In North Philadelphia, equitable community development requires community engagement - Generocity Philly

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Oct. 12, 2018 1:35 pm

In North Philadelphia, equitable community development requires community engagement

Esperanza's Gabriella Gabriel Paez and Firm Hope Baptist Church's Rev. Richard Harris discuss revitalization projects they've piloted in Hunting Park and Kensington and how they keep local residents top of mind.

Esperanza's TreePhilly tree giveaway event.

(Courtesy photo)

Gentrification can be a scary word, and one often heard in Philadelphia.

While neighborhood development projects often purport to benefit the communities where they’re taking place, the appearance of doing good doesn’t always equal the desired effect. Longtime residents can feel left out of these sometimes-huge projects concerning their neighborhoods when they don’t have much input into whatever is planned.

So, how can Philadelphians help improve their neighborhoods without gentrification taking place? How can they take an idea or important issue and transform it into something more without the assistance of outside dollars or leadership?

Faith-based nonprofit Esperanza has been involved with its Hunting Park community for about 30 years, leading neighbor-driven revitalization programs such as My Hunting Park and partnerships with the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation street greening initiative TreePhilly.

Gabriella Gabriel Páez, education and community development coordinator for Esperanza, has been heavily involved with connecting with Esperanza’s neighbors in order to not only educate them about the importance of sustainability, but to also form lasting relationships. For this work, she was honored with SustainPHL’s 2018 Activist of the Year award.

Similarly, Rev. Richard Harris, pastor at Firm Hope Baptist Church in Kensington, has led development projects such as the 36-unit affordable housing development Grace Townhomes that involved both the Women’s Community Revitalization Project (WCRP) and Rev. Harris’ community instead of keeping them out.

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Generocity chatted with both of them about how to keep the community at the forefront of community development.

These conversations have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Gabriella Gabriel Paez

Gabriella Gabriel Paez. (Courtesy photo)

Generocity: Could you tell us a bit about the sustainability work that you do?

GGP: Basically everything that we are doing in my department [relates to sustainability]. It’s based on the Hunting Park plan that we are implementing right now. That was started back in 2012, and one of the goals of the plan is to enhance open space in the environment, in the neighborhoods.

We have been able to work on different initiatives such as the distribution of recycling bins to local neighbors who might not be able to make it to one of the big centers where they can go and pick one up. And we periodically get some recycling bins as well and continue that distribution. We have also partnered with PHS [Pennsylvania Horticultural Society] to bring rain barrel workshops and that’s for people who would like to get a rain barrel installed for their homes. So they can use that water, save money on their water bill and also help with stormwater management in the city.

How do you approach your neighbors about these projects?

We have a very close connection with a lot of our neighbors because we have a special program called NeighborCare. The program gives up to $1,000 to blocks in the area for special projects [like] planters, paint, just things that might help their block look nicer, and through that program we have connected with over a 100 blocks in the area.

The way that it works is that there is a leader, and that leader has to get signatures from other neighbors and actually apply for the grant, and they have to work together, so we don’t do it for them. We order the materials and whatever else they may need.

The average is of me actually going out to neighbors and knocking on their doors, “Hey, we’re planting trees in the neighborhood,” and overwhelmingly the response has been positive. Our neighbors really want to do this and understand the importance of it.

Why is it important for Philadelphians to be informed about sustainability?

The thing about sustainability is our lives depend on caring for our environment. Most people know that without trees we don’t have oxygen, so that’s the obvious. We need trees, we need oxygen, but at the same time, trees do so much more. They have the ability to keep homes cooler when temperatures are very high and we have the experienced some of the hottest days this year, so again temperatures continue to climb year after year. Trees are great ways to address the problem.

What are some of the ways that other organizations doing work similar to what you and Esperanza are doing can keep equity in mind?

My recommendation would be not to reinvent the wheel, but form partnerships that will allow that to happen. All of the work that we do at Esperanza is thanks to the partnerships that we have with TreePhilly, PHS, with our local stakeholders and also our neighbors. It’s all about building those partnerships and connections.

Rev. Richard Harris

The opening of Grace Townhomes. Rev. Harris is in the back row. (Photo courtesy of the Women’s Community Revitalization Project)

Generocity: Could you tell us about Grace Townhomes and how the initial progress started?

RH: We were partnered with our State Rep. Michael O’Brien along with the Women’s Community Revitalization Project that builds low-income homes. We have been building for 30 years and have a track record of building 350-plus homes that they have built for low-income. The area [where] we had built Grace Townhomes was an area that had been overlooked and neglected over a number of years.

The particular site that it is on housed old work mills that stood vacant for years and it took a tragedy for the city to demolish it, which took place in 1979. We came together with WCRP at that site because of its size, and we focused on low-income because of the average salary in the community is relatively low.

How did you get your community involved in these projects?

Community outreach, door-to-door, community meetings and a lot of time and effort. And you know, it did work because the more we engaged the community, the more we shared our vision with the community, the more they were able to see how it would benefit the overall community.

How long did it take to get Grace Townhomes built?

It took a good seven years [before it opened in 2016], which was longer than the norm because of the challenges. One of the biggest challenges that we faced and that was surprising to me was that many in the community were not [in support of] low-income homes. I just think that they were listening to their own voice because we’ve advocated for those within the community that were already at that financial level. So that was the biggest challenge and it took a lot of community outreach and a lot of support to win the overall support of the community.

Do you still see housing as being a great need?

Absolutely, there’s still a need, there’s still a big need, with the trend that is happening now as far as for-profit developers who are coming to the north of Lehigh Avenue every day — not only to the north of Lehigh, but they’re building homes from $250- to $350,000 dollars which is somewhat of a problem because for the immediate area, many cannot afford what they are building. We believe that more mixed-income would be suitable for that community.

What would your advice be to other organizations that would like to start similar projects?

I would look out at what’s in the community and see who has passion for the community and just try to mobilize a core group. Just stir up a conversation and then reach out to others in the community and come up with a game plan, come up with some objectives and then go to your ward leaders, go to your councilperson.

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