Gentrification has been linked to a range of possible health problems, including hypertension and increased stress. But now a West Philadelphia community group opposed to the construction of an apartment complex is asking neighbors for a most personal donation to determine if gentrification could increase the risk of colorectal cancer.
“Could you please donate your fecal sample (a fingernail size)?” asks a letter from West Philly United Neighbors that was distributed to residents last weekend. “All equipment needed for you to collect the fecal sample by yourself at your convenience will be provided by us.”
West Philly United Neighbors, a registered community organization that is fighting a proposed development at 48th Street and Chester Avenue, said in the letter that the samples will be used to “investigate if the development would adversely affect the neighbors’ microbiota and increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer.”
Dr. Ang Sun, president of West Philly United Neighbors, who signed the letter, said in an email Monday that he did not have approval from his employer, Temple University, to discuss the research.
On its website, West Philly United Neighbors says it is working with a “group of biomedical researchers from Temple University who are funded by the National Cancer [Institute] investigating the bad germs associated with irresponsible development in West Philly.”
“By collaborating with them,” it continues, “we are educating our neighbors and members that irresponsible development and gentrification may increase the gut microbes associated with colorectal cancer.”
Asked about the study on Monday, Temple spokesperson Raymond Betzner said the university’s Institutional Review Board had not yet reviewed or approved the research.
“Temple University has a human subjects review board, which includes faculty and community members, that is charged with ensuring the ethical conduct of human subjects research,” Betzner said in a statement. “This proposed study has not been reviewed by that board, which is a requirement. … Temple University will address this matter within the policy guidelines of the university related to the responsible conduct for research.”
The National Cancer Institute did not immediately respond to questions about its involvement.
Sun, an anti-gentrification activist who has testified before City Council, said in his email Monday that recently he had received “vicious e-mails” and phone calls that he believes were from angered developers. He said he has had to take precautions.
West Philly United Neighbors says on its website that the proposed study would make it the “first community organization in the nation” to fight “gentrification and irresponsible development using cancer research.”
The letter proposes that careless demolition, excavation, and construction can expose residents to carcinogens as well as change one’s gut microbes to increase the number of germs associated with colorectal cancer.
Brett D. Feldman, the lawyer representing property owner Meir Gelley on the proposed development, said community members started texting and e-mailing him Sunday morning asking whether he knew about the West Philly United Neighbors flier.
“I was speechless,” Feldman said of reading the letter.
“There’s been people putting posters on the property for months,” he said. “I wasn’t even imagining it would be this.”
West Philadelphians have long worried about the looming threats of gentrification, and the possibility that it could increase the cost of living and push out longtime Black residents, or make them feel like strangers in their own homes. Neighbors say the new apartment building, catered to one- and two-bedroom units, could mean more single white residents, and fewer families, moving in.
Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, whose district covers the proposed development site, said Monday that she was aware of the letter and is concerned that it could “instill fear in residents.”
“People of color have historically experienced maltreatment by the medical community, and so it’s critical for doctors and researchers to be very careful in what they are putting out for public consumption in Black and brown neighborhoods,” Gauthier said in a statement. “We have reached out to Temple to better understand whether this type of activity is acceptable under medical research regulations. We also question whether it’s appropriate for an RCO [registered community organization] leader to play a central role in both the administration of this study and advocacy around the proposed development at 48th and Chester.”
Gelley is looking to build an apartment complex on the 2.5-acre corner plot in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. The proposed four-story, 76-unit complex of one- and two-bedroom units would rent for about $1,320 to $1,560 per month, including utilities, Feldman said. About 20% of the units will be set aside as affordable housing, renting for $725 to $870 a month, based on 40% of area residents’ median income.
The lot was most recently a private dog park. Gelley also owns the Renaissance Health Care and Rehabilitation Center next door.
Feldman said the development team has been in consistent communication with the community, and has adjusted the building’s design and layout at least six times to reflect their ideas and concerns. He said some community members who originally opposed the project now support it.
“This is the farthest thing from a luxury apartment building,” Feldman said. “The owner has been very clear with the development team to do everything possible to make this as good as possible for the community.”
A group called Protect Squirrel Hill has formed to protest the development. Organizers could not be reached by phone or email. On Monday, a metallic “PROTECT” banner and a “No greedy developers for the community” sign hung on the property’s fence. Next Saturday, activists plan to have a “speak out” rally against the project in front of the site.
During a Civic Design Review meeting earlier this month, more than a dozen neighbors and community groups criticized the building’s height, design, and affordability, and raised concerns that the project could speed up gentrification and “displace longtime residents.” One neighbor said the “over-glorified, luxury dorm is not wanted in this neighborhood.”
Other residents said that the area’s rent is already increasing and that will only intensify if more housing isn’t built.
“Our neighborhood needs new rental housing, and needs new affordable housing, and all the better that it will come on a site where there are no existing homes, displacing nobody,” another resident said.
None of the representatives from West Philly United Neighbors mentioned the colorectal cancer study during the meeting.