North Philadelphia Small Businesses Struggle Without Access to Banks

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North Philadelphia small businesses

Philadelphia, November 2, 2023 

In the heart of North Philadelphia lies a bustling commercial corridor along 22nd Street between Lehigh and Allegheny avenues, home to more than 50 small businesses. However, this vibrant neighborhood lacks one essential service – a bank. The absence of local banks has presented challenges for business owners, impacting their ability to access financial resources and grow their enterprises.

Ben Nachum, the owner of Patriot Pharmacy, a local independent pharmacy, opened his business on this stretch of 22nd Street about four years ago. Despite facing challenges, he was determined to serve the community and provide essential healthcare services. Nachum’s decision to open an account with the bank across the street marked a significant step in establishing his business in the neighborhood.

However, the past few years have brought significant challenges to the area. The onset of the “COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020” led to an economic downturn as businesses were forced to close due to public health restrictions. Federal stimulus packages aimed to aid economic recovery but couldn’t shield small businesses from all adversities.

Amid the pandemic, the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020 triggered nationwide protests against police violence. While the event occurred in Minneapolis, Philadelphia also witnessed significant protests. Unfortunately, the social unrest that followed, combined with incidents of police violence in subsequent years, has led to opportunistic criminal activities. These events have taken a toll on local businesses.

Since June 2020, Nachum’s Patriot Pharmacy has been robbed and vandalized three times, despite having security measures in place, including security cameras, metal gates, and steel doors. Even the Citizens Bank across the street, where Nachum had opened an account, fell victim to vandals in the same month, as per Philadelphia Police Department records. However, the bank eventually closed its branch in July 2021 after its lease expired, leaving only a corporate ATM in its place.

In August 2023, during protests over the fatal shooting of Eddie Irizarry Jr. by a Philadelphia police officer, an unrelated string of smash-and-grab robberies occurred in Center City and North Philadelphia. Among the victims of these robberies was Nachum’s pharmacy, which, despite its security measures, suffered significant losses.

The lack of a bank in the neighborhood has not only affected local businesses but also limited access to financial services for residents. With no bank in sight, the corridor relies on corporate ATMs, a few private ATMs inside retailers, and a check-cashing shop.

Citizens Bank, which closed its branch in July 2021, did not provide an interview for this story. According to Daniel Fitzpatrick, president of the mid-Atlantic region for Citizens Bank, the bank values its service to Philadelphia neighborhoods and its large footprint in the city. The physical branches are critical to serving customers and their communities, he noted. The bank continually reviews customer patterns and adjusts its branch strategy across its network, based on its statement.

While the Citizens Bank ATM remains, no full-service branch is on the horizon. The parking lot parcel previously owned by the bank has been donated to the Allegheny West Foundation for community benefit. Citizens Bank has invested in underbanked communities over the years and supported local nonprofits.

The absence of a bank poses challenges not only for business owners but also for the community. The Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School teaches financial literacy, yet the nearest bank branch is about a mile away, making it difficult for students to gain practical experience in banking.

Despite the challenges, business owners in North Philadelphia remain committed to their community. For Ken Curry, president of the North 22nd Street Business Association, bringing a full-service bank branch to the neighborhood is a goal. He emphasized the importance of building relationships with bank staff for business owners, especially for those who have difficulties accessing credit.

However, the rapidly changing banking landscape and the shift towards digital banking have presented challenges for communities like North Philadelphia. As businesses struggle to adapt and seek financial assistance, the question of economic development in aging commercial corridors remains a challenge for Philadelphia’s leadership.

While business owners like Tameka Montgomery dream of expanding and renovating their shops, they face hurdles in accessing capital. With a lack of community trust in law enforcement, reaching out to the community becomes essential for entrepreneurs like Montgomery. She emphasizes the need for financial support to realize her vision for her store.

Established businesses, like Eric Holt Optical, also feel the inconvenience of the absent bank. LaKeisha King-Smith, co-owner of Eric Holt Optical, noted that the convenience of accessing funding and services locally has diminished since the bank’s departure. Customers now have to travel outside the community for basic banking needs.

Fred Cerrome Hill, owner of Hair Connections, shared his experience of the frequent criminal activity in the area and the challenges it presents for business owners. While the lack of a bank is inconvenient, he highlighted the community’s resilience and adaptability in the face of evolving technology and changing banking habits.

As the neighborhood grapples with these challenges, it remains a microcosm of the city’s larger economic struggles and the importance of access to essential financial services. The absence of local banks underscores the need for creative solutions and support to help small businesses thrive and continue serving their communities.

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