I tried to set up a law office in Brewerytown. It was firebombed.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

In May, I finally became a lawyer at the age of 58, after caring for my mother during the last 10 years of her life, until she passed at 91. I thought that starting a law firm in my old neighborhood of Brewerytown, where I had worked a decade ago with as many as 200 neighbors to improve life there, would be a fitting evolution of my prior community activism. We had created and empowered organizations we called the African-American Business and Residents Association and the Songhai City Cultural Center.

I grew up in Brewerytown, left for college, worked for years in Silicon Valley and at Microsoft, then brought a ton of resources back home in the early 2000s.

Like every neighborhood in Philadelphia, Brewerytown has always had many facets. There are people who have lived here for decades, like my family, and more recent arrivals, who bring with them the promise and pitfalls of new development.

And, like many neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Brewerytown has always had issues with crime.

Around 2002, the African-American Business and Residents Association — of which I was a part — began building coalitions among residents and businesses to improve the quality of life here.

We could never find lawyers to represent us, so we learned to fight well-connected opposition as a community. We took on a city government and state bodies dedicated to gentrifying neighborhoods like ours out of existence, as well as greedy developers.

» READ MORE: Brewerytown, set to be Philly’s next hot neighborhood, experiences growing pains


We worked with the 23rd Police District to bring back beat cops and community policing, attended weekly meetings with local police captains, set up weekly bingo games to raise revenue and increase community spirit among the elders, and established community services such as the contract postal unit, Western Union, and computer training labs at the former Fidelity Bank building at 29th Street and Girard Avenue.

Crime was stabilizing, and life was improving here. People were still poor, but we had hope.

Unfortunately, over the last decade and a half or so, all of that started to disappear: the beat cops, the 23rd District (which merged with the 22nd District in 2010), the postal unit, bingo, and our boundless community spirit and activism. Many of the senior citizens who breathed life into a Brewerytown mini-renaissance had passed.

Things have changed

So, I thought an activist law firm could continue and strengthen some of that work, particularly protecting the property and rights of seniors.

I made plans back in May to establish my new law firm at the former Fidelity building where my previous community organizing work was based.

In late June, as I eagerly awaited my law office signs to be delivered, I noticed a known drug dealer and purveyor of illegal goods setting up shop outside my office building. I knew this man; I once rented apartments to his mother and other family members. When he was younger, I would regularly give him “come-to-Jesus” talks about the moral importance of changing his ways. So, I thought nothing of asking him to move elsewhere so that his activities didn’t interfere with a transformative new business coming there.

I was polite. I meant it as an innocent request. I didn’t threaten to report him to the police; I simply asked that he relocate. Our mission a generation earlier, as now, was never to bring more African-American males into the criminal justice system unnecessarily.

Quite astonishingly to me — from the moment I asked this man to move on, I became a target.

Soon after our conversation, around July 1, I came to my office and saw a group of nine people sitting in front of my building, many of whom I knew were drug dealers — something that had never happened before. I asked them to move. They told me, in no uncertain terms, that I did not run the neighborhood, they did. I could see my former tenant a half-block away, taking it all in.


On July 4th, my security cameras revealed a man, someone I also recognized, lighting and placing an M80 explosive at the front door of my office. It shattered virtually all of the glass, costing me thousands of dollars in repair costs and the total loss of my sense of security and well-being.

Alson Alston, 59, boarded up and repaired the front entrance to his law firm on West Girard Avenue in the Brewerytown section of Philadelphia to prevent further vandalism and to protect himself. Pictured here on Tuesday, Sept., 5, 2023. . … Read moreTyger Williams / Staff Photographer

I contacted law enforcement, and started numerous rounds of fortifying my building — installing more security cameras, alarms, and bright lights.

After our law firm sign went up at the end of July, the attacks only intensified.


Over and over, especially after sundown, my building was surrounded by loud ATVs and drug dealers, screaming angry, humiliating insults up and down Girard Avenue, taunting me, inviting me to confront them outside. One of these people threatened to kill not just me, but each and every member of my family.

‘I cannot fight alone’

I suspect that this activity is not particularly personal, but rather stems from fear that my law firm and I could help bring law and order back to Girard Avenue.

Sometimes, it feels like the intimidation campaign is working, and I am tempted to leave my old neighborhood. But then I think about what we endeavored to build here a generation ago, the people still here and the ancestors whose spirit I want to honor and invoke — Miss Bobbie, Ms. Chapman, Mrs. Morris, Mrs. Richardson, Ms. Tyler, Miss Peggy, Mr. Riley, Audrey, Jackie, Stephanie, Terrance, John, Phyllis, Cinnamon, Isaac and others — who volunteered long hours to give everything they had to Brewerytown.


I remember The Dance Lesson, the short film by former Temple University film student Chinonye Chukwu, now an acclaimed writer and director, most recently of the movie Till. The Dance Lesson is about a family who sacrificed to stay in Brewerytown against overwhelming odds.

I just can’t just fold up my tent and run like a coward. But to fully open this office and rejoin the battle for Brewerytown, I cannot fight alone.

Alson Alston, 59, poses for a portrait in his law firm outside West Girard Avenue in the Brewerytown section of Philadelphia, on Tuesday, Sept., 5, 2023. . … Read moreTyger Williams / Staff Photographer

I need the 23rd District to be reestablished so that Brewerytown and nearby communities can receive prioritized police services once again.

I need the return of beat cops and the hourly patrols that disperse the usual suspects from our streets.

I need neighbors who are brave enough to come to meetings with the police — we will host them proudly at the former Fidelity building — and to chart a course to make criminals feel both unwelcome and exposed. That means repeated calls to 911 when one of the known dealers is present on anyone’s block, and a commitment from the police to respond quickly to these calls.

I need other business owners to pressure the next police commissioner for these and other changes so that they can bring their own services back to Brewerytown.

I would love to state, unequivocally, that I will open our doors, irrespective of the threats. But police and neighbors must start to do their parts. When that happens, I will take down the boards and other materials I had to place on my windows. I will have walk-in services, and I will donate half of my legal services to the people of Brewerytown.

It’s now up to the police and my community to decide if they’re willing to do the work necessary for this office — and similar professional services — to function here. The rest is up to other entrepreneurs who are brave enough, optimistic enough, and adventurous enough to bring their talents back home. I hope that my office will be here to welcome them.

Al Alston runs the Law Offices of Alson Clayton Alston, Esq. at 29th Street and Girard Avenue in Brewerytown.

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