Commentary: North Philadelphia residents fight for its future, call to stop gentrification and displacement - Generocity Philly

Purpose

Jul. 21, 2021 12:21 pm

Commentary: North Philadelphia residents fight for its future, call to stop gentrification and displacement

Generocity contributor Marilyn Kai Jewett, herself North Philly born and raised, speaks to community members about their ongoing work to make sure the neighborhood isn't "rewritten."

Glenwood Green Acres in North Central Philadelphia.

(Photo by Tony Fischer, via Flickr Creative Commons, CC BY 2.0)

North Philadelphia — the heart and soul of the city. When I think of North Philadelphia, I think of it as the place from where the best and brightest of the city’s Black community arose.

My family history in the city begins in North Philadelphia in the late 1940s, when my Nana migrated from South Florida to Columbia Avenue near 24th with my 16-year-old mother. They later moved to Ridge & Glenwood Avenues across from Johnson Homes.

I will forever love North Philadelphia because it’s the place where I was born, spent the first 13 years of my life from 1954 to 1967, and is the foundation of my development as a human being. Mom and I lived in a two room apartment in Strawberry Mansion on 28th Street, down the street from Most Precious Blood Catholic church/school, and around the corner from the Fletcher Street horse stables.

Back then North Philly had communities where people loved, nurtured and looked out for one another. It was a village where everyone protected us children, including the so-called “bums.” I wouldn’t trade those years in North Philadelphia for any place in the world. I’ve lived in other neighborhoods, cities and states, but I’m proud to be from Nor’Philly.

History

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North Philadelphia was always a diverse and historic area with Jewish, Black, Irish and later, Latinx residents.

In the early 20th century, Strawberry Mansion was a noted, middle-class Jewish community with over 50,000 residents — from the majestic brownstones on Diamond Street, now an historic district, to the porch-front homes on 33rd Street across from Fairmount Park. Jewish merchants filled the business corridors on 29th Street, 31st Street, Ridge, Columbia and Girard Avenues even after they moved their residencies.

There were also many Black-owned businesses in the community. We really didn’t have to shop outside of North Philly for anything.

Our block of hard-working families was clean, organized and integrated.  By the time I came along, most of North Philly was predominately Black. However, there were three white families on our block that refused to join the white flight of the 1950s-1960s and stayed until they died.

White people still lived on Ridge Avenue across from the Robin Hood Dell, 33rd Street North of Ridge Avenue was mostly Irish. Lehigh Avenue and the community above it to Hunting Park Avenue was predominately Irish Catholic.

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Community activist Jacqueline Wiggins’ family moved to North Philadelphia from Portsmouth, Virginia in 1953. She remembers moving to Raymond Rosen housing development in 1954 before her family moved to West Page Street in 1961, where she still resides.

“It was a nice place to live,” the retired educator reminisced. “We lived in the apartments. Mostly Black folks lived at Raymond Rosen, but I do recall a mixed race couple on the first floor, a Latin family, the Figueroa family on our floor, and a few Asian families lived in the complex.”

Cora Turpin, also a retired educator, has lived in North Philadelphia for 65 years since her family moved from Chester in 1956. She’s lived in “The Village” from 1956 to 1964, Yorktown from 1964 to 1977 and has resided in Northern Liberties since 1977.

She too remembers growing up in North Philly. “There was much community spirit. Guys used to harmonize on the corner stoops.  There was no violence or fear thereof. “

Community activist and block captain Gail Loney has lived in North Philadelphia all of her life.

“My address was 1945 N. 21st Street, until our three-story walk up caught fire and we had to move. I stayed with my older sister in Mt. Airy for a while, then came back to North Philly with my parents to Lambert & Susquehanna as a teenager,” she recounted. “Once I became an adult, I got my own apartment at 15th & Girard Avenue. I moved back to the house I grew up in on Lambert Street in the late 1980s, and still live there to this day.”

“To me, growing up in North Philly was great!” Loney said. “Overall, I was protected, loved and cared for.  It was the people, the community, that’s what made growing up in North Philly great.”

Gentrification

I and others love the essence and spirit of North Philadelphia, but we don’t like what’s been happening there for the past 10 to 15 years.

Gentrification has been rapidly encroaching upon low-income Black communities nationwide, and has been running rampant in North Philadelphia for the past 15 years.

