Phila.'s neighborhood 'anchor' man

Looking to build on success, Evans has a vision for a revitalized city.

Crisscrossing Philadelphia, State Rep. Dwight Evans catalogs its assets, the distinctive churches, schools and supermarkets he calls the anchors for leveraging improvements.

Even in sections of Mantua, Kensington and North Philadelphia that look like Dresden after the war, the city abounds with solidity, he says; the next mayor needs vision to see it.

"The first thing I'm going to do is look for some anchors. Some stability. I've got to find some things that will be around. I've got to find me something that knows that this stuff goes up and down, but they're going to be here," says Evans.

His manner of speaking, despite years in the corridors of the state capital, retains the grit of a Philadelphia street.

"With all due respect to the things I have been able to do," he says, "I needed to find some anchors. Because [after] infusions of government money, at some point the marketplace kicks in and it takes on a life of its own."

Best known for leading the renaissance of Ogontz Avenue - transforming over 20 years its circa-1981 blight into a vibrant commercial district in West Oak Lane - Evans hopes his candidacy will take flight on the premise that he can work that magic across Philadelphia.

"There's anchors everywhere," he says, steering his Chevrolet TrailBlazer down the North Philadelphia side street where he was born in 1954.

Today, this narrow block of Seybert Street features trash, rotting houses, and a jarringly gorgeous view of Center City's skyscrapers.

The anchors Evans would use to bootstrap this urban neglect are St. Joseph's Preparatory School and Temple University, a quarter-mile north.

Without articulating the exact dynamic, Evans says he would create "synergy" between the "people and places" of those institutions, capitalizing on their nearness to Center City.

St. Joe's and Temple are not moving, he says: "It's in their self-interest" to clean up Broad Street and vicinity.

Gentle-mannered yet physically imposing, Evans jokes that his glaring charm - and single-mindedness - inspires people to say yes to him.

In impoverished Southwest Philadelphia, where homicides compound the pain of high unemployment and economic distress, Evans notes the blight.

"This is one of the biggest challenges in the city," Evans says, tightening his grip on the wheel.

But on Woodland Avenue, with grimy auto-repair shops, peeling billboards ("We Buy Ugly Houses!"), and Chinese takeouts, Evans sees the new Save-A-Lot supermarket near 58th Street as a sign of hope.

A strong advocate for raising the minimum wage, Evans was instrumental in raising $30 million in state funding for the Fresh Food Initiative, a statewide program to finance supermarkets in underserved areas. Some have been built; others are planned, including one for North Philadelphia.

Now, spotting the new market in Southwest, Evans becomes animated.

"Wide streets. Right? Houses beyond it. Right? That's a supermarket," he says, driving past. "That's an asset."

Where a casual observer might see businesses barely hanging on, Evans sees the possibility of the next Ogontz Avenue.

"Learn, leverage and link," he says. "There's an institution in every community that you've got to build on. Some kind of institution that is your foundation. . . . The question is: Do you see anything in it or don't you? It's a part of vision."

Evans' philosophy derives from the teachings of the Rev. Leon Sullivan, who in the 1960s preached "build, brother, build" when others were shouting "burn, baby, burn."

Especially inspirational, Evans says, was Sullivan's "10-36 Plan," launched in the 1960s, in which he called on parishioners at Zion Baptist Church to save $10 a week for 36 weeks. The group began with 50 participants and spread outside the church community.

Sullivan pooled their resources, which he used as a down payment for bank loans. He leveraged private investment into job-training, youth-scholarship and health-care projects and into Progress Plaza, the nation's first black-owned and -developed shopping center.

"It was his anchor," Evans says.

Now nearing the University of Pennsylvania, the easygoing Evans - 6-foot-21/2, broad-shouldered, heavy-lidded, shaved bald like Mr. Clean - finds shortcuts like a savvy cab driver.

But at 52, making his second run for mayor after 27 years in the state House, 17 as the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee and now its chairman, Evans is searching for something more elusive, too.

Trailing in the polls, he seeks a way to join his sound ideas and record of accomplishments with a public not visibly electrified by him as a candidate.

"At these forums, [candidates] will tell you anything. They 'yes' them to death," Evans reflects. "But in the process of yessing them, how do you get any sense of their critical thinking?"

A hallway in Evans' district office near 71st Street and Ogontz Avenue is lined with framed photographs of African American icons: Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Marcus Garvey.

Evans says he admires them all for their tenacity.

