As a North Philly neighborhood is reshaped, one man's story of being displaced

On a clear, crisp summer morning at 22nd Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue, the corner buzzed with the comings and goings of people:

Parents dropping off their children for camp at Martin Luther King Recreation Center. Seniors heading to the Older Adult Center, housed, for now, inside the rec center until the brand-new one opens down the street. And patients — some walking only a few blocks from home, others coming by paratransit vans — walking through glass doors of the Stephen Klein Wellness Center. With its pale-beige brick and glass-and-metal facade, the center still looks new and modern, as on its opening day in December 2014.

Progress, it seems, has come to the corridor.

But Kirk Crawford, 49, whose Second-2-None Barber Shop once stood on the site of the wellness center, vowed he will never be walking through those doors.

“It still hurts,” Crawford said.

Camera icon Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer
On Cecil B. Moore Avenue, the new Older Adult Center (far right), the current Martin Luther King Rec Center (left), and the new Stephen Klein Wellness Center across the street, where Kirk Crawford’s barbershop once stood.

He watched as crews tore down his building, where he owned and operated a barbershop from 1992 to 2013, and he watched again as the center was constructed as a joint venture between Project HOME, Thomas Jefferson University and its hospitals, and the federal Department of Health and Human Services, after the city and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority seized his property by eminent domain.

It had been two years since he stood on that corner, and the memories were flooding back.

“Just me, rebuilding that place with my hands, from the ground up,” he said. “The customers, the laughter, the pride we had in that place. Dealing with people. Being a therapist, and listening to my customers when they had problems.”

When Crawford and his business partner, Anthony Morse, bought the building in 1990, it was a shell. Having learned carpentry at 15 as an apprentice, Crawford converted the three-story building into what became a tattoo shop, a women’s salon, a restaurant and a barbershop. For the neighborhood, the barbershop was also employer, sounding board, gathering spot — even youth programming provider.

Zaheer Hasson was 14 with nothing to do when he hung out there with friends and played Pac-Man and Play Station 3. He can’t believe it’s gone.

“That was crazy. I loved that barbershop,” said the now-19-year-old, on his way to catch a bus to a job at a store in Montgomery County. “You built it up all nice. You did all that stuff for nothing.”

It’s a perspective many business owners come to have after offering needed services in an underserved community — only to be displaced for development, said Rasheedah Phillips, managing attorney for Community Legal Services (CLS) in Center City.

She has represented tenants displaced by the Housing Authority’s plans to rebuild the Sharswood area south of Ridge Avenue: “A lot of people in that community have gotten a raw deal, and it’s not just recently, but generally over time,” Phillips said. (Other CLS attorneys have represented homeowners and business owners displaced by PHA.)

“There’s a narrative that comes out that the whole area needs to be erased and restarted,” she said. “Meanwhile, people who have businesses, who have struggled to make a way for themselves, they suffer.”

Governments consult a few models when planning to rebuild depressed neighborhoods, she said, and in one, “cities find a way to support business owners and homeowners to help them fix up their properties and stay in the area, as opposed to another model of taking it all away and starting over.”

Crawford said the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority initially told him his business would be spared, as long as he improved the exterior. So he repaired the stucco, made other changes, too. He thought he would benefit from the health center’s traffic.

In the end, though, he received an official letter that the city would take his property under state laws that require “just compensation.”

For the barbershop that employed 10 barbers; for the takeout restaurant that sold pretzels, water ice and hot food; for the three-stylist salon and tattoo parlor, Louis A. Iatarola, an appraiser hired by Crawford­’s attorney, valued the property at $195,000. Crawford and Morse got $140,000 between them, plus an additional $10,000 in relocation expenses.

“It was a big loss,” said Judith Robinson, a North Philadelphia activist and real estate professional who has protested the loss of homes and businesses as the city and Housing Authority plan to rebuild the area. “A barbershop is a place where men and women gather to really engage.”

The goal for the takeover was to provide much-needed medical, dental, and behavioral health services to zip code 19121, the second-poorest in the city, said Sister Mary Scullion of Project HOME.

“About 20 years ago, we started a small free clinic at 23rd and Berks,” Scullion said. “The need was great. But we weren’t able to provide dental in that space. There were a lot of other needs, also.”

Project HOME hosted a series of community meetings with neighbors, who suggested the services and location for the wellness center. For one thing, Scullion said, it was important the center be located on a street with good public transportation.

Helen Brown, a Project HOME community organizer who helped arrange the meetings, said the entire block was vacant except for the barber shop. “We thought it would be a good location. We have some new housing in the area and the [Honickman] Learning Center is around the corner. We have had so many people coming to the wellness center.”

Crawford concedes the wellness center has helped the business corridor — which was mostly destroyed by the 1964 Columbia Avenue riots that began one block west — but he questions whether the city should have made a place for him to benefit from the progress.

Crawford said he hadn’t wanted to accept the money the Redevelopment Authority paid. He said he felt coerced by a lawyer who told him, “Sign it or walk away with nothing.” He contends he got little help from City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, except for a couple months’ delay of the seizure.

“Mr. Crawford’s account is simply false,” said Jane Roh, a spokeswoman for Clarke. “The council president met with him in North Philly, and he personally intervened to secure fair compensation from the PRA, well above their original offer.”

Crawford says the meeting, which resulted in the delay, was a result of his interrupting a news conference Clarke held at the Older Adult Center.

“It seems like the policies of the government are against the black entrepreneur who is trying to do something positive,” Crawford said.

Crawford eventually moved to a temporary shop on Ridge Avenue. The front-glass door was cracked. The chairs in the waiting area were ripped. He said his customers stopped coming. He had plans to fix up another building farther east on Ridge, but was injured in an automobile accident and wasn’t able to work.

Now, Crawford said, he is bitter and angry at a city his family has long served: his late father, Donald, was a Philadelphia police officer; his mother, Ludie Montgomery, worked as a court clerk; and his grandfather Thomas Montgomery, who first taught him how to cut hair in his own barber shop, had a day job in Traffic Court.

Last week, while standing on the corner talking with a reporter, several acquaintances were happy to see him.

“Hey, Kirk, where’ve you been?” asked Tonya Nealy, who was on her way into the wellness center to pick up a prescription. She used to bring her three youngest sons to Crawford’s barbershop to get haircuts. She liked his work. The place was clean.

But Nealy, who can walk to the wellness center from her house, also said she thought the development has been a boon for the community. “They do a lot of good here,” she said. “My kids go to the dentist. We all go to doctors here. And the homeless people can take showers.”

But she couldn’t understand why the center couldn’t be located a block away on Ridge. “Why didn’t they tear down the beer place?” she asked.

No matter now: Crawford said he only wants to get out of Philadelphia.

“I don’t want to be in Philadelphia anymore. I’m living day by day. I don’t have a job,” he said.

He’s even on public assistance, he said, something he never thought as a businessman he’d ever have to use.