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In Point Breeze, the violence of gentrification

Fear is too often the loudest emotion in the aftermath of gun violence in our city.

Philadelphia police investigate the scene of a shooting in the Point Breeze neighborhood of Philadelphia on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023.
Philadelphia police investigate the scene of a shooting in the Point Breeze neighborhood of Philadelphia on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023.Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

On Sept. 7, Masir Williams was shot and killed at my corner bodega in Point Breeze. Williams was 21 years old, and that morning he happened to be in the neighborhood as part of a crew of street surveyors.

After I heard the gunshots, I walked out my front door. A neighbor told me that Williams had stopped in the corner store for a bottle of water before work. It was unseasonably hot for the whole week, but particularly that Thursday, when temperatures rose to the upper 90s.

Some people might think that after a shooting, neighbors will fear primarily for their own lives, their families, or their property. Yet fear is too often the loudest emotion in the aftermath of gun violence in our city. I want to instead emphasize that for those of us who live near the bodega, Sept. 7 was heartbreaking. The heartbreak that I and several of my neighbors shared was not only for Williams and for those who love him, but also for our neighborhood, Point Breeze, which is deep in a process of gentrification and the corresponding loss of Black social life.

A recent influx of white home buyers in Point Breeze has changed the racial and economic makeup of the neighborhood. According to recent census data, household median incomes in Point Breeze rose more than $40,000 between 2007 and 2021.

Gentrification in Point Breeze has been the object of protests and political efforts to keep houses in the hands of Black and brown families.

Incentives created by Philadelphia’s controversial 10-year tax abatement, which rewards buyers of new homes rather than protecting longtime owners, have only worsened the situation for longtime Black homeowners. Burdened by taxes and the cost of maintaining the distinctive South Philly rowhouses built in the 1920s, these policies have contributed to the displacement of African American families, some of whom have lived in Point Breeze for two or three generations.

After Williams died, there was no vigil or protest. Yet my neighbors and I tried to bear witness to the reality of his death. As we stood on the sidewalk watching the police cordon the area around the bodega, one of my neighbors, a longtime resident, hugged Williams’ coworker in the Streets Department, who still felt hopeful that he might survive his gunshot wounds.

By staying with grief, I am trying to push against the responses to gun violence that often go hand in hand with gentrification. As a Latina immigrant and anthropologist who moved to the neighborhood last year, I am part of the gentrifying class, yet I refuse to align with its dominant perspective.

For many gentrifiers, what happened to Williams is “Black-on-Black violence,” which means that anyone who is not Black can dissociate from it. Implicit in this dissociation is