El Centro de Oro

Stores on North 5th Street. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania

North 5th Street businesses

Located in the Fairhill neighborhood, el Centro de Oro is the Latino commercial district centered around North 5th Street. The Golden Block's many shops, restaurants, bakeries, and botánicas make it the "Main Street" of el barrio. Over the last four decades, North 5th Street businesses have experienced cycles of prosperity and decline, but some beloved stalwarts have remained, including the music store Centro Musical, owned by the Gonzalez family for three generations; el Bohio restaurant, serving Puerto Rican food for over twenty years; and Taller Puertorriqueño, the cultural center founded by local artists in 1974. Places like these have anchored the Golden Block as the local community development corporation, HACE, works to attract and build a variety of small businesses, redesign the commercial strip, develop affordable housing, and collaborate with arts and culture groups to produce cultural events like the Feria del Barrio, North 5th Street's annual festival.

The economic recession of the 1980s that pummeled many Philadelphia neighborhoods hit North 5th Street especially hard. Many storefronts went vacant, exacerbating the blight in an already struggling neighborhood. Historically, Philadelphia's Latino community has responded to inequities of economic and social justice by forming grassroots advocacy and development groups like Congreso de Latinos Unidos, Grupo Motivos, the Young Lords, and others. In 1982, the threatened closure of an essential neighborhood shopping mall on North 5th sparked the formation of HACE — the Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises. HACE is an independent, community-based property management company that promotes, develops, and manages affordable housing and entrepreneurial opportunities for the Latino community. Through its Main Street Program, HACE advocates "commercial revitalization through good design," contending that conscientious design of the built environment reinforces a sense of place, identity and pride. The program has facilitated façade and infrastructure improvements, new lighting, and culturally specific design for el Centro de Oro. In addition to the many murals that adorn the neighborhood, North 5th Street's status as el Bloque de Oro is represented by the curved, golden pathway painted along its sidewalks, and neighborhood artist Robert Smith Shabazz has carved and painted colorful portraits of Latin music legends into the trees that line the street.

Today the once-endangered mall anchors the revitalized Centro de Oro, and houses various HACE-sponsored services, from health care to housing to employment-training facilities. Veteran local businesses like el Bohio, Centro Musical, and Jerry's Ladies' Fashions are complemented by newer ventures like Robert Smith Shabazz's studio, Wood and Music Labs, where Shabazz creates his custom wood carvings and gives music lessons. Having reversed the retail decline of the 1980s on their own terms, local artists and merchants of North 5th Street hope to reach out beyond their neighborhood and make the Golden Block a citywide commercial destination—a "Latino Market" comparable to Chinatown or the 9th Street "Italian" Market.

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