If you follow the path of I-95 down the Delaware River, there’s a slight curve in the highway running through the River Wards – right around Bridesburg. According to some, that’s because the Bridesburg Business Association protected the neighborhood from highway construction in the 1970s.
“When 95 was being built, the reason we didn’t get 95 coming through us like Fishtown does, and so much of Port Richmond, is they [the BBA] fought it and fought it and fought it,” said Carol Sander Roat, a BBA member. “They didn’t want the Betsy Ross Bridge entrance opening down here. They kept that entrance from opening for years.”
Roat has a photo of the BBA members who fought the highway at their annual dinner in October 1972. In the photo are her father and mother, both former BBA members. Also in the picture is the mother of Joseph Slabinski, the current president of the Bridesburg Business Association.
As is well known, Bridesburg is a community with an inherited memory of the neighborhood that goes back for generations.
For example, neighbors vocally opposed a zoning bill proposed in early 2013 that could have brought industry back to the abandoned Coke site between Buckius, Orthodox and Richmond streets and the Delaware River. Part of the reason was that they remembered the smoke-belching Philadelphia Coke Company, which occupied the site until it was forced to close in the 1980s for environmental reasons.
Roat said her mother grew up on the block opposite the Coke site, and she couldn’t hang laundry out to dry without it being blackened by pollution in the air.
“It’s so much better now than it was when I was growing up,” Roat said of Bridesburg.
The BBA is made up of businesses and people with long memories and deep roots in the neighborhood.
“We have a number of businesses that are still active that are over 100 years old,” Slabinksi said, listing Ken Ferros Barber Shop, founded in 1909, and the Polish Beneficial Association, founded in 1904, both on Orthodox Street.
Roat’s family business, Sander Memorials, was founded in 1907 by her great-grandfather. And Slabinski Funeral Home, founded in 1917, is just a few years short of their centennial.
But the BBA doesn’t only represent family-owned businesses in Bridesburg. The neighborhood has also long been adjacent to an industrial sector that’s one of the biggest in the city. And some of those companies have been members of the BBA, too.
Currently the BBA’s largest member is Honeywell, a global energy company with facilities in the area.
“We have everything from a local candy corner store to a big major international multi-billion dollar company,” Slabinski said. “It’s a very unique mixture – and believe it or not, they all are involved over the years, from the big guys to the small guys.”
Founded in 1952, the BBA today is one of three neighborhood groups in Bridesburg, the others being the Bridesburg Civic Association, and the Bridesburg Community Development Corporation.
“They are a very active organization within our neighborhood,” said Bridesburg resident Trish Fries of the BBA.
“They are supporters of our local newspaper, the Bridesburg Bulletin, they are active in supporting our youth sports program, the Bridesburg Cougars, which in my opinion is where the future of our neighborhood lies, with the children, and they are active within the Bridesburg Civic Association, which handles local needs throughout the neighborhood,” Fries continued.
Fifty-four companies are listed in the Bridesburg Business Association’s 2013 membership roll. The BBA’s responsibilities include monitoring zoning and quality of life issues in the neighborhood; operating the Bridesburg Bulletin; and organizing Pride Week, an annual week where residents are encouraged to be “Bridesburg Proud” of their neighborhood and clean up their yards, their houses, and all the community areas.
“It resembled a small circus at times,” Slabinski recalled of Pride Week in years past.
But things are always changing. The BBA used to give out small scholarship gifts to the best students at the local schools, including All Saints, Saint John, John Paul II and Bridesburg Elementary School. Today, only Bridesburg Elementary remains open.
Despite those changes, Roat and Slabinski both believe the neighborhood’s brightest days are in its future. The BBA’s biggest goal is to preserve the neighborhood for future generations.
Currently Bridesburg’s residential buildings are 85 percent owner-occupied, the highest rate in the city. That makes the neighborhood “rock-solid,” as Slabinski put it, and he said they hope to keep it that way.
“I think development will keep coming up the river,” Roat said, citing changes to Northern Liberties and Fishtown in recent years.
“Our children want to move here. Young couples are moving in. The neighborhood will continue.”