Gentrification in North Philadelphia: Through the Eyes of the Originals

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While gentrification is a cultural phenomenon that is sweeping East Coast cities, many newcomers ignore the needs of the original residents and simply turn their safe havens into posh, high-rent districts without the seedy character that makes these neighborhoods so unique.

Gentrification is the latest buzz word in urban planning. Cities all over America are trying to bring higher-income residency to what have been, in more recent years, impoverished neighborhoods. Urban ghettos throughout Philadelphia are beginning to see an influx of middle-to-high income whites, and the original residents of these neighborhoods are none too pleased. Gentrification, also commonly
referred to as urban renewal, is creating a disparity in the character seen in these neighborhoods, and North Philadelphia is by far no exception.

Before getting into the new elements in these neighborhoods, it is important to note that these neighborhoods have been somewhat dynamic over the past fifty years. Most of North Philadelphia in the 1950s was filled with working class families of all colour and national origin, but mostly whites. Lining Broad Street, Lehigh Avenue, Erie Avenue, Allegheny Avenue, and hundreds of side streets were three-story Victorian and Edwardian homes, some more spacious than others and often occupied by just one family who likely worked nearby in neighbourhood factories. When I say working class, I do not mean the working poor; North Philadelphia was once full of factories and plants where the locals found employment in abundance. The average house cost $5000 or less.

From the late 1950s on, most of Philadelphia saw a mass migration of white working class families from the inner city neighborhoods to the newly developed suburbs such as Levittown. This happened in all majour industrial cities, like New York and Detroit, where the affects of post-industrial urban decay were just as great as in Philadelphia. This happened in all cities where industry growth had been the foundation for the communities they were built on and when the industries sooner or later dissipated, the communities were left in suspension. The new suburban sprawl housing was just as affordable as inner city housing and was made readily available to first time buyers by eager creditors
offering low mortgages. This was especially alluring to city dwellers, although public transportation was limited the farther you traveled out from the city. Thusly, the hinterlands grew more and more populated as lower income families, largely dependent on public transit, began to fill those huge North Philadelphia houses the relocated residents had left behind, vacant and reduced in value because of the difficulty to find willing tenants. Many of these houses were eventually converted to apartments, and income levels continued to decline as an increasing number of factories closed up through the 1990s.

The new population of North Philly was largely African-American, bringing a whole new cultural character to the neighborhoods. With little work available, many of the rentals became Section 8 friendly, a type of government housing assistance intended to keep low income residents in a supposedly decent home. Additionally, inner city African-American culture of today provides a stark contrast to the one recognized by the original white or European American inhabitants. For instance, due to abject poverty and struggle, crime tremendously increased especially violent crime. In many cases, it is a matter of survival. Being often unemployed and without income, many of the things
middle and upper class families consider essential are considered minute and unimportant: keeping streets trash free, maintaining decorative lawns and gardens, fixing problems that arise in a decaying
centennial house, etc. these are luxuries, inconsequential elements of living fostering only a certain quality of life rather than means for continued existence with limited resources and opportunities available.

Another problem that has contributed to the overall decline of North Philly as well as other parts of the inner city is poor education. Inner city schools are typically crumbling, dangerous in more ways than one, and generally not conducive to learning. The conditions within these old (more so unimproved) buildings are not just less than up-to-date, the conditions are far below the standards and codes that schools in other parts of the country would allow to operate under. Many students at schools such as Fels, Penn, and Gratz Highs, often skip school because they feel that their largely white teacher
populations do not understand their culture, therefore cannot relate to their needs. Many Philadelphia teachers receive no support from administration whatsoever, including bare bones essentials (in some
cases) such as books. They are often not trained or educated about how to breach the boundaries of color and culture and teach with multi-cultural awareness in ways that truly relate to teaching through
real-life situations, but make successful approaches to these in only text-book and college course ideals that are isolated from any real understanding of inner city life.
Additionally, summer feels like “hell” for these students, as these massive stone school buildings reach temperatures of up to 110 degrees for the last couple months of school and the first couple at the beginning of the year. While public transportation is widely made use of by many inner city students, unlike students in suburban or rural districts who are either given rides by car or bus to school, the difference winter can make in attendance between the contrasting school environments exists in the difference between standing and waiting for a bus or walking several blocks on winter mornings versus getting a toasty ride.