Typically, gentrification occurs when an influx of investment in a lower-income community is followed by rising property values, and new residents with higher incomes and educational levels. The gentrification process includes the displacement of lower-income residents; physical transformation of the community through the upgrading of housing stock and commercial properties; and cultural displacement.

Cultural displacement occurs when the preferences and norms of new residents replace those of longtime residents. This often includes loss of historically- and culturally-significant community institutions.

For example, the United Methodist Church (UMC) has been a partner in cultural displacement by closing Black churches in Philadelphia and elsewhere since the 1970s when it merged with the Black Delaware Conference Methodists. The UMC recently sold historic Mother African Zoar —the Mother Church of the Delaware Conference.

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Mother African Zoar Methodist Church was founded in 1794 by Rev. “Black Harry” Hosier at 4th & Brown, before moving to 12th & Melon in 1883. It’s designated an historic site by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania for its role in the Underground Railroad, organizing Black abolitionists, the first well-baby clinic for Black people, a credit union and more. It was the third Black church to come out of St. George’s Church due to racism, along with Mother Bethel AME and St. Thomas Episcopal Church.

There are numerous examples of cultural displacement in North Philadelphia.

The names of neighborhoods have been changed and the official boundary of North Philadelphia has been moved to the Cheltenham Avenue cityline by the media and those who have never lived there. Residents of Logan, Olney, Fern Rock and Oaklane would be surprised to know they now live in North Philadelphia.

The road to gentrification is paved with decades of redlining, discrimination in lending and housing, intentional systemic disinvestment, and government and institutional neglect.

Former Mayor John Street’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI) which demolished derelict properties, assembled large tracts of land for new “development.” Street’s NTI, Philadelphia’s 10-year property tax abatement on new housing and questionable city zoning decisions have cleared the way for gentrifying developers. Couple that with Temple University’s further encroachment into North Philadelphia, self-serving government officials and unscrupulous developers, and you have an unholy covenant that’s hard for citizens to defeat.

Loney thinks the recent gentrification in North Philadelphia actually started about 10-years ago but no one was paying attention.

“It was like a slow burn, but it has speeded up exponentially,” she said. “I call it gentrification on steroids. It really blew up when the grumblings about Temple University planning a new football stadium at 16th and Norris came out. To the real community, not the community that is used to expand the university’s agenda, this was a slap in the face. When universities sit in low-income neighborhoods, it’s only a matter of time before expansion supersedes the needs, health, wealth and interest of the community.”

Wiggins, a committeeperson in the 32nd Ward, thinks there should be a moratorium on Temple’s expansion. Longtime Northern Liberties community activist Turpin says the expansion goes hand-in-hand with gentrifying developers and is a major part of gentrification in North Philadelphia east of Broad Street.

“This is another form of gentrification,” Turpin said. “The expensive buildings erected by Temple University are driving taxes even higher. Residents are being taxed out of their homes and have had their standard of living reduced to the bare essentials. These use to be ‘middle-class’ folks with ‘good’ jobs who can no longer afford the homes they spent their lives paying for.”

Resistance

Loney, Wiggins and others organized the Stadium Stompers and the No Stadium No Deal Coalition to stop the proposed stadium and further gentrification into the community.

Despite what some think, residents of North Philadelphia are organized and have been fighting for their communities for decades going back to the North Philadelphia Charrette of 1969 — an agreement between Temple and the surrounding communities to include community input in all negotiations on expansion of the campus. The Charrette, which Temple immediately reneged on, focused on land disputes, continued communication and forming a partnership with the communities. It’s estimated that between 1965 and 1975, 7,000 Black families were displaced by Temple’s expansion — families who lived on 13th, 12th and 11th streets that are now part of the campus.

Nonprofits in North Philly are fighting gentrification in various ways.

The Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation recently won City Council approval for the Strawberry Mansion Neighborhood Conservation Overlay District — a special overlay district that will hopefully slow gentrification by restricting the height and density of new construction. This is a tool that can be used by others fighting to preserve architectural and cultural standards in their communities.

Since its founding in 1990, The Beech Companies, Inc. has produced 2,000 units of affordable housing in North Philadelphia. Dr. Kenneth Scott, president and CEO of Beech is focused on raising the standard of living for longtime residents.

