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‘An Act of Thanks,’ North Philly community celebrates a win against gentrification

September 8, 2020 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose
Joshua Reaves stood in a small plot of land between some Kensington rowhomes. He pointed to the trees towering over him, as he imagined how the community could utilize the green space in the future.

“The people who live around here should decide what goes here,” said Reaves, 25, member of Philly Socialists and Kensington’s Cesar Andreu Iglesias Community Garden.

The Iglesias Community Garden and surrounding residents have been fighting a bill proposed by city council member María Quiñones-Sánchez for over a year.

The bill would have allowed developers to build without considering community input, part of the reason why there was a large outcry. Kensington resident and Philly Socialists co-chair, Mara Henao, said the community has been pushing hard for their right to decide what comes into their land.

“We need to control the narrative of what we want to see in the neighborhood,” Henao said.

The bill proposed to build a 15-story apartment building and sell 54 plots of land to develop into duplexes, in the heart of Kensington. Many of those 54 plots are unofficially used by community members. One nearby resident has been gardening in her side yard since 1995, according to Adam Butler, another Philly Socialists member and garden volunteer.

In response to the proposal, on Saturday evening the community gathered at the garden on Arlington Street. The event was originally meant to be a “speak out” against Quiñones-Sánchez’s’ bill.

But after word spread that the bill had ‘died’ — after a meeting with community organizations and councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez on Friday evening — the event transformed into a celebration.

“I don’t know anywhere in Philly where we have been able to push against gentrification and write our own future. We can do that,” Henao announced to the joyous crowd.

Heidi Zhao has lived in Kensington for eight years and said what was considered affordable housing in the proposed bill, was “actually not affordable at all.” The new developments, in the end, would have “pushed people who have lower incomes further out.”

The community is now awaiting the city council meeting this coming Thursday, where Quiñones-Sánchez will make the official announcement regarding the end of the housing development plans.

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The rest of the night was full of music, food, and dance, uniting various organizations and people from all over Philadelphia.

Zhao recalled that the feeling of unity is not foreign to the garden, and that the space is usually a place for collective thinking. “I feel empowered,”  Zhao said. “I’m meeting a lot of people who are doing a lot for the community. This is a great place for people to brainstorm ideas on how we can support each other.”

The Kalpulli Kamaxtle Xiuhcoatl, a traditional Indigenous Mexican dance group, performed on the street after the speeches concluded.

“This isn’t just a dance,” said Carmen Guerrero, one of the group leaders, “This is an act of thanks to mother earth, to all the elements in the universe, that give us the love to fight for what we are doing.”

Folks roamed the garden full of pungent herbs and bright vegetables, and kids rode tranquil horses up and down Arlington Street throughout the night.

Ellis Ferrell of the Urban Street Riding Club brought the horses. He spoke to the crowd about their fight over land at the Riding Club, on 26th and Fletcher St.

According to Ferrell, the Urban Riding Club is under threat of losing their property to the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

“This fight against gentrification is everywhere in Philadelphia.” Puchi DeJesus, member of Philly Boricuas, reminded the crowd.

Amid the celebration, the Kensington community tied their victory to the battle against land development throughout all of Philadelphia, as DeJesus acknowledged, and with the land crisis against Indigenous people.

This is the same crisis “that’s been going on ever since the first settlers arrived and killed Lenape Natives to steal their land and enslaved Black people to work that bloody soil,” Reaves declared.

“We’re at the beginning of a fight that may last the rest of our lives. There will always be other bills to kill… We will only grow stronger and stronger with each battle.”

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