10 July 2008 |
Donna Fitzgerald Robb, in chef attire, sits in her restaurant’s garden. It’s a warm, humid June day, but here on the covered patio, rimmed by phlox and tiger lilies, the breeze is lissome, cool and pleasant. It feels like an early summer paradise.
Robb, chef and co-owner of the Cresheim Cottage Café on Germantown Avenue in Mount Airy, is one of those Philadelphians who augers the city’s future. She and her daughter live upstairs from the restaurant in an apartment Robb assembled from tiny rooms of the stone 1748 house, one of the first buildings along what was then called the Great Road. The café‘s slogan is “rooted in the community,” and indeed, this is a business whose product, employees and customers come from the same source. Much of the food is organic and locally grown. It’s the very model of a new Philadelphia.
Out front, on Germantown Avenue, where dust flies amid piles of dirt and rock, road construction machines crank and whir. Here, too, the city is being made anew. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is rebuilding this part of Philadelphia’s longest avenue, a $17 million project to replace and update the utilities, reconstruct the road bed, and re-lay trolley tracks. (SEPTA’s insistence on replacing the Route 23’s trolley track, despite the present use of the bus instead of the trolley, may be the most farsighted thing the agency has ever done, a promise of the city’s greener future.) Workers are carefully lining the street with cobblestones and installing pedestrian lighting, critical to the life of a city avenue.
“It’s going to be beautiful,” says the restaurateur. She smiles, looks away and laughs.
It’s not a joyous laughter, but one that feels dark and a little desperate. The road construction, two months behind schedule, with no financial accommodation for businesses along the avenue, is disrupting paradise. Business is off 35 percent, she says. Other Mount Airy retailers report a similar drop. It’s possible the café won’t last long enough to benefit from a planned Germantown Avenue marketing campaign.
If Cresheim Cottage does close, Robb will join handfuls of other Philadelphians whose lives and livelihoods have been severely disrupted by the rebuilding of this old city’s infrastructure. It’s not an unusual story. At present, the pain is spread from West Philadelphia, where El reconstruction has left some retailers destitute, to East Falls and South Street.
But Robb’s — and other business owners’ — pain is worth paying attention to, and here’s why. With the price of gas continuing to rise, investment in transit infrastructure will be rising, too.
At long last, Washington is about to pay attention to the nation’s infrastructure, unheard of since the completion of the interstate highway system in the 1970s. An Obama presidency promises a White House Office of Urban Policy, whose director will report to the president, along with a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank, which will allow cities to borrow cheaply to rebuild. All stars aligned, Philadelphia, whose needs in this regard are infinite, stands to benefit handsomely.
In coming years there are going to be hundreds more Cresheim Cottage Cafés across this city, businesses put into jeopardy by investment meant to make things better. Mount Airy businessman Ken Weinstein proposes a simple solution, putting 2 percent of a project’s construction cost toward marketing. Won’t we be wise if we plan ahead to help businesses through rather than waiting until it’s too late?
In the meantime and despite the detours, the Cresheim Cottage is open. There may be no better way to spend a summer afternoon or an evening than enjoying locally grown food in Robb’s garden. I’d recommend the chilled parsnip soup with local berries. Let’s call it an alluring taste of things to come.