Spanish Merchants Association

Golden Block Mall groundbreaking ceremony. Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania

2852 n 5th street, Philadelphia, PA

In 1971, the commercial center along N. 5th Street now known as El Bloque de Oro only had about half of its buildings occupied. The Spanish Merchants Association initiated a revitalization project of the area during the mid 1970s, and by 1981, the heavily Hispanic center boasted full commercial occupancy. This dramatic turnaround could be credited only to the SMA, whose projects and ambition extended well beyond this success.

Puerto Rican businessman Candelario Lamboy and six others founded the non-profit Spanish Merchants Association in 1969 to promote “commercial and economic development activities” for Philadelphia’s Spanish-speaking population. The group came joined together to respond to the poor state of Hispanic businessmen, who fared far worse than their competitors in Philadelphia. To help the sector succeed, the SMA welcomed “any Spanish speaking merchant who is the owner of a business…in the Philadelphia metropolitan area.”

Of the problems that Hispanics faced, language posed the greatest barrier. When applying for government assistance, legal jargon and bureaucracy overwhelmed citizens for whom English was not their first language, and so they often did not complete the applications that their competitors did. Negotiations between two cultures also proved difficult, and tensions existed between Hispanic and non-Hispanic businessmen. The SMA provided comprehensive assistance by addressing these problems and others, including the lack of technical knowledge.

In its earliest years, the group could not afford to dedicate the necessary resources to achieve its goal. The SMA received a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Minority Business Enterprise that allowed the association to offer help with tax returns, mortgages, loan applications, and created a group credit fund. The founders’ backgrounds included experience as lawyers and bankers that provided them with the combined skills to make this range of services possible. The Commerce OMBE credited the SMA as one of its most successful beneficiaries and funded its projects for years to come.

Although the organization originally focused on helping businesses exclusively, the selection of Nelson Dìaz as Executive Director around 1974 broadened its goals and put a “dual emphasis on business development and community infrastructure.” The SMA began a large and successful milk cooperative that helped Hispanics purchase affordable milk. Setting its sights to bigger projects, the SMA led the revitalization of El Bloque de Oro, one of its milestone achievements. The success of this project encouraged greater work and housing initiatives. In addition to offering new services geared toward private households and potential homeowners, the SMA began the El Dorado project to open low-income housing at 2642 North Marshall Street. The development opened in 1983 with eighty-one completed and occupied units and a waiting list of 2000 tenants.

The Spanish Merchant Association returned to its business-focused roots for its final project. In 1983, the SMA purchased the Somerset Industrial Park in Kensington with the intention of building a “Vertical Industrial Park” with a “service center furnishing administrative support…to medium-sized light manufacturing tenants.” Renting space in the complex to manufacturers would not only bring jobs to the area’s Hispanics, but also grant them access to the technical knowledge that they lacked. The project proved to be too expensive and “soaring energy costs” made the antiquated heating system a liability. After two of the tenants declared bankruptcy, the project closed in 1986. The failure of the Somerset Industrial Park took a great toll on the organization, which disbanded in 1988.