Over the years, Evans has orchestrated the state takeover of the Philadelphia School District; led the charge for handgun control; pushed the anti-crime agenda that led to the hiring of Police Commissioner John Timoney; and found funding for the Convention Center.

But nothing pleases him as much, or seems as lasting, as the Ogontz makeover.

"This is what I'm talking about. I saw something and I built on it," he says, telling the story in his discursive style.

In Evans-speak, words can be e-l-o-n-g-a-t-e-d to make a point, opaquely juxtaposed as metaphors, or broken into syllables for em-pha-sis.

Some listeners are mesmerized, others confounded.

Stripping off his gray suit jacket, Evans takes a seat in front of his favorite pictures.

The photo on the left shows the abandoned Ogontz Plaza strip mall caving in on itself and looking like the haven for druggies it would become.

The photo on the right, shows the revitalized mall almost two decades later, fully occupied, with thousands of people in the street for an annual jazz festival of national renown.

"My point is, this is Ogontz Avenue," he says. "Main thoroughfare. Leads you into [Route] 309. Wide streets. Wide streets. People. Wide streets. Location. People. In combination together, that is a great location. And then, voila!" he says, pronouncing it "wallah."

The storytelling style is classic Evans: fundamentally wise; enthusiastic; syntactically disjointed.

A product of Germantown High School, Community College of Philadelphia and La Salle University, Evans was elected to the state House in 1980 promising "accessibility and accountability."

Before public service, Evans worked in hospital food service, as a public school teacher, and as a job developer for the Urban League.

To make over Ogontz, he used his skills as an organizer, his clout as an elected official, and the determination of a corner kid who worked his way up.

Brashly, he went to the Montgomery County home of the owner of the decrepit mall and threatened to have the city tear it down if the man didn't sell.

Under eminent domain?

"Whatever," Evans says, unable to recall. But he remembers telling the owner, "Something's going to happen and you won't like it."

The man "did an agreement of sale with me," Evans recalled. "But I'm not an entity that I can do it. So ... I started the community development corporation" - the nonprofit Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp., known as OARC.

OARC took control of that first property and, later, other real estate. Once redeveloped, the parcels were rented or sold.

If the budget to rehab a building was lacking, OARC swathed it in plywood painted to look as if its windows were still intact. That way it wouldn't be an eyesore while funds were being raised, Evans said.

With OARC serving as an incubator for fledgling entrepreneurs, the avenue started coming back, although the northern end still needs improvement. Stalwart merchants who never left, including the florists Paul and Altermese Beale, and sandwich-making brothers Eddie and Jerry Kohler of the Hoagie Factory, also benefited.

Gradually, vacant shells became home to a Wine and Spirits Shop, a state Department of Motor Vehicles center, a restaurant called Ogontz Grille and a storefront art dealer, among others.

Like Sullivan, says Wendell Whitlock, board chairman of Progress Investment Associates, "Evans is an effective change agent ... dogged, persistent and doesn't take any stuff."

One relatively new business in revitalized Ogontz is homey Cornbread & Coffee, a cafe run by Dorothy Newby, son Troy, 37, and daughter April, 30.

The first time April Newby met Evans he sported an Afro and was a new rep - at 26, one of the youngest to serve. She was a girl in pigtails at Rowan School and curious to meet a politician.

Looking back on his career, April Newby says: "He's done a great job. This was like a black hole. The city called it a blighted area, but he saw a diamond in the rough."

Adds her brother: "Now we have people who come in here for their breakfast going online looking for houses. Do I think Dwight could do it in other areas? Yes."

Reflection on the changes, Evans says, "The tipping point is being able to believe that this [the before photo] can one day be this [the after photo]. You've got to believe it. This ain't for the faint-hearted. You can go to parts of West Philadelphia where people say, 'I don't think anybody can do anything with this.' I refuse to accept that.

"If the Hoagie Factory can survive around here for 37 years. If Martin's Cleaners can survive for 40 years. If Paul Beale can survive for 35 years, there may be weeds around here, but there are flowers too."

An Evans fund-raiser in March at Ms. Tootsie's, a swank soul-food restaurant on South Street, drew about 50 supporters who paid $250 to $1,000 a person to attend.

Evans' campaigns - for state representative every two years, for lieutenant governor in 1986, for governor in 1994, and for mayor in 1999 - generally have been financed by contributors from law, pharmaceutical manufacturing, health insurance, banking, waste management and the private companies that run public schools.

Experts struggle to explain his inability to get more traction for higher office.

"His organizational base is somewhat limited geographically," suggests political analyst Randall Miller of St. Joseph's University.

