Erwin ’79 serves up rice and Southern food. (Courtesy
Valerie Erwin ’79)
rice, and more rice Valerie Erwin ’79 opens Philadelphia
eatery to revive neighborhood
Can rice help revive a neighborhood? Valerie Erwin ’79 thinks
When Erwin, a seasoned chef, decided to open a restaurant in her
native Philadelphia two years ago, she didn’t look to the
city’s tony Center City neighborhood. Instead, Erwin turned
to her own Germantown neighborhood, a few miles from the North Philadelphia
home where she grew up. Like many once-bustling urban business districts
in the Northeast’s older cities, Germantown has seen a number
of business owners, residents, and customers move to the suburbs
and the malls over the years, leaving those who stayed to deal with
empty storefronts and increasing crime.
But with her Geechee Girl Rice Café, Erwin hopes to help
change how people think of the area and to help spark revitalization.
“I think there are few kinds of businesses that can change
someone’s perception of an area, and a restaurant is one of
those,” says Erwin, the president of the Germantown Business
Association and a politics major at Princeton.
Erwin’s menu centers around rice. With every dish, she serves
one of four types: jasmine, a Thai white rice; brown rice; wild
rice; or Carolina Gold, a long-grain white rice. She serves the
rice with savory Southern dishes, such as low-country shrimp, and
gumbo — the café’s most popular dish —
made with chicken, sausage, shrimp, and okra.
The name Geechee Girl comes from her parents’ roots in Georgia
and South Carolina. Geechee is a generic term for the descendants
of enslaved Africans from Africa’s West Coast, also known
as the Rice Coast, who were brought to Georgia and Florida for their
rice-cultivating skills. Erwin and her four sisters grew up eating
lots of rice. “We had rice with everything except spaghetti,”
Geechee Girl Rice Café is one sign of growth in Erwin’s
neighborhood. She’s also encouraged to see other signs of
improvement: Long-vacant houses are being bought and rehabbed, housing
prices are going up, and two new restaurants have opened, she says.
But Erwin knows revitalization will not be a simple or quick process.
“You have to have a whole lot of change before you see an
impact,” she says.
By Argelio R. Dumenigo
Argelio R. Dumenigo is a writer and editor in Philadelphia.