Strawberries are scarce in Strawberry Mansion. The North Philadelphia neighborhood borders the eastern flank of Fairmount Park, where a Revolution-era country house gave the area its nickname in the 1840s when dairy farmers moved in and started serving visitors strawberries covered in sweet cream from their cows. Over 180 years, Strawberry Mansion went from a place associated with fresh food to a place suffering food apartheid.
“Besides little bodegas and Chinese eateries, there’s hardly any food up here,” said 35-year-old chef and activist Kurt Evans.
Amtrak’s rails skirt Strawberry Mansion’s eastern edge, carrying passengers across Philadelphia’s belly and northbound to New York. For the better part of last year, Evans lived in Brooklyn as the culinary director at Drive Change, a nonprofit that trains 18- to 25-year-old returning citizens in culinary arts, but when the pandemic hit and classes went virtual, he began commuting on deflated train fares, Strawberry Mansion flashing through the grimy windows of the Northeast Regional railcars, signaling he was just leaving or almost home.
Evans grew up 10 miles down the Schuylkill River in Southwest Philly, an area not unlike Strawberry Mansion, home of rapper Meek Mill and jazz legend John Coltrane. In mid-October, he’ll open Down North, a restaurant three years in the making and one he feels this underserved neighborhood deserves.
“Whether you’re rich or you’re poor, people spend money on food,” he said. “I want to make sure they have good food.” Hand-cut fries. Wings that don’t come from a freezer bag. Milkshakes thick as delta mud, spun with scoops from Philly creamery par excellence Franklin Fountain. Detroit-style and square pizzas baked in a primo Blodgett deck oven and festooned with herbs and greens from the backyard garden.