The Long and Winding Road of Inequality Cuts Straight Through Philadelphia
Documenting the shutdown on Germantown Avenue, which crosses three zip codes with deep economic divides
Philadelphia has long been considered one of the poorest big cities in America. As of March 6—before the coronavirus pandemic sent unemployment numbers skyrocketing—more than 7% of its residents were unemployed. Now, that number has swollen as more than 2 million residents lost their jobs in the wake of the crisis. Neighborhoods that were already struggling with deep poverty and institutional neglect have suffered badly, while in wealthier areas homeowners and business owners are anxious about the future but have had less difficulty in weathering the storm. After two months of stay-at-home orders and a broad economic shutdown, the city is on the brink of reopening, as tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest against police brutality in a city long marred by income inequality.
The Northwest Philadelphia neighborhoods that straddle Germantown Avenue are a microcosm of those experiences. Germantown has a rich history, and is one of the Philadelphia’s oldest neighborhoods; it was the site of a major Revolutionary War battle and holds the honor of bearing witness to the first anti-slavery petition in U.S. history. Within a few square miles across three zip codes—19118, 19119, 19144—the disparities are startling. In East Germantown, a majority Black neighborhood, the median household income is $36,818; further north along the avenue, in Chestnut Hill where over 70% of the population is white, that number climbs to $85,437.
Throughout the pandemic shutdown, photographer Hannah Yoon has been taking photographs of residents across three neighborhoods that cross the avenue, and business owners who are weighing the cost of the shutdown and decision of how to reopen. Yoon, who moved to the Germantown area from Toronto at the end of 2018, first noticed how different the neighborhoods were as she was exploring her new home. “My intentions were to have people acknowledge the economic and racial differences that exist on the same street in one city,” she says. “I hope my photos and people’s words push people to question how communities are supported, but also how every small business and resident is finding their way through this pandemic.”
She says that residents in Germantown were acutely aware of the difference between their situation and how things are “up the hill” in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill, but for the most part, people seemed hopeful. (Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy, and Germantown have all launched small business funds to support local stores.)
Now that Philadelphia, along with cities across the country, has been experiencing fervent protests over police violence and businesses across the city have been damaged during several nights of destruction, the future of Germantown once again hangs in the balance. Its residents will need to hold onto that hope as tightly as they can. —Kim Kelly
Chestnut Hill, 19118
Carman’s Shoe Repair, 8111 Germantown Avenue
Carmen Notarianni’s father opened the store in 1937. Since the pandemic began, Notarianni has only taken on repairs if customers call ahead of time. He recently received a loan from the Small Business Administration and was able to help one of his employees; the rest of the loan went toward rent, utility, and insurance. As the city moves toward through the next phase of reopening, Notarianni is concerned people won’t come out even if restrictions change. He estimates he’s lost 90% of his income in the past few months.
Windfall Gallery, 7944 Germantown Avenue
During the shutdown, owner Cynthia Fillmore had to let two of her one-day-per-week workers go until things returned to “normal” for her clothing and gift shop. “Revenue halted and I hit the ground running thinking of alternative ways to reach my customers. I reached out to my landlord to discuss a rent arrangement that would fit both of our needs. All of this created high anxiety and loss of sleep… I’ve applied for every loan and grant that was available to me and tried my best to come up with solutions that fit my needs and individual business.”
Mount Airy, 19119
“Residents in the neighborhood thought it would be a good idea, as well as a good gesture, to purchase food from Brotherly Grub and have the meals delivered to essential health care workers on the front line. Because of these donations, I have a guaranteed number of sales each weekend.”
Bella Mosaic Art Studio, 6780 Germantown Avenue
“As a business owner, the past six weeks have been hard,” said teaching artist and owner Jessica Liddell at the end of April. Liddell often works with schools, hospitals, and community organizations with her mosaics. “Many classes I was scheduled to teach and school projects that I was supposed to be working on were canceled or postponed. I always try to have at least a couple months of business expenses set aside in an emergency fund so that is relieving some stress. I closed the studio to the public even before the governor shut down businesses in Philadelphia. I just didn’t want to risk anyone’s safety. I mostly work alone, so that will continue to be the case for a while.”
“As soon as the mayor told us about the shutdown I informed all my employees they were off till we reopen. I paid all their wages and started doing takeout and delivery by myself seven days a week, hoping it wouldn’t be this long. After a few weeks I called one employee back because I was exhausted.”
“What’s my gift? It’s helping people. And people don’t like to cook themselves so I just thought of making platters for people.”
Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books, 5445 Germantown Avenue
Uncle Bobbie’s, which is owned by author and professor Marc Lamont Hill, opened at the end of 2017 and has since become a vital space for the Germantown community. Justin Moore, the general manager, has been actively running a GoFundMe campaign to continue to pay his employees during this time.
“We’ve applied for every loan that we can possibly apply for. We have had some success securing funding and some frustrations as well. No, we have not let anyone go — everyone is still employed by Uncle Bobbie’s but unfortunately, because we are closed, there just isn’t any work to offer them. Once it was clear that they were changing the unemployment eligibility rules, I did not see the need to terminate anyone. The best thing that’s happened since we’ve closed is the outpouring of love and support from the community. If it wasn’t for all of the generous donations, we would have run out of money weeks ago. There’s been so much positivity on our social media and it’s clear how much people care about us and value what we bring to the community.”
“I am observing how I live. It’s almost like I am watching myself move through space. I monitor everything everyone touches. I sanitize everything that comes into the house — I am determined for my home to be classified as a safe space. I am hopeful that we will understand the value of life in a deeper way.”
Germantown Masjid, 4944 Germantown Avenue
Imam Hassan Abdi says this is a good time for self-reflection and to focus on what is important. Though the mosque is closed, they are still doing teachings virtually and giving out meals to people in the city. Anwar Wright, one of the teachers, says: “Things have definitely changed. We are used to praying together and checking in with one another so now we have to have more patience.”
“People are doing too much. God slowed them down. I don’t worry about it. I stick to myself.”
Philly Bread, 4530 Germantown Avenue
Peter Merzbacher is the owner and head baker of Philly Bread, which has been in business since 2013. Philly Bread applied for every loan possible and only received a PPP grant. “Because two-thirds of our business was selling bread to restaurants we had to pivot completely to grocery sales. At first, the sales dropped intensely. But in the past month, they have been increasing. There’s no going back. I have to embrace the present and build for the future that I believe is possible. Even though I’m seven years into the business, I feel like I’m in startup mode all over again.” Last week, Merzbacher lost a truck that was lit on fire during a night of looting. “It’s not likely to come back,” he says.