Crime and grime
Philadelphia Police Officer Tyshaan Williams' crusade to save a business district began with a face full of trash.
Not his face - an infant's.
It was four years ago. Williams, 30, on the force in North Philadelphia's always challenging 25th District, had just been assigned to help stop a stubborn streak of store break-ins along a stretch of Germantown Avenue behind Temple University Hospital.
The wind was strong as he patrolled the commercial corridor. He watched with disgust and anger as a mother and her baby struggled to get through the street as trash and dirt swirled around them.
"The trash flew up and slapped her baby in the face," Williams recalled in an interview last week. Debris also caught in the carriage's wheels.
"The lady said, 'Why is this place so dirty? I can't stand this avenue,' " he said.
From that moment, the nine-year police veteran resolved to do more than fight crime on Germantown Avenue - way more, from organizing trash cleanups using residents of halfway houses, to going door-to-door recruiting members for the Germantown-Erie Merchants Association, or GEM.
Williams' virtual adoption of the business district is unlike anything city commerce officials have seen, and, they said, it's a model of cooperative business development they hope will inspire similar efforts in more of Philadelphia's 200 business districts.
"Nobody knows the corridors as well as the people who spend the kind of time in them they do," said Bob Collazo, senior manager in the city Commerce Department's Office of Business Services. "These guys are an extraordinary resource."
He was referring not only to Williams, but to the two officers assigned to help him on Germantown Avenue from Allegheny to Erie Avenues - Booker Messer and Tremayne Young.
Young said their goal was to make this end of Germantown Avenue akin to its tonier stretches up through Chestnut Hill.
Williams' superiors are unfalteringly supportive, if for reasons more police-oriented than business-related.
"Whatever he does is going to cut down on [crime] incidents in this area," said Capt. Frank Vanore. "We're trying to get more officers involved in their service area."
To Williams, where to begin was as obvious as the paper, bottles, and other refuse that junked up sidewalks and streets in the business district and adjacent residential areas. For help, he went to the heavyweight in the neighborhood, Temple Hospital.
Collazo said hospital representatives appeared grateful to finally have a go-to person in the local business community - even if Williams wasn't one of the business owners.
The officer requested "rudimentary supplies - carts, brooms, and bags," Sandra L. Gomberg, the hospital's president and chief executive officer, said in an interview Friday. She eagerly met the need.
"This is really a story about how it doesn't have to take millions of dollars and complex projects to make a difference," Gomberg said, lauding Williams' focus on cleaning up Germantown Avenue. "Clean feels safe, and safe is good for business."
Williams now has a binder several inches thick that he affectionately refers to as "my book of tricks." It contains hundreds of phone numbers of state and city agencies, community and business leaders, and even operators of trash trucks and street washers that, he boasts, will arrive anywhere he needs them upon getting a call.
But everyone involved acknowledged that cleaning can only carry a business district so far.
"Obviously, we can't do anything without money," said Howard Foreman, whom Williams talked into serving as president of GEM, whose members number about 20. "Funding is an integral part of this."
Foreman and his wife, Natalie, operate Caribbean Feast, a Jamaican restaurant on a triangle of land just south of Temple Hospital, where Broad and Westmoreland Streets and Rising Sun Avenue converge.
Their six years in business have not been easy, including two fires and a filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection in 2008.
"I'm still not getting a salary," said Foreman, 48, a father of four who came to the United States from Jamaica nearly 20 years ago.
He said the business community was initially skeptical when Williams started showing up, talking about improvements and issuing a rally cry for a business association.
"All these years, you hear, 'This is going to happen; that is going to happen,' " Foreman said. "Promises and promises that never materialized."
There was also one other concern, he said: "Why is this police officer getting so deep in this kind of thing?"
Foreman said Williams told him the story about the trash and the baby, and he was sold on him. "He's definitely a godsend."
Against a backdrop of men's shirts and jeans, Zihiar Gamble, owner of Z-Image boutique in the 3600 block of Germantown Avenue, praised Williams for going "above and beyond what he needs to do."
Zihiar, 24, said he now hopes government will step up.
"If we get a little bit of government funding out here, it will make it a little better area," he said.
If the money doesn't come? Zihiar said he worries "people will be scared to come up here. Everyone will just go downtown, where it's cleaner and where they get funding to make their businesses look better."
Collazo said he has made it a point to be a familiar presence on Germantown Avenue, to seek input from the business owners, tell them about the funding the city has available for business improvements, and encourage membership in the business association to give business owners there a more powerful voice.
Williams sees nothing unusual about a police officer leading such an effort.
"I'm there eight hours a day," he said. "Why not put all effort into making their lives better?"
By the way, he did catch the criminal who started it all.
Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or firstname.lastname@example.org.