West Philadelphia's 52nd Street is crowded with shops, a somewhat faded commercial corridor that still buzzes with life. Spiffy shoe stores have been recently renovated and, at closing time, a young man in the striped shirt of the Reebok sales clerk attends to the welcome mat with a broom, preserving that shine for the next day's customers. Jamaican bakeries compete for business, alongside purveyors of Muslim fragrance oils.
And amid this crowded street of stores is the Urban Art Gallery, a half-mile south of the elevated train stop.
Gallery owner Kalphonse Morris grew up just down the street, on 51st and Locust. He lives farther west now, but there was no question where he wanted to open an art space of his own in 2013.
"Pretty much all my life I've been in love with art, in and out of galleries," says Morris. "And I wanted to bring something new and uplifting to the neighborhood."
The Urban Art Gallery's main show room is about 550 square feet, while the low-slung basement room is 350 square feet (with a ceiling about 6-foot-6 high). Although it is primarily a visual art gallery, Morris hosts other events, from spoken-word poetry to small-scale musical acts to martial-arts classes.
The gallery isn't open daily because Morris works full time at the post office, in addition to a sideline in residential real estate. Gallery hours are 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday.
At first, Morris thought he would have to visit art schools to advertise for painters and sculptors willing to show their work in his nascent gallery. Instead he's met plenty of artists along 52nd Street and, as word spread, he's had more than enough applicants to keep his First Saturday art openings staffed with fresh talent.
"Downtown is like a secret society," says Morris. "It's very hard for emerging artists to break in."
February's featured artist is Dontay Williams, a West Philly resident in his mid-20s, whose show is titled "Heart of Tokay" (that's his nickname). It will be his first gallery show.
Saturday's opening reception is from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Urban Art Gallery, 262 S. 52nd St. For more information, www.urban-artgallery.com.
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