From parts of Fishtown that look like Miami (Piazza Pod Park, anyone?) to Northern Liberties looking like a slice of Brooklyn, the face of “New Philadelphia” can signal beauty and progress to some, but it is important to remember the underlying costs. As The Inquirer reported recently, food pantries in Philly’s gentrifying neighborhoods have seen declining need — because lower-income families are leaving.
While a common defense of gentrification is that it makes neighborhoods safer, what it’s really doing is pushing locals out of their homes and raising the cost of living such that many can’t afford to stay in the city where they’ve spent their whole lives. In 2016, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve found that the city lost 23,628 rental units available at $750 or less per month from 2000 to 2014, with these affordable units in gentrifying areas vanishing at five times the rate of non-gentrifying areas.
RentCafé, a real estate database, reported in February 2018 that Philadelphia zip codes 19123 (Northern Liberties) and 19146 (Graduate Hospital and Point Breeze) were in the top 10 most gentrified in the entire country. But this pattern is not new to the city. As WHYY reported last year, urban planner Edmund Bacon led a post-World War II charge to create Penn’s Landing and Market East. Policymakers knew at the beginning of their city plans, based on city Planning Commission’s calculations, that 34% of existing residents would be displaced. “It was more important to restore this area than to maintain the low-income residents,” Bacon later said. Gentrification has long been a force to drive locals out their neighborhoods and bring in higher-income, more “favorable” residents.
And “unfavorable,” lower-income residents are often black or Latino. A March study from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that since 2000, 12,000 black Philadelphians alone moved out of gentrifying neighborhoods, reflecting Philadelphia’s notably high level of black displacement in particular. Across the country, the study found black and Latino resident displacement to be a hallmark of gentrification.
Since 2014, the Fed’s findings have painted a mixed picture on gentrification, with its most recent study highlighting potential benefits for low-income residents who manage to stay in gentrifying neighborhoods. It reported that children in such neighborhoods have better employment and education opportunities. While it’s useful to know that these residents might see educational benefits, the abstract promise of that advantage doesn’t necessarily translate into people’s daily experience of their neighborhoods.
In July, Vice examined the NCCR study, in particular its conclusion that Philadelphia as one of seven cities leading gentrification efforts in America. To get a sense of how these trends are felt by Philadelphians, Vice asked people attending the Roots Picnic in Fairmount Park what they thought of the gentrification happening around them. Residents Khadijah and Kara told Vice, “Gentrification has affected Philly a lot because a lot of people want to move into Northern Liberties or even go to places in Northern Liberties and they feel as though they can’t because of gentrification and because of the price."
That anxiety reflects a sense that what gentrification is really doing to Philadelphia is ruining the culture, one shiny building at a time. Isabel Ballester, of Uncle Bobbie’s (a black-owned coffee shop in Germantown) shared her perspective with Billy Penn in January: “I just noticed there were so many more white people in my neighborhood. The rent is increasing, and there’s more flipped housing that’s happening.” Philadelphians like Ballester have tried to combat gentrification by bringing in more black-owned local businesses, but it can still be a struggle to afford rising costs of living.
It’s difficult to say what can be done to deter the gentrification that remains a problem for Philadelphians, when there’s no sign aggressive development will stop. As members of this community, we should continue to support the communities that have been here since the beginning, or get shut out by real estate booms. The Philly of Edmund Bacon’s time explicitly prioritized higher-income people. It’s time to do the opposite, and fight for lower-income residents on whom the city has turned its back.