As popular rapper Jay-Z sung in his ghetto anthem, “Hard Knock Life”, “We must not let outsiders violate our blocks.” This seems to be the general consensus on the street in regards to how the impoverished African-American and Latino communities in North Philly feel about gentrification. This is a fairly recent development, but neighborhoods such as Fish town, Northern Liberties, and Fairmount have already begun experiencing such “renewal”. Top drawer builders have gutted and flipped hundreds of decaying homes and turned them into high-priced single family homes or condominiums, attracting young, upwardly mobile suburbanites to migrate into the exciting world of the city. Meanwhile,
people who have spent their entire lives in those neighbourhoods and generally because there were no opportunities available for seeking better homes, are pushed out by those who have other options. As such folk move into the neighborhoods, the original citizens tend to be generally offended and put out by the new element, not entirely becausethey are completely different in culture from themselves but more so because they make no attempt to assimilate with the local residents. Instead, with them they transport the kitschy/trendy business element only they find enjoyable and have the incomes to sustain, like art galleries, café’s, and trendy boutiques, giving little back to the economy they are quickly displacing through supporting their own favoured hot spots or importing other necessities from chain stores like Whole Foods or Lowes. Resident African-Americans feel that their neighborhoods are a safe haven for their culture, which is so far removed from that of middle and upper class white America.

With the advent of gentrification, there is thusly created a rift among neighbors. Frankford, a neighborhood not quite in North Philly, but not quite in the Northeast, is beginning to experience this phenomenon. Philadelphia, often touting itself as the “City of Brotherly Love”, is becoming less and less segregated in certain sections, a segregation that was originally a choice to preserve cultures. A white resident of Frankford must prepare for the possibility that they will be subjected to random acts of violence, either to their cars, homes or persons. The residents of the neighborhood are resistant to this change, especially because the new element has been safeguarded from socially diverse communities for so long that their intolerance of substandard living, and the effects of it in a neighbourhood, is greater, as they have not experienced the level of poverty and challenge that the original residents have either and expect change as a way only to make life in their new homes more pleasant and up to their personal standards for living.
Gentrification is, in theory, a wonderful idea. But, it is basically white realtors and developers who profit from it in the reverse pattern they used some 40 and 50 years ago when once their goals were to extract city dwellers and place them into their new suburban housing rather than extracting them from the suburban slump to profit off them in their urban housing. These, the same people who we re once uninterested in how their moves from the city after blockbusting efforts took place were dismantling a community, are now with little sympathy dismantling the communities that have developed in their wake, where they once walked away without looking back, abandoning what later became needed, and are now stealing it back. Yes, it makes the houses more habitable and more pleasing to the eye, but at what cost? As wealthier white professionals seep into the inner city, they are
thoughtlessly robbing the neighborhoods of their character, that seedy element that just makes the inner city what it is. That unique seedy character is fading away fast and soon there will be no refuge for
those dependent on this distinctively urban setting.

Soon the entire city will be a hopelessly homogenized fashionable high rent district, full of faceless clones in metro chic clothing and designer sunglasses. The poor minority residents will no longer be able to keep up with high cost of living, and since they cannot migrate elsewhere, as elsewhere is even more expensive, a racial tension, like that in Frankford, will ensue. Just because a culture is not focused on the positive elements so favored by educated whites, does not mean that richer people have a right to invade the space and make it their own. In essence, gentrification will destroy North Philadelphia’s native culture. We are shaped by our environments and in turn the environments we live in shape who we are. It’s difficult to believe how a city, which is made up of interdependent people, who form a community, will continue to function as a city in this sense once the looming transformation is complete and the concentration of those living there is no longer comprised of people whose lives depend on the lives of those living around them to survive.

Submitted: January 04, 2010

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