This time around, Evans has the support of the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Transportation Workers Union, representing SEPTA bus drivers. The Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, with its 300,000 parishioners, including many city residents, is in his corner. Power players like public relations man Bruce Crawley and lawyer Carl Singley support him, too.

"I like to tell people how I met Dwight in 1974, because over the years he confirmed my initial impression," said Singley, now a WolfBlock partner.

Singley, then a professor at Temple, was invited to speak to the St. Thomas More Law Society at La Salle.

"The president of the organization was a young man named Dwight Evans. At the student center where I was to speak, virtually everyone in the room was white," said Singley, who is black.

"But there was one very tall black man in the room, and I walked up to him and said, 'Young man, can you tell me where I can find Dwight Evans?' He said, 'Y-e-s.' I said, 'You don't understand, I'm looking for Dwight Evans.'

"We've laughed a lot about that over the years," said Singley. "Not in my wildest imagination did I think the president of what was at the time an all-white organization would turn out to be an African American male. Over the years, I've seen his leadership qualities transcend issues of race. People recognize the sincerity, authenticity, strong sense of ethics and fairness. As a legislator he's the hardest-working guy that I know, with incredible intellectual curiosity."

Others applaud him for his insight into important issues.

"Dwight was talking about welfare reform in the '80s," said Herman Wooden, recently retired as UFCW secretary-treasurer. "Dwight was always a visionary. His position is that he doesn't care who gets credit as long as it gets done. We don't always agree. We fought over the school legislation," which Wooden perceived as anti-union. "But Dwight is very level-headed. He doesn't curse. He doesn't drink, and he understands that people are going to disagree. ... Sometimes he likes it because it brings new ideas."

Lawyer Ron Harper, 61, supports Evans, too.

"I see him as a person who says, 'I want to help you. What can I do - right now - to help you?' Not a person who says, 'I want to help you. When you get an idea, come and see me.'

"A lot of them say they'll help you," Harper said, "and by the time you ask they have forgotten."

Evans is running late for the next candidate forum, before the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee. So he bounds up the Union League's staircase two steps at a time.

For Evans, whose mother, Jean, worked for the phone company, and father, Henry, worked for a storage company, admission to the club's bastion of privilege was not a birthright.

He looks comfortable here now. He moves swiftly down the carpeted corridor, smiling broadly as he stops to hug an African American woman working as a server.

His mayoral opponents are already answering questions when Evans takes his seat.

He gets off to a smooth start, telling the audience of several hundred people, mostly residents of Center City, that "gun violence is the single most important issue because if you don't address the question of violence, the city doesn't grow economically."

But when the questioning turns to the chronic funding problems for SEPTA, Evans' answer seems to leave the audience wanting more.

Where his opponents speak of increasing funds from outside the city and boosting city representation on the 15-member SEPTA board, Evans - maybe just because he knows the policy issues so well - makes the point that most transit authorities in the state are in the same predicament.

With no quick fix available, Evans, a realist, offered context. It wasn't a rallying cry.

With time running out before the May 15 Democratic primary, Evans is still searching for the best way to make his political charisma rise to the level of his undeniable political heft.

Near the end of a long interview for this profile, Evans was asked if the logic behind the state takeover of the Philadelphia public schools - that Philadelphia has unique educational needs - could be advanced by people like himself who want more stringent handgun laws and tighter enforcement.

"You're now beginning to catch onto my secret, right? You see, they couldn't understand, in the '90s, when I was talking about this. 'Cause I'm saying to you. . . . You familiar with a dog whistle?"

Yes, you can't hear it unless you're a dog.

"Exactly."

But you heard it? Is that what you're saying?

"That's what I'm saying to you. I'm saying to you, I was blowing a dog whistle. And when I said what I said at the times I said it, I'm saying these people couldn't hear nor understand it," he says, finally pulling his car to the curb.

"And I would argue they still don't."


The Evans File

Age: 52

Residence: West Oak Lane

Education: Germantown High School (1971); Community College of Philadelphia (1973); La Salle University (1975).

Labor experience: Rolling Hill Hospital food service staff, 1968-71; Philadelphia public school teacher, 1975-76; Urban League job developer, 1976-79.

Political and government experience: West Oak Lane block captain, 1975-80; elected state representative, 203d District, 1980; ranking Democrat on state House Appropriations Committee since 1990 and now its chairman.

Annual income: $86,000 legislative salary.

Family: The second-oldest of five children, Evans is a bachelor.


Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.