“West Philadelphia’s Main Street”, 52nd Street, to become a main attraction

Medallion declaring that 52nd Street is "West Philadelphia's Main Street"

If you’ve ever wandered into the heart of West Philadelphia, beyond University City, then you’ve likely passed through, or along, 52nd Street.  This street has, for generations, been the heart of West Philadelphia, providing at one time the largest retail shopping district in this part of the city.  The sidewalk has medallion plaques every few feet which declare that 52nd Street is “West Philadelphia’s Main Street” and is a popular location for political candidates and even Presidential visits.  It is easily accessible by the Market Street El, which has a station there, and within walking distance of University City neighborhoods, including Cedar Park.  For a long time, it was “the” place for West Philadelphia residents to buy food, clothes, furniture, hardware, and almost anything else.  The bustling street was lined with shops and eateries, and had offices and apartments on the upper floors of mostly three and four-storey buildings from Arch Street down to Baltimore Avenue, and further up near Lancaster Avenue.  The buildings were built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and so have a mix of architectural styles from those times, like Victorian, Beaux Arts, and some Art Deco.

Over the years, as most middle class people moved out of central West Philadelphia, 52nd Street became a mostly low-income shopping district, with many vacant storefronts and very little use of the buildings’ upper floors.  Sidewalk vendors, who couldn’t afford to rent a store and couldn’t get a loan for one, started lining the sidewalks up and down the stretch from Walnut to Arch, selling inexpensive (to say the least) items, including some fashion knock-off merchandise.  Most buildings became deteriorated and crime and drug dealing became commonplace.  Most Center City and University City residents avoid the area, and many don’t even know that this intensely-developed retail strip is there.  In the 1970s, community groups started to look for ways to revitalize 52nd Street and came up with a unique idea – they built a canopy from Market to Walnut Streets.  It had red, white, and blue signage along the top edge that had the lettering for the businesses below.  The canopy created a unique look for 52nd Street, but didn’t change the economic fortunes or crime statistics of the thoroughfare.

A few years ago, community and merchant groups, especially the 52nd Street Business Association, decided it was time to do more to revitalize 52nd Street, just as SEPTA was finishing up the new El station there.  The groups applied to the city for one of the Commercial Corridor grants that the city was awarding through Mayor Street’s $150 million Commercial and Cultural Corridor Program, in 2007.   That program primarily does streetscape improvements in commercial corridors throughout the city; many of which are currently underway.  That was followed by years of planning and discussions between the store owners and sidewalk vendors in order to agree to the new design for the street and its many businesses.  The store owners and vendors usually were at odds, because each group saw the other as unfair competition.  The vendors were particularly afraid that the store owners were trying to move them off the street.  The city Commerce Department, which is administering the ReStore Philadelphia’s Corridors program – a program funded by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation to renovate storefronts – decided to encourage both sides to discuss their differences and needs, in order to come to a mutual agreement that benefits both sides.  The result is an agreement that allows 56 vendors (who would be properly licensed) between Walnut and Arch Streets, who will utilize specially designed kiosks intended to make the retail look more upscale and charming.  Another point of contention was the canopy.  The store owners and Commerce Department wanted to tear it down, but the vendors liked it because it protected them from the elements.  The controversy came to a head when some vendors tied themselves to the posts of the canopy in a protest about a year and a half ago.  After the agreement was reached between the vendors and the store owners, the canopy was eventually torn down.

The new streetscape improvement will include new sidewalks, trees, and lighting.  The Commerce Department would like to renovate most of the storefronts, which deteriorated because they were blocked by the canopy.  The vendors will get new kiosks that will be designed to be functional, but attractive, and will also have a new storage space nearby.  The community groups and city, also, want to have regular sweeping and cleaning, which will be funded by nearby Mercy Hospital and the dues of local businesses contributing to the 52nd Street Business Association.  The intent is to make 52nd Street cleaner and more upscale (and safer, of course), and to attract middle class residents who live nearby, while still having affordable retail for the residents in the rest of West Philadelphia.  It’s plausible now that 52nd Street would become a more middle class, and upscale, destination because so many middle class people are moving into the neighborhoods just to the east.  The time for 52nd Street to be revitalized has come.  I think it was a good idea to keep the vendors, though, because it can make 52nd Street a unique and charming shopping and tourist destination, while also allowing some people to make a living the best way they can.  The upper middle class residents would likely shop in the stores, and occasionally buy from the vendors, and the working class residents would buy from both.  If well-to-do shoppers come to 52nd Street, then the stores wouldn’t have to worry about competition from the vendors’ fashion knock-offs, because wealthier shoppers don’t usually like to buy knock-offs.  And, the vendors might have unique items that are not readily available in stores, thus giving the area a special draw.

The revitalized 52nd Street would be three blocks away from the new West Philadelphia High School, at 49th & Chestnut, and near the new Lucien Blackwell Community Center on 48th Street, and a new market rate housing development currently under construction at 48th & Brown Streets.  There is, also, a new shopping center that was recently built at 52nd Street & Lancaster Avenue, and streetscape improvements on Baltimore and Lancaster Avenues, that are funded by Mayor Street’s Commercial and Cultural Corridor program.  I have a link to an article on PlanPhilly’s website here, and pictures below.  And if you are interested in buying, selling, or renting a home or investment property in this developing neighborhood, please contact me at gabriel@thecondoshops.com or sign onto my Facebook realtor page, Gabriel G. Philly Realtor or the Condo Shop Facebook page, here.

Old Google Earth photo showing 52nd Street with the erstwhile canopy

Historic photo of 52nd Street dating from 1914

52nd Street looking north from Walnut Street

Vendors along 52nd Street

The west side of the street between Chestnut & Walnut Streets

Medallion declaring that 52nd Street is "West Philadelphia's Main Street"

The El over Market Street

Looking south from Market Street

Historic buildings near Market Street

The tallest building on 52nd Street

Looking west down Market Street from 52nd & Market

Busy corner @ 52nd & Market Streets

Looking north on 52nd Street between Market and Arch Streets

The El station @ 52nd & Market Streets

The El over Market Street near 52nd Street


About gabrielcgottlieb

I am a real estate agent at Long & Foster Real Estate Center City and someone who likes to write about development and urban planning in the City of Philadelphia. Contact me at Gabriel.gottlieb@LNF.com if you are interested in buying or selling a home or investment property in Philadelphia.
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6 Responses to “West Philadelphia’s Main Street”, 52nd Street, to become a main attraction

  1. Austin says:

    Interesting. I’ll be looking forward to seeing how this affects the surrounding neighborhoods in West Philly.

  2. Ivry says:

    I have been anticipating renovation of some of the wonderful neighborhoods in our city, and I can not wait to see the changes up close and personal! I would consider moving if it holds the promise of changing for the better of our city.

  3. william power says:

    I worked as a vista volunteer in 1965 at reverand Leon Sullivan’s opportunities industrialization center west Philly office. I took the market street el to 52nd. Regarding your photos of the area, especially “the tallest building on 52nd street” can you tell me if that was the building that o.ic. used at that time??

    • No idea. You might be able to look up old photos from that era online. My guess it was originally a bank or financial building from the 1910s, but I’m not sure of the history or the name.

  4. deadmic alla says:

    wow there shudb a 52nd & Market site

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