An elegant brick and terracotta building stands at the corner of East Dauphin Street and Trenton Avenue in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia. This is the former 26th District Police Station, originally built in 1896 by architect John T. Windrim. Several decades ago this once beautiful and proud-looking piece of historical architecture suffered decay and neglect, and became abandoned. In 1984, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. A section of its nomination form for the Register reads,
“Now vacant, the property is in need of materials conservation and general interior rehabilitation in order that it may become a viable part of a community which, with the demise of the local smokestack industries, has suffered an economic depression.”
Now the neighborhood is lifting itself out of this depression, and Fishtown and Kensington are undergoing a rebirth. They’re returning to a time not unlike when the Police Station was built, when the area’s industry was thriving. The building’s rehabilitation is an admirable example of this progress. There are no stains on the façade anymore, no cement blocks barricading the windows. The exterior is bright and absorbs the Sun, and the windows are open and clear.
The building’s renovation was undertaken by the Philadelphia Federal Credit Union, which now resides in the lower level. The values of this institution align with the sense of cooperation prevalent in the local business community. Much like the Kensington Community Food Co-op, the subject of a previous article, anyone who becomes a member of the Credit Union also becomes an owner, and has a say in its operations. The cost? Deposit five dollars and you’re able to open an account, and have access to a great number of helpful services—free ATM withdrawals, 24/7 online banking, e-deposits, and more.
Since it was chartered in 1951, the Philadelphia Federal Credit Union has differentiated itself from traditional banks by approaching customers with individualized attention and sensitivity to circumstance. Members are offered all types of assistance, regardless of their financial state. Even those who have had issues in the past can set up a limited services account, and be helped along the way to improvement. They can take part in a free counseling service, paid for by the Credit Union, and meet privately with an advisor to get their finances back in order. Or they can attend a free financial seminar, and learn about the basics of credit and budgeting. PFCU wants to make sure its members are fully aware of the possibilities available to them, and that their services are there to support and accomodate. “We treat our members and the residents like people,” said Karen Eavis, the Credit Union’s Communications Specialist. “Our tagline is, ‘Not here for our profit, here for yours.’ The profits that we make go back to you and back into the community.” PFCU has demonstrated its local contribution through sponsorship of events such as the Lehigh Avenue Arts Festival, the NKCDC Blight Busters Ball, and the Kensington and Allegheny Market Fest.
Apart from financial education and community investment, the members’ profit also comes in the form of convenience. Transactions at banks often require two things: patience and paperwork. But at PFCU, many of them are made to be as easy and expedient as possible. For instance, applying for loans can be a prolonged and tedious process. Imagine sending in your application, finding out if you qualify, and walking away with a signed piece of paper, all within 20 minutes. Ivana Dussel, the Fishtown Branch Manager, mentioned that this is just one of many features that makes PFCU different from the typical bank. “We have people that are trained to process loans in the branches. We don’t do any home equities or mortgages on the branch level, but any other motorcycle, auto loan, lines of credit, personal loans, anything you might walk in off the street and apply for, we can determine within minutes whether or not you qualify. Unlike banks, where much of the work is put on a back burner, we do it right on the spot.”
Overall, the Philadelphia Federal Credit Union shows a commitment that is more about giving than getting. Without the pressure of shareholders, the organization can focus its resources on members. There are no hidden fees or behind-the-scene tricks. If you’ve driven down Girard Avenue you’ve probably seen the “I Hate Bank of America” sign (located across a Bank of America branch). Many people share this attitude, frustrated with the inept customer service and deceptive practices of commercial banks. When we trust an institution with something our well-being is dependent on—money—we expect an honest relationship. It’s shameful when this trust and dependency are used against us, manipulated, and turned into vulnerability. The increasing dissatisfaction with commercial banks has manifested in different forms. Bank Transfer Day, which occurred on November 5th of 2011, was a nationwide initiative that urged for a mass transfer from banks to not-for-profit credit unions. Karen Eavis commented on the event, “Bank Transfer Day opened the eyes of consumers everywhere, and made them realize the value of credit unions. People knew they needed to put up a fight and stand against what big banks were doing.”
The Philadelphia Federal Credit Union strategically has branches throughout the city, and until recently felt that Fishtown was the one important area they weren’t providing service to. After the branch opened on April 16th of this year, residents became curious about the Police Station’s new state, and the organization occupying it. While I was taking photographs of the exterior, an older gentleman walked up beside me, a Fishtown native who had spent his whole life here. He told me that a relative of his was a policeman at the Station a long time ago. Throughout his life he had seen its gradual decline. “This place used to be an eyesore,” he said. “Used to be real depressing to see it wasting away and forgotten.” He paused to admire the building for a few moments. “Glad someone remembered it.” I agreed. “What the heck’s in there now?” he asked. I told him about the Credit Union. He scratched his beard with consideration. “Think I’ll have to check it out.” He walked across the cobblestone street, inspected the signs in front of the building, and opened the door to go inside.
For anyone else who’s curious, I suggest you check it out too. Like many businesses in Fishtown, the Philadelphia Federal Credit Union desires success not just for itself, but for the overall community. As a financial institution, it has achieved a rare harmony between its own needs and those of the people who surround it. PFCU is yet another addition to the neighborhood that will aid in the realization of its potential, and be a catalyst for growth.
The Fishtown Branch of the Philadelphia Federal Credit Union is located at 2136 East Dauphin Street. For more information visit the Philadelphia Federal Credit Union website. ______________________________________________________________
© Steven Sparber and Fishtown Spotlights, 2013. All rights reserved.