by Lou Mancinelli
For more than 20 years, Mt. Airy resident Joshua Bloom has made a career, first with a small town, then the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) and Main Streets, and, now with his company, the Community Land Use Economics Group (CLUE), of revitalizing business districts.
“I think Weavers Way has been a real anchor and real change agent,” said Bloom, 50, who is currently running to remain on the Weavers Way board, a position he has served for one year since being elected to fill a position when another member left.
From the suburbs of New York City to the cities of Los Angeles, Boston and New Orleans, Bloom has worked with local groups and city administrations to develop plans to revitalize, reinvent and evolve decaying or weak, even successful business districts.
No two cities or commercial districts are the same when it comes down to determining what works best, according to Bloom. What works best, he explained, is using market-based research and analysis to figure out what the purpose of the business district is and how to best deliver that product. It is about creating an interesting identity.
“In the ’90s we were trying to bring back the downtowns people had abandoned for shopping malls and other formats,” Bloom said during an interview last week. “My primary interest is the intersection of economic development and historic preservation, and in using both sets of tools to create vibrant communities.”
Bloom’s major work in the field of rebranding and rebuilding neighborhoods started with the Boston Main Streets program created in 1995, when he worked as a program officer for the National Main Street Center (MSC).
It was the first urban multi-district Main Street Program in the U.S. and was modeled after the Main Street Four Point Approach®, an MSC program created by NTHP that started in 1980 to save old, abandoned buildings and revitalize dying commercial corridors during suburban sprawl.
Raised in South Orange, N.J., Bloom earned his bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in New York City in architecture history in 1985. At Columbia he had first studied pre-med, and he worked in a science lab in Cleveland for a number of years after graduation until he realized that was not for him.
At the time, historic preservation was a young movement. There were only a few schools that offered the program. Bloom went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and studied how building materials were involved in the preservation of historic buildings.
When he earned his master’s in historic preservation in 1992, he entered a job market that was stuttering through a recession, and Bloom found a job back in his hometown as executive director of Main Street South Orange. It was a community business organization, like the Chestnut Hill Business Association. It was his first experience in dealing with how to rebuild a business district.
In 1995, Bloom went on to work for the National Trust. One of his first jobs was to oversee the rollout of the Boston Main Streets Program. Ten neighborhood business corridors were selected following a city-wide competition, and 10 more were added in 1997. According to the City of Boston, since 1995, the program has created 1,125 new businesses and 6,774 new jobs.
Bloom went on to oversee the unrolling of the program in various cities, including St. Louis, Cleveland and Los Angeles. Every business district is different, he maintains, and you have to figure out who and what each district is.
While they are different, the goal for all business districts is “to carve out a successful niche where your commercial district is distinct.”
In Chestnut Hill that means a variety of boutiques and specialty shops. In other places, something as simple as street lighting can be the element that warms people to the place and makes them feel comfortable and safe.
That could also mean a balance between independent stores and chain operations. And even within a city there are distinct and different districts. Different audiences go to different neighborhoods. If you want to go to a young, trendy, hip boutique for a purse or restaurant for a drink in Philadelphia, you may want to go to the Piazza along North 2nd Street in Northern Liberties. If you want a stretch of Philly’s award-winning food, you may head to Passyunk Avenue in South Philly or to Old City for art galleries.
“If you’re going to improve a place [a commercial district] you are going to have to work on more than just aesthetics,” said Bloom. He is also an amateur carpenter and in 2007 graduated from the preservation carpentry program at the highly regarded North Bennet Street School, a historic trades school in Boston.
In 2005, Bloom joined CLUE, which was launched the previous year by his business partner. The company is basically an extension of what Bloom did for the National Main Street Center, which he worked for until he joined CLUE. They work on helping local and city groups and governments to create vibrant business districts.
“We are not succeeding unless we meet community needs,” Bloom said. “Community entrepreneurship is a way for communities to both create vibrant places and the kind of businesses they want to have. I think Weavers Way is an example of that.”
Even though his company is based in Arlington, Va., Bloom made a personal move to Philadelphia five years ago, and to Mt. Airy two-and-a-half years ago. As for why, Bloom said, “I think Mt. Airy fits my personality.”