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After generations of displacement and evictions, a Philly woman reclaims a place in the city

Dominique London saved a property from a sheriff's sale in the shadow of the house that was her grandmother’s.

(L-R) Dominique London, her school bus and her grandmothers former house in Phila., on Oct. 22, 2020. London is repurposing a school bus into her home on wheels. The bus sits now on her plot of land she saved from sheriff's sale, next door to her grandmother's house which was lost to sheriff's sale
(L-R) Dominique London, her school bus and her grandmothers former house in Phila., on Oct. 22, 2020. London is repurposing a school bus into her home on wheels. The bus sits now on her plot of land she saved from sheriff's sale, next door to her grandmother's house which was lost to sheriff's saleRead moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

The growl of a power sander echoed off the walls of lonely, left-behind rowhouses, amid a landscape that has been reverting to prairie in this corner of West Philadelphia that maps officially label as Paschall, if they bother to label it at all.

Then Dominique London, 35, cut the power, stepped out of a disemboweled school bus in Tyvek coveralls and offered the brief tour of what remains of her family’s estate: a parcel of land she saved from sheriff’s sale, in the shadow of the house that was her grandmother’s.

London — who majored in planning at Temple University and co-founded the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative — arrived here after she found herself living the realities she studied, then organized around. Those include the decades-long decline of Black homeownership, the divestment and displacement seen in Black communities, the ripple effects of evictions. So, here on this property, she’s taking a stand. She’s making it a home, turning a used school bus she had purchased and driven onto the lot into a tiny house on wheels, planning a hoop house and a meditation space, a fruit forest and a community vegetable garden.

It’s a tribute to her grandmother, Pauline London. “This was her land and I couldn’t see the city just taking something else from her, Black voices disappearing.” It’s also a quiet protest — a hopeful, urgent attempt to create a different, more sustainable way of living in a changing city.

“I feel like the city pushes people to do things like this," London said. “From liberating PHA houses to house homeless people, to making encampments, to creating tiny houses, it’s all just finding creative ways to live here because the city makes it so damn hard.”

» READ MORE: Once-homeless Philly families are squatting in PHA houses.

London grew up visiting her grandmother in Paschall. But only after Pauline had succumbed to Alzheimer’s did she learn her legacy.

Pauline London, who grew up a sharecropper in Georgia making 16 cents an hour, made a life in Philadelphia as a mother of eight and head of household after her husband became disabled. She fiercely advocated for welfare rights — and eventually turned that passion into work that paid enough to get off welfare, buy the house and continue lobbying for reform at the city, state and national levels.

But over the years, the neighborhood around her fell into decay.

Akira Drake Rodriguez, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design, said it’s a familiar narrative, driven by intersecting forces such as redlining, the depressed wages paid to Black workers, and discrimination by appraisers who to this day undervalue Black-owned homes.

“Black homes just don’t hold equity over time, and it’s not the fault of the homeowner,” Rodriguez said. "It’s an ongoing history in nonwhite communities of property devaluation and dispossession.”

Pauline London died in 2011. By then, her house had already been lost to sheriff’s sale. Many of her descendants had left for the more stable Wynnefield neighborhood, where they settled in the Penn Wynn House apartments — an aging mid-rise building that became a community within a community. London grew up there. Her family members lived at Penn Wynn for decades, worked in maintenance there, died there. After college, she returned, moving into her own studio apartment.

Then, in late 2016, the building was sold. Residents of 239 apartments were forced out.

"I feel it was because of the uncertainty and stress,” London said. “Some people are homeless right now because of that, and because they have eviction on their record,” she said.

That trauma is multidimensional, Rodriguez said. “Displacement takes you out of your social network: People vote less, they’re less likely to engage in politics. It impacts the ability to attain good school outcomes. It affects mental health, but also physical health, the wear and tear on your body. Evictions, in particular, can leave a permanent mark on your record, which can mean much higher costs, higher security deposit, and much longer searches for housing.”

As for London, it activated her, just as her grandmother was energized to fight half a century earlier.

London led protests, climbing 17 floors of the Dane — as the remodeled Penn Wynn is now called— to drop a “Gentrifiers” banner. She advocated for a resolution, adopted by City Council on Oct. 15, urging the First Judicial District to seal evictions. And, she said, she helped draft many of the demands that echoed through the protest encampments this summer.

» READ MORE: Philly’s housing deal with occupants of Parkway homeless encampment seen as ‘unprecedented’ nationwide

Meanwhile, London found an apartment in Kingsessing. But it isn’t like home: “There are bikes, fireworks, gunshots, police sirens, fire engines. There’s no peace." That’s when she started thinking about how to make a life on the land she’d saved from sheriff’s sale, through a last-minute scramble of fund-raising to pay off back taxes.

“I guess this project is just me trying to get back a little bit of peace,” she said.

The property was overgrown when London returned to it. The yellow school bus, still filled with seats, did not look like a home. But she hired a four-legged work crew from Philly Goat Project that tended to the lot, chewing on poison ivy. And, after emptying the bus of seats, she’s working toward heated flooring, solar panels, wool insulation, a wood-burning stove, a water tank, and a compost toilet, everything she needs to live off the grid. But it’s slow work, with YouTube for a tutor and frequent trips to the West Philly Tool Library for gear.

One thing London isn’t bothering with: zoning approvals. (The bus will be registered as an RV, instead.) She recently lobbied City Council to support bringing tiny houses to the city’s thousands of vacant lots. Instead, they passed an ordinance allowing such developments only as accessories to existing structures.

London represents a segment of millennials who no longer believe in homeownership as the American dream. “A mortgage is just fancy rent,” she said. After all, if she can’t pay, the property still goes to sheriff’s sale. “If we just eliminate the things we think we should be paying for, then maybe we can actually do what we love to do.”

That impulse is driving a nationwide movement for smaller, more affordable and more flexible housing, said Diana Lind, a Philadelphia author who documents that shift in her new book, Brave New Home. But, Lind said, efforts at tiny-home development have often been stymied by traditional financing models and zoning designed to exclude.

“There are a lot of different restrictions on what you’re able to build, and a lot of it was specifically to avoid having properties that could potentially lower property values for people who were already there,” Lind said.

But in Paschall, people are enthusiastic: They tell London they’ve seen tiny-house shows on TV, but never expected one in their neighborhood. They’re eager to pitch in, and to accept her offer to use the space as a shared community park.

Brooke Belle, 41, said it’s a welcome sight for her four children, instead of the familiar landscape of abandonment and illegal dumping.

“It’s good for them to see there are other types of places you can call home," she said, "other than what you’re used to.”