“Gentrification has clearly forced out some low-income community residents,” Scott said. “Beech has spent three decades developing affordable rental and housing for ownership. Without affordable housing you have people stuck on what we call ‘The Wheel of Poverty.’ One of the ways to build wealth in low-income communities is with home ownership. Gentrification only continues the cycle of poverty for low-income families.”

Beech is continuing its mission of community development. It recently was able to save the historic house of Black artist Dox Thrash on Cecil B. Moore Avenue from being demolished. The property is being developed with several affordable housing units and space for community art activity on the first floor. Beech is also converting former student housing into  affordable housing for seniors.

What can people do to fight gentrification?

Communicate with your neighbors and organize; pay attention to the business of City Council; attend zoning meetings; confront your elected officials; take time to learn about Registered Community Organizations (RCOs); demand affordable housing; be wary of Community Benefits Agreements; support community institutions; join or form a tenant’s union; and support public banks and community land trusts.

Turpin has been campaigning for freezing real estate taxes of residents 65 years and older regardless of income. She says by the time City Council freezes taxes for the elderly, “they will not only need a freeze, but also subsidies to retain their homes.”

Wiggins is dedicated to continuing her activism to defend her community. “At 71, I think I’ve done my part. However, I am at the ready if Temple plans to disrespect the Black residents who live in our North Philly neighborhood,” she said. “If people become informed and get involved with their block or join a community organization, positive things can happen. But if things continue to serve only those with greater clout via money and influence, what part have you played in this happening? African Proverb: When spider webs unite, they can tie up the lion!”

Loney’s activism has increased ten-fold since the plan for Temple’s stadium was revealed, even though she retired from Wall Street early due to a chronic illness.

“To reclaim this neighborhood, we need to uplift the people who live here, and educate and remind the others that don’t, that this comfortable mindset of the status quo may have materialized in North Philly, but it’s not going to end there,” Loney said. W”e need to educate ourselves and each other on the issues, their intersection and to stand up for ourselves.”

“Remind all that we are tax payers and this government works for us, not the other way around,” she added. “When we voted for these elected officials they were one thing and here we are with something totally different. We voted them in, but if need be we can and will vote them out!”

The future

Screen capture from Scribe Video Center’s “Stadium Stompers” film.

“If we fight for it,” Loney said, “it could be a neighborhood, still recognizable for its history and culture, with businesses, schools and green space for Black people to meet and greet. The history of North Philly and its residents is constantly rewritten because our elders are gone, and it’s easier for those who plan for us to dictate the narrative of blaming the people who live here for their condition. However, I do not subscribe to that thought process because I have made it my business to get to know the history of my community and those that advocate for it.”

Loney added that she is “tired of the back door conversations and deals that the taxpayers are never consulted on, talked to or even taken into consideration the affect it may have. I’m tired of the would be community leaders who really are not for the community at all but for themselves, making a name on the work and backs of others, while working to undermine those who know they may not benefit from the work they do but do it nevertheless. I’m sick of mayors decided from council and don’t want another mayor of this city to be elected from council.”

“North Philadelphia is a gem,” said Beech’s Scott. “The future can be bright if the community can work together. When a community comes together and speaks with a unified voice people listen and good results happen. We have to address affordable housing and racial justice in all aspects of society. Needless to say, if we don’t come together to address these issues, North Philly will be just a page in the history books of a great Black community that doesn’t exist anymore.”

All of them have a message for the elected officials that represent North Philadelphia.

Wiggins addresses hers to the president of City Council:  “Darrell Clarke, you have been in office too long for my North Central neighborhood to be in the shambles it is in via this gentrification debacle. The decline in educational achievement, employment and housing cannot be all of your responsibility, but under your watch we have been sold out! What say you?”

For Turpin, the situation warrants a startling analogy: “What’s happening now is worse than sharecropping.”

“If you can find ways to benefit developers,” she said, “you can find ways to help us keep the homes we have worked so hard for to maintain our ability to build generational wealth.

Loney said it’s about accountability. “Stop patronizing us because we fight for what we really believe in, and be accountable for what you claimed you were going to do. We want an Accountability Table, where elected and appointed officials have to explain the where and whys of the actions and activities they put in play to the community — especially when it’s supposed to be for our benefit.”

“We want to know when we fight for something together, and you leave us hanging to play follow the leader,” she added, “we want to know why. “

Scott’s message to elected officials is summed up in one phrase: “Do the right thing — constituents  first!”


Generocity is one of 22 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice.

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