the Knight Foundation in terms of paperwork. In terms of planning, we’re continuing to move forward with our park plan and this is a part of it. The Vendor Village will be a sign to people that we’re actually making progress. The part of the reason we’re doing this is not just to build entrepreneurship in the community, which is really important because there aren’t many economic opportunities for people.

The other reason we’re doing this is because we believe that having something like this in the long run will be a real benefit to the park. If we are successful demonstrating Vendor Village works, we are pushing parks and recreation to include this in their capital improvements. The more people we have involved in the park planning, the more likely it is that we’re going to get parks and recreation to invest more money into the park.

Mifflin community gathers to discuss the park at Francis Scott Key School in South Philadelphia. Credit: Courtesy of SEAMAAC

Will the unlicensed vendors who were shut down last year be reintroduced into Vendor Village?

We’ve been reaching out to some of those people and others in the neighborhood to promote the local food ethnic cuisine. We’re trying to get them to become more legitimate, and make some real money, and possibly at some point even become a regular old brick and mortar restaurant. This is really to grow entrepreneurship from the ground up.

A block over on Seventh Street is a major commercial area. It’s a traditional place where there have been a lot of businesses, but it’s not as vibrant today. The point is, the connection between those two spaces is really something we want to make better. So people know when they’re on Seventh Street they can come down to the park, and when people are at the park they can go to Seventh Street. People who are vending at the park will potentially have businesses on Seventh Street.