History was happening all around East Passyunk resident Matthew Scott Barber’s neighborhood. So he grabbed his camera and started snapping photos.
Barber enjoys photography as a side project and decided to document popular East Passyunk Avenue during the struggles of COVID-19. The result was a beautiful Instagram collection called “Faces of the Avenue,” which shows the power of perseverance of businesses through still photography. It can be found on Barber’s Instagram page @matthewscottbarber.
“I moved here because of the avenue,” said Barber, an upstate New York transplant. “That’s what brought everybody in. Great daycare options, restaurants, shops and festivals. When COVID hit, you were like, oh my word, what is going to happen to this neighborhood? June hit and places were getting boarded up so I just wanted to do something to capture these stories.”
Barber moved to South Philly 10 years ago and lives just a short walk from East Passyunk Avenue. Early into the pandemic, he began seeing changes to small businesses, which were forced to alter their way of life by extreme measures due to safety concerns.
Barber reached out to the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District to put him in contact with local business owners. He’d spend the day in various shops and restaurants along the avenue and capture stunning moments and expressions.
“I was just going to walk around and do it myself, but I realized I needed access and introductions,” Barber said. “It kind of went from there. I had a week off from work and I literally spent the whole week immersing myself in all these businesses and learning every little story. It was crazy. Every place had a different story.”
One particular story stood out to Barber, as he said Kicks and Fashion was looted during the civil unrest of the city following the murder of George Floyd in June. The surrounding businesses immediately stepped up to help the store recover.
“His place was the only one that got looted in June,” Barber said. “He lost about ten grand in merchandise and his windows were bashed in, which cost another three grand. Chris at DeEmilio’s Old World Ice Treats asked him how much the window cost and said he’d have it for him that day. Apparently, he went around to all the other businesses and did a GoFundMe and raised enough to cover his costs. You got that sense of everyone taking care of each other, which is really cool.”
In total, Barber documented 19 businesses along East Passyunk Avenue. He showcased two a day on Instagram with photos and detailed descriptions of the scenes he came across. It’s described as a digital photo essay series with documentary-style images in black and white.
Some of the places he featured covered a wide range of businesses, including P’unk Burger, Urban Jungle, South Philly Community Acupuncture, Amelie’s Bark Shop and Stogie Joe’s.
Each one had its own set of challenges, depending on what type of business it was and whether it was permitted to serve customers indoors.
“All the restaurants had to become meteorologists,” Barber said. “Their whole business was based on checking the weather every hour. It’s insane.”
Barber encourages Philadelphians to buy local, in a time when corporations and big box stores are growing and Mom and Pop stores are struggling to stay alive.
“I was very inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit of everybody,” Barber said. “If you think about it, if you’re an entrepreneur, you take a risk to start a business. I feel like these are the kind of people who are facing COVID and handling it with positivity and just trying to make it to 2021.”
Barber said he is sharing his photos with the East Passyunk Business Improvement District to post online and is eventually giving them to the individual businesses. He’s also considering an extension to the project.
“I’ve thought about doing a Phase Two,” Barber said. “I’ve only touched about a third of the businesses on the avenue. There are so many more that I could do and would love to do.”