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November 08, 2022

Down North Pizza takes over old library as mission expands to provide educational opportunities for youth

The restaurant's founder sees the new space on Lehigh Avenue as means to teaching students career skills and keeping them out of the school-to-prison pipeline

Lifestyle Education
Down North Pizza Treehouse Courtesy of/Down North Pizza

Down North Pizza, known for its Detroit-style pies and social justice mission in Strawberry Mansion, has announced its Down North Treehouse nonprofit, which will provide free educational experiences to underprivileged Philadelphia youth. A gala to raise funds for the project will be held Friday, Nov. 11. Above, a rendering of the Treehouse.

North Philadelphia youth will soon have an empowering space to learn about possibilities in the tech industry, thanks to the revitalization efforts of a local pizzeria. 

The Down North Treehouse is a nonprofit working to provide free educational experiences to underprivileged Philadelphia youth in a soon-to-be refurbished library in Strawberry Mansion. The project is an extension of Down North Pizza, known for its Detroit-style pies and social justice mission.

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"This is an idea I had when I opened up Down North; step one was getting a footprint with the restaurant," owner Muhammad Abdul-Hadi said Tuesday. "And long-term goals were always to revitalize the community with the individuals that are currently residing in the neighborhood. Kind of like a 'reverse gentrification' was always the plan."

Down North Pizza, located at 2804 Lehigh Ave., is renowned for its food, featured in prominent publications and in an episode of "Your Attention Please" on Hulu. But the restaurant is not only focused on serving pizza. 

The pizzeria exclusively employs formerly incarcerated individuals, helping to erase employment barriers by providing culinary career opportunities and fair wages. Down North also provides employees with resources like legal representation, transportation and even housing — the two apartments above the pizzeria are available to workers.

Abdul-Hadi, a graduate of West Philadelphia High School and Temple University, looks to reduce recidivism rates and economically improve underserved communities in Philadelphia by serving pies with a purpose.

Down North Treehouse, also co-founded by Abdul-Hadi, is an extension of the pizzeria that hopes to address the school-to-prison pipeline by empowering students to find purposeful and financially rewarding careers in the tech sector. The project has always been on Abdul-Hadi's radar, but the first step was establishing the restaurant.

Down North Treehouse then had to establish a team and secure a location from the city to revitalize into an educational space. The building, donated by the city of Philadelphia, is a former library located at 2529 W. Lehigh Ave. in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood of Philly. 

Once renovated, the space will become a haven for free, interactive youth tech programming involving instruction on coding, graphic design, gaming, video production and cyber security. The nonprofit believes that putting resources like this into the community is the key to solving the issues that plague it.

"For me, our major promise to the community of Strawberry Mansion was to not just come there and put a restaurant there, but also come there and actually revitalize the neighborhood, bit by bit," Abdul-Hadi said. "And that's a promise that I will stand on, putting resources back into the community. The ultimate goal is to have a safer community that, you know, is a healthy community as well."

A Magic at the Mansion gala will be held this Friday, Nov. 11, from 7:45 p.m. to 11:45 p.m. at Stotesbury Mansion (1923 Walnut St.), with proceeds going towards development of the Treehouse. Tickets and sponsorship opportunities are available on the website.

More funding opportunities are available online, where nearly $40,000 has already been raised. The nonprofit is also looking for individuals with expertise in different fields, according to Abdul-Hadi.

The nonprofit hopes to complete the Treehouse by 2024, but will begin piloting programs in empty recreation center spaces throughout the fall and spring.

"We're working against time," Abdul-Hadi said. "And I mean time in a sense that, you know, the community has been suffering for some time and continues to suffer. And we're losing people ... So we're working against time in that sense that change needs to start as soon as possible." 

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