Black-Owned Businesses Are Finding A Home In Chestnut Hill

In Chestnut Hill, newly opened storefronts like Multiverse, NoName Gallery, Serenity Aesthetics & Wellness Medical Spa, and others have breathed new life into the historically affluent neighborhood known for 18th-century architecture, and a bustling commercial corridor. These businesses, owned by people of color, are servicing an evolving and increasingly diverse Chestnut Hill.

“We’ve had more than 24 businesses open in the last two years,” said Courtney O’Neill, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Business District. “The majority were African American owners, young couples, or women — and sometimes all the above.”

While 70% of Chestnut Hill residents are white, the neighborhood has seen a 7% increase in Black residents over the past decade, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Black Philadelphians now make up 19% of the community, and there’s an increasing number of multicultural businesses attracting them to the Hill.

Fitness trainer Kim Harari, who moved to Chestnut Hill a year ago, said she relocated for a “homier” feel, and to find a deeper sense of community as a first-generation immigrant and queer resident.

For Harari, the growing diversity of Chestnut Hill is one of its best qualities. “If I could put a blueprint for what I wanted it to be, it’s here,” said Harari, a trainer at the Balance Chestnut Hill gym. “I never felt in place [in Center City], but [here] it’s diverse, queer-friendly, and a lot of Black-owned businesses. I love it.”

The speculative fiction bookstore Multiverse, which is owned by Sara Zia Ebrahimi-Hughes and Gralin Hughes, hosts monthly showcases for modular synthesizer artists. DanceFit studio owner Megan Kizer has led Beyoncé- and Lil John-inspired after-dark dance sessions. And NoName Gallery’s Jonene Lee has put on First Friday celebrations on the Hill.

Lee has welcomed graffiti artists, local musicians, and hip-hop DJs to her First Friday events, and said the presence of BIPOC-owned spaces and programs like hers has added much-need vibrance to the area. She feels more late-night, block party-style events is something the community has been wanting for some time.

“I’m happy that we’re bringing more color and culture here,” Lee said. “Even little old white women say they love what I’m doing, and that makes me happy.”

Lee says she knows no community is perfect. She’s dealt with “silent racism” all her life — the kind that’s felt through glaring eyes and disturbed faces rather than insults or derogatory statements. But she’s certain there’s real opportunity to grow in Chestnut Hill.

“It’s known for old money, and when you have old money, it’s white and it’s racist, I get that. But it’s not like that here. [Residents are] really open to art and culture, so I found a good spot.”

Tensions over change

While BIPOC business owners have been welcomed into Chestnut Hill in recent years, TC Unlimited Boutique owner Keia Chesson says that wasn’t always the case.

When she first opened her boutique eight years ago, Chesson was attracted to the “quaint” and walkable district, and the general ritziness of the area. At the time, there were only a few Black-owned storefronts in Chestnut Hill, and Chesson said moments of resistance from longtime residents occasionally surfaced.

“When Barack and Michelle Obama were in office, I highlighted purses and other items [with the Obamas’ faces on them] in my window, and some people didn’t like it,” said Chesson, who previously served on the board of directors for the Chestnut Hill Business Association. “Being a Black owner and supporting a Black president may not have been liked among some people [here], but for the most part, people embraced it.”

The increased diversity, O’Neill said, has brought a welcomed and organic change to the area, which has been largely “homogenous” for decades.

“It’s not just the business corridor, it’s just Chestnut Hill overall,” O’Neill said. “It’s an affluent neighborhood, but there’s a lot of affluent African Americans who have found their way here and made homes.”

Emerging unity

Beyond the rise in BIPOC-owned spaces, Will Brown of the Duke Barber Co. said there’s a real sense of unity that’s present throughout the commercial corridor. That’s why he’s kept his business in the area for 15 years, and why other entrepreneurs have gravitated there.

“We all go into each others’ businesses and support each other,” he said.

Brown said the growing diversity doesn’t mitigate the challenges businesses still face. Newly-established entrepreneurs can’t serve just one demographic to be successful — it has to be all of Chestnut Hill.

Owners like Gina Charles are up for the challenge.

Charles, the founder and medical director at Serenity Aesthetics & Wellness Medical Spa, moved her practice from Mt. Airy to Chestnut Hill in November. She wanted to find a ground-level location with greater visibility and easier access to its doors, and a space on the 8100 block of Germantown Avenue was a perfect match.

Charles is excited to see what the future holds, and for Chestnut Hill’s evolution to lead to more job opportunities, business collaborations, and networking events among all residents and patrons. “That’s a win for everyone,” Charles said.

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