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Point Breeze and Tioga-Nicetown: Why one Philadelphia neighborhood has surged while the other languishes

The two neighborhoods were much alike just a decade ago. Today, Point Breeze is abuzz with construction and soaring property values while Tioga-Nicetown has languished.

New condos are for sale allegedly for $700K at 20th and Wharton in Point Breeze.
New condos are for sale allegedly for $700K at 20th and Wharton in Point Breeze.Read moreMargo Reed

The North Philadelphia neighborhood of Tioga-Nicetown and South Philly’s Point Breeze, so different today, were much alike just a decade ago.

Both were largely African American communities of aging rowhouses, low incomes, and modest educations. More than a third of their residents lived in poverty, a stratospheric rate even for America’s poorest big city. Their median household incomes were approximately $29,000 and $34,000 — advantage, Point Breeze.

Since then, that $5,000 gap has widened to more than $20,000.

Point Breeze today is abuzz with construction; newly built, three-bedroom homes are fetching $700,000, give or take. The median household income has swelled to about $42,000, and the poverty rate has shrunk to less than a quarter of the population — which at 27% is nearly three times as white as it used to be.

Seven miles north, Tioga-Nicetown has languished. There, the median household income dropped more than $8,000 to slightly over $21,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s recently released American Community Survey. The poverty rate is 35%, virtually unchanged in the last 10 years. And a three-bedroom house, albeit of pre-World War II vintage, can be had for $70,000.

The divergence between Point Breeze and Tioga-Nicetown is in some ways the story of gentrification in Philadelphia, which at least one expert predicts will run its course sooner rather than later. Of the city’s 55 neighborhoods, only eight registered income increases of more than 10% in the last decade, while 29 experienced 10% decreases, according to census data.

“The issue nationwide is that either you have places that are being gentrified, or you have places that are being continually disinvested, and there is very little in between,” said John Joe Schlichtman, a sociologist at DePaul University and author of the book Gentrifier.

In Point Breeze, the makeover is evident to all.

“Everywhere you go, they’re starting to build higher and higher,” said Kentrice McFadden, 32, who grew up there.

Tioga-Nicetown’s troubles are equally plain to see and hear. In August, bullets whizzed through the streets during a midday gun battle that injured six police officers. In the wake of the shooting, neighbors described feeling unsafe and ignored.

“As fast as we got in here, [the neighborhood] went up in flames,” said Tricia Jarmon, 48, a home health aide who moved to the Nicetown Court apartments with her daughter and grandson seven years ago. “The drugs and everything, you see things you don’t want your kids to see.”

» READ MORE: Philly’s 10-year tax abatement is changing, but it’s already changed Point Breeze. Here’s what residents think.

The reason one surged and the other stagnated is in large part geography. Point Breeze is closer to the job hubs of Center City, the Navy Yard, and University City. Tioga-Nicetown is twice as far from central Philadelphia — about four miles — and as an economic driver, nearby Temple University cannot compare to the University of Pennsylvania.

In the 2000s, gentrification was already underway in the Graduate Hospital area, said John D. Landis, a professor of city and regional planning at Penn. Point Breeze was adjacent — a natural next step.

Gentrification is sort of a checkerboard approach,” Landis said. “It doesn’t jump over areas into a new area.”

The neighborhood is also walkable, and it’s easy to hop on the Broad Street Line.

Other factors figuring into Point Breeze’s resurgence were vacant properties (a quarter of its homes were empty a decade ago), politicians friendly to redevelopment, and city policies that allowed taller buildings and offered 10-year tax abatements.

“It’s where developers see the hottest market,” said City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who represents the neighborhood. “At one time, no one wanted to come to Point Breeze.”

In Tioga-Nicetown, people worry about the lack of jobs, safety, and such basic amenities as public trash and recycling cans.

“Every corner should have a trash can if you don’t want garbage,” said Lonzo Edwards-Woodard, 39, who works in construction.

The air quality is some of the worst in the city, with the SEPTA bus depot contributing.

Councilmember Cindy Bass, who represents Tioga-Nicetown, cited an inadequate public library. She talked about the importance of community involvement in revitalization, but said City Council could do more. Poverty, she observed, leaves people less free to advocate for their own neighborhoods.

"There is a level of chaos that comes along with poverty,” she said.

Troy and Juanita Marrow are trying to sell a rowhouse that has been in the family for more than 40 years so they can move to North Carolina. They have 12 children, toddlers to age 23, and although they mentioned crime as a concern, what worried them most was education.

“They’re not being taught,” Juanita said. “They’re not giving the opportunities for talented or gifted children.”

Transportation is another issue. Tioga-Nicetown has Broad Street Line stops and the Wayne Junction Regional Rail station. But the subway is beyond walking distance for many, and the Regional Rail’s suburban routes are of little value to the almost 60% of residents who work within the city.

“Those trains go places that 99% of Nicetown ain’t going,” said Larry Pettaway, 48, who works in merchandising.

A trip into Center City by Regional Rail costs more than double a subway ride, and trains don’t run frequently, said Dick Voith, a partner at the consulting firm Econsult Solutions and a former SEPTA board member. “Cheaper rides would be really quite important, but also they need to fix the nature of the service so it’s not gap-toothed.”

While Tioga-Nicetown’s distance from Center City has stymied redevelopment, the growth occurring nearby in East Falls and Germantown also hasn’t spread to the North Philadelphia community, due to Roosevelt Boulevard and the swath of industrial properties in between, said Domenic Vitiello, a Penn urban history and planning professor.

Race matters, too, in setting the stage for gentrification, Vitiello said. Systemic discrimination in the city’s housing policies meant homes were less expensive in minority neighborhoods, and undervalued housing stock makes gentrification possible. However, Tioga-Nicetown wasn’t next to large white communities that might have bled into it. Point Breeze was, and it offered low-priced homes to buyers looking to spend less for more house.

Those bargains, though, are largely a thing of the past. “It was cheap when I moved here,” said Brianna Cheli, who works in residential real estate and moved to Point Breeze as a renter more than three years ago. “Now it is not.”

» READ MORE: Philadelphia a city of extremes: High incomes, high poverty, report shows

Once a mix of homes and businesses, Point Breeze has become increasingly residential.

“It’s not like it’s our neighborhood” anymore, said McFadden, a 32-year-old mother of four.

The prosaic landmarks of her childhood — a corner store, a dry cleaner, a candy store — are vanishing. And she has felt the pinch of rent increases.

Tenants are particularly vulnerable to displacement, said Heather Squire, an affordable-housing researcher and advocate in Point Breeze, and they are less likely to find a new rental property in a neighborhood as prosperous as their old one. “When lower-income people were displaced,” she said, “they went to neighborhoods that were far worse than the one that they left.”

Keeping people in their homes can include help with deeds and homestead tax exemptions, said City Council’s Johnson, who has been an advocate for development. But, he added, the city also needs a comprehensive affordable-housing plan.

“We know developers are in it for profit,” he said. “We need to also provide incentives to build affordable housing.”

Change could come to Tioga-Nicetown without gentrification. The city could spur growth by partnering with banks to encourage support for middle- and low-income residents in the form of mortgages and home improvement loans, and could spruce up the environs with street cleaning and sidewalk repair.

“The city has to take up the dual approach of improving urban services and working with vendors,” said Landis, the Penn professor.

The gentrification that changed Point Breeze, though, might not continue sweeping through Philadelphia, he said. The city does not have a young population large enough to sustain significant gentrification, he said.

“Is demand so strong that it won’t manage to be met in places like Point Breeze? I don’t necessarily know that’s the case.”