Avenue of opportunity
— The Castor Avenue business corridor in Rhawnhurst is not what it used to be back in the good old days. With vigorous efforts to revitalize the area, however, hope is just around the corner.
In the days of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, Rhawnhurst’s business corridor was a shining example of urban expansion and economic progress, of developers moving north, creating neighborhoods and building stores to meet the growing community’s needs.
Today, Castor Avenue looks much the same as it did then, according to those familiar with the district. Indeed, the newness is a distant memory, while some view the corridor as an illustration of urban neglect.
Active businesses still line the 10-block corridor from Cottman Avenue north to Solly Avenue, but consumer traffic is a shadow of what it once was. Visually speaking, many property owners have done little to give their storefronts facelifts.
That’s why leaders of a local non-profit group and elected officials who represent the neighborhood are trying to organize a new business association and launch a campaign to revitalize the avenue. Late last month, they hosted a walking tour of the area with Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, the city’s head of economic development and its commerce director, hoping to attract public resources to kick-start the improvement effort.
“It’s a very nice area once you get off the avenue,” said City Councilman Brian O’Neill. “[But] it looks like the last time the storefronts were touched was forty or fifty years ago.”
“A lot of businesses have been here for over thirty years,” said Reuven Slurzberg, founder and president of the non-profit Jewish Community of Rhawnhurst. “But you also can’t help but notice there’s a lack of greenery, a lack of trees and a lack of banners [with slogans] like, ‘Welcome to Rhawnhurst.’”
Nonetheless, a casual survey of the avenue reveals many assets, particularly a healthy variety of stores.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY
Within a block of Castor and Hartel avenues, there’s a dog grooming shop, a scuba shop, an espresso and sushi café, a hardware store, medical offices and professional offices, along with a typical assortment of hair salons and pizza parlors.
There isn’t an over-abundance of shops often associated with declining commercial districts, such as dollar stores, pawnshops and discount shops.
“There’s a variety there,” O’Neill said. “I’m not sure what the ideal mix is, but the people from the Commerce Department have worked on commercial strips all over the city. So hopefully, there are some lessons they can incorporate [into Rhawnhurst].”
Technically, O’Neill’s 10th district does not include the Castor Avenue corridor. It’s still in Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez’s 7th district. But new district boundaries will take effect after the 2015 municipal election. O’Neill plans to run for re-election and, if successful, would then represent the area.
By most accounts, Castor Avenue is relatively free of litter and graffiti, too. And according to Slurzberg, the avenue has a diverse group of business operators who tend to be receptive to new ideas, as evidenced by the feedback they received during last month’s walking tour.
“They said, ‘I’m so happy somebody is doing something like this,’” Slurzberg said. “It was universal. Everybody was all for it.”
State Rep. John Sabatina Jr. is one of those proprietors, operating a district office at 8100 Castor Ave. In addition, his father, John Sabatina Sr., the Democratic leader of the 56th Ward, heads a law firm at 7720 Castor Ave.
“A lot of the business owners said the area lacks unity and organization,” the younger Sabatina said, “[that] there’s no real method or continuity. Rhawnhurst for so long has gone without a business association, I don’t think they’re aware of the possibilities.”
Plans remain in the preliminary stages, but organizers are talking about sweeping physical improvements to public and private properties.
Slurzberg, who founded JCOR in 1997 to promote unity and communication among synagogues and Jewish organizations in the community, envisions façade improvements for participating businesses.
In other neighborhoods, O’Neill said, similar initiatives have resulted in pedestrian safety improvements such as curb “bump-outs,” along with better street lighting, new trees and more attractive security gates on storefronts.
IN UNITY THERE IS STRENGTH
Sharon Abergel, the owner of Espresso Café and Sushi Bar at 7814 Castor Ave., thinks that unity among area merchants will promote security and cleanliness on the avenue, while giving them a stronger voice with local politicians. This will make the locale more attractive to new merchants, residents and investment.
“If the community is going to grow, my business is going to grow,” Abergel said. “If you’re unified as a group, you have more power.”
“One of the main goals is to revitalize and also retention and recruitment,” agreed David Kushner, a JCOR board member and longtime community activist.
Initially, organizational help will come from the Commerce Department. Once a plan or wish list is in place, participants may apply for state grant money.
The JCOR folks emphasize that the participation is open to all merchants and is not restricted to the Jewish community.
“There will be a new organization formed that will encompass the businesses in this corridor and other organizations, and JCOR will be part of that,” Slurzberg said. “There are a lot of ethnic communities, and everybody I talk to agrees with it.” ••