Not all that long ago, many Philadelphians would have scoffed at the thought of visiting Olney, situated six miles north of the glitz and glam of Center City. Some might still dismiss the idea of a day trip to the neighborhood today.
The Olney community at large wants you to think twice — especially the 340 active businesses operating along the mile-and-a-half-long North 5th Street corridor.
“It has a lot of niche businesses that cater to the ethnic groups that are there,” said Philip Green, co-director and development manager at North 5th Street Revitalization Project, a program fiscally sponsored by the Korean Community Development Services Center and supported by the Commerce Department.
The neighborhood, which Green said is 24 percent foreign-born, is one of the most diverse in the city.
“There’s no one side of the neighborhood that’s this race or ethnicity, it’s a completely even distribution,” Green said. “I personally think Olney has national significance.”
The businesses along North 5th reflect the neighborhood’s diversity. It’s something Green said the corridor prides itself on. That’s why North 5th Street recently launched a website that will help tourists engage in self-guided food tours of the corridor’s restaurants.
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Want some Jamaican jerk? North 5th Street has a spot. Pizza shops, a rib joint, a seafood market, authentic Mexican and Korean and Carribean — Green said there’s something for everyone.
“This isn’t something I made up myself as far as, ‘Oh, this place is diverse, let’s exploit that,'” said Green, who lives in South Philly but has been working in Olney for just over four years. “This comes from the residents. People really value the diversity here. It’s seen as a strong point of the neighborhood.”
"People really value the diversity here. It's seen as a strong point of the neighborhood."
Neighborhood cleanliness is another source of neighborhood pride, and it’s an asset North 5th Street Revitalization Project has played a large role in helping develop. The organization’s cleaning program began with one sidewalk cleaner along the corridor who would work five days a week addressing the community’s litter problem. As more funding from the Commerce Department was funneled into North 5th, the program stepped up community engagement efforts surrounding sanitation and litter abatement.
“We hold a series of community cleanups where we try to pair our cleaning efforts — a broom and a dustpan — with actual outreach so we can stop litter where it starts,” Green said. “It’s made a huge difference.”
During a community meeting last July, he said the 45 neighbors who attended reported feeling safer than they have in many years due to the dramatic improvement to cleanliness.
“What the community wants to see now is our attention turned toward more promotional activities and events that attract people to the corridor and get people excited,” Green said. “They’re feeling like the corridor is a lot cleaner and safer than it has been in previous decades so we can turn our sights toward other things.”
Olney has its problems, he said, as do many other urban neighborhoods. But this particular neighborhood is getting by in ways others are not.
“And North 5th Street is a reflection of that.”