The topic of the community meeting — a plan to beautify 52nd Street, to make it safe, welcoming, and prosperous once again — was, on its face, nothing but good news for West Philadelphia’s long-declining business corridor.
Yet the audience of about 50 residents and retailers, mostly African American, grew increasingly agitated as urban designer Jonas Maciunas flipped through a PowerPoint presentation of proposed improvements. Many weren’t seeing a vision of a neighborhood revitalized from Market to Pine Streets. Instead, in the talk of redesigned intersections, leafy thoroughfares, and better bus shelters, they heard the ominous whisper of gentrification.
“It just seems that when white people decide to come back to a certain neighborhood, they want it a certain way,” said Carol Morris, 68, a retired elementary school teacher.
Morris’ declaration opened the floodgates of fear and anger that recent night at the Lucien E. Blackwell West Philadelphia Regional Library. Maciunas and Jesse Blitzstein, director of community and economic development for the nonprofit Enterprise Center, which is spearheading the project, were peppered with skeptical questions ranging from the validity of surveys showing community support for the improvements to the maintenance of trees that would be planted.
“West Philly is the new Africa,” said Pamela Blanding-Godbolt, 58, a community activist and teaching assistant in the Philadelphia School District. “Everyone wants the property that’s in West Philadelphia.”
The meeting was yet another eruption of the angst roiling neighborhoods citywide as they struggle to balance the opportunities and the threats created by gentrification. Something as seemingly innocuous as widened sidewalks can be perceived as a prelude to bigger changes that will replace a black community with white wealth, leaving residents unable to afford to stay, or feeling like strangers in their own homes.
“I’ve seen it happen across the country,” said John Joe Schlichtman, professor of urban sociology at DePaul University in Chicago and a contributor to the book Gentrifier. “The city’s response would be: Why would any rational person not want what we’re deeming to be this universal good ... curbs where there are no curbs, sidewalks where there are no sidewalks, bike lanes where there are no bike lanes, transportation where there’s no transportation?"
The community reaction, though, he said, is a “sophisticated response” from people who have seen how improvements can signify a takeover from new, wealthier residents.
Throughout Philadelphia, evidence abounds of what gentrification can do. Point Breeze, Brewerytown, Kensington — all have seen significant changes in recent years.
The neighborhoods west of University City haven’t been among the city’s most rapidly changing, at least not for the better. In the last decade, household incomes have declined and poverty rates have risen in Cobbs Creek and Parkside, according to U.S. Census data. But redevelopment assuredly is inching in.
In City Council District Three, encompassing much of West Philadelphia, 7,189 building and zoning permits were issued last year — 3,000 more than in 2010 — and in the .2-square-mile census tract that includes the 52nd Street business corridor, building permits nearly doubled over the same period. Also during that time, the median sale price of homes in the Cedar Park section jumped $100,000 to about $363,000, according to the housing website Zillow.
The area’s population remains predominantly black, but residents say they’ve noticed a growing white presence.
Maciunas was sensitive to questions about who, really, will benefit from change. “We’re not here to change culture,” he said. “We’re here to change infrastructure to reflect culture.”
Once known as West Philly’s Main Street, 52nd Street has a rich heritage as a cultural and commercial hub for African Americans; those who came of age in the mid-20th century hold fond memories of its jazz clubs and movie theaters.
Maciunas’ PowerPoint presentation showed what happened next, though. The discriminatory practice of redlining kept African Americans from obtaining real estate loans and building wealth, and misguided efforts to compete with the suburbs led to development that turned the thoroughfare pedestrian-unfriendly. In the last 20 years, high crime coupled with an extensive repair project on the Market-Frankford Line left the street a shell of its former self. There have been improvements, but 52nd remains a barren, uninviting streetscape, with a distressing number of vacant properties and redundant businesses.
The current revitalization push grew out of the city’s interest in reviewing safety along 52nd Street. But, Blitzstein said, it’s about "more than safety. It’s about making it ... easier to use and a more vibrant space to shop and do business.”
In the long term, Maciunas said, it’s about reversing the effects of decades of racist policy.
The two men see a corridor in clear need of work. Its wide, straight lanes are a speedway, its lack of marked crosswalks encourage jaywalking, and its intersections with Walnut, Chestnut, Locust, and Pine have high numbers of car crashes resulting in injuries. They propose wider sidewalks and curb bump-outs to give pedestrians a clearer view of traffic, improved street lighting, and fewer signs and kiosks on the sidewalks. And they want trees — a lack of greenery can make urban neighborhoods as much as 11 degrees hotter in the summer.
Before taking any recommendations and funding requests to the city, which has not yet staked out its financial commitment, Maciunas and Blitzstein are gathering community feedback. Another meeting will be held on Wednesday at the Urban Art Gallery on South 52nd. But they already got an earful at the Blackwell library gathering.
“Drexel, Penn, they’re all branching out," said Morris, "and they’re all pushing for the neighborhoods to change so that their students will feel safe.”
Residents see constant reminders that change is coming.
Blanding-Godbolt said she receives mailers weekly about selling her home near 52nd Street. And while Serita Lewis said she welcomes new arrivals if they respect the existing community, she is wary of people who eye properties as investments to flip or rent.
“They salivate over our homes,” said Lewis, 48, who runs a business on 50th Street organizing community engagement programs. “They just want to use our property and they don’t want to help make our community better.”
History has given African American communities good reason to be skeptical, said Schlichtman, the DePaul professor. Their neighborhoods have either been neglected by city governments or subjected to projects that ignore the people living there.
“You have these 75-year-old residents who have seen generations of bright-eyed 28-year-olds come to them with the solution,” he said.
Those attending the meeting acknowledged the potential benefits of redevelopment in West Philadelphia.
“I’m not opposed to making sure there’s socioeconomic development,” Lewis said. “I’d be a fool to not want it.”
A revitalized 52nd Street, Maciunas told them, could be a powerful booster for homeowners as property values increase.
“We talk about generational theft having to do with redlining and urban renewal,” he said. “But this moment that we’re in, it could be one of the biggest transfers of wealth in the black community.”
The key to promoting change, he said, is observing the ideal use of an area — in the case of 52nd Street, a walkable business district — and embracing the existing community.
“I think the question we’re grappling with — and honestly, neighborhoods around the city and around the country are, too — is how you strike an ideal balance between old and new,” Blitzstein said. “I’d like to be able to look back in five, 10, 15 years and feel that we did right by the community.”