Millions of inner-city kids go to sleep at night and dream about “making it big” and giving back to the community that raised them. Ironically that same community is responsible for swallowing up so many of those kids’ friends and relatives. However, there’s still a level of pride that comes from making it through adversity and giving those coming up after you a better chance of doing the same.
Regardless of which professional path you choose, there’s enough need in these communities to give everyone who “makes it” something to do. This is especially true along 52nd street in West Philadelphia, where the ugly seems to outweigh the beautiful on every corner. Fortunately, this scene hasn’t gone unnoticed by Kalphonse Morris, owner of the Urban Art Gallery at the corner of 52nd and Irving Street.
Kalphonse, affectionately known as Karl, has turned his love for art and real estate into a beautiful refuge for Philadelphia’s creatives. Since it’s opening in the fall of 2013, the Urban Art Gallery has quickly grown into a highly sought-after venue while continuing to grow its influence in the Philadelphia art community. One important thing to note is that Karl is not that different from the average man in West Philadelphia. He simply made the best out of a few opportunities and made a series of good choices that put him in the position to own an art gallery (along with several other residential properties).
In the Q&A below, Karl explains how he came to purchase the building that houses the Urban Art Gallery, where his love of art originated and his advice for aspiring entrepreneurs and artists.
CC: How did you get your start in Real Estate before owning the Urban Art Gallery?
KM: Well I started with my first property back when I was 22 years old. I came into that because I used to have a real nice car—I think I had the best car in Philly. But one day I realized that I was taking my clothes to the Laundromat in my nice car. I said wait something ain’t right here. This don’t look right. So I sold my car and bought my first piece of property with the money and a little help from my grandmother. But selling the car was the turning point. I thought to myself that this car wasn’t getting me anywhere. I mean you can look good all day long but at the end of the day, I’m still taking my clothes to the Laundromat—and I’m not making any money.
After I bought the first house right off of 51st and Webster, it became addictive and I bought a second house and a third. And during the process, I started learning how to fix up houses too because I didn’t want to wait on a contractor while there was a whole in my roof. And my wife was right with me before she got pregnant, throwing stuff in the trash truck with me. My wife is a straight trooper. And when we had kids, she held most of that side down so I was able to continue doing what I was doing with real estate.
But even then, I looked at [real estate] as a hobby because I still worked at the post office. I mean, I gave it 100%, but I didn’t have to depend on that to make a living so it just manifested into a nice little business with slow-steady growth. Twenty years later and we’re doing pretty well.
CC: So you still work at the post office but you probably don’t really have to. Have you thought about quitting?
KM: Not really. I always try to put myself in a win-win situation. For whatever reason if a tenant isn’t paying rent or something else isn’t getting done, I’m still good. I know you’re not supposed to worry about the fear factor but I’m more of a realist. With the post office, I have benefits, a pension, and the real estate is more of my retirement plan so I can live comfortably. Because even with a pension, most people still have to work. It’s not a plan B, it’s more like two plan A’s.
CC: Ok so you have the properties, you’re at the post office, and one day you wake up and decide to own an art gallery. What led to that decision?
KM: Actually, when I was renovating the property I was going to rent the space out. Quite a few people came to me but the deals fell through. So me being an art lover and venturing into the galleries downtown and in New York, was one of the things that led me to opening the Urban Art Gallery. Also talking to a couple of artists who said that the art gallery scene is like a secret society and it’s hard to get in, led me to this as well. The local, emerging artist from West Philly is not getting into the galleries downtown. And seeing how the local art scene was developing, pushed me further towards it. One more reason was that I was just tired of seeing the same types of businesses out here. And I’m not faulting anybody for the business they do but it was time for a change. We need more culture. We need people to understand that there’s a bigger life outside of this area. That’s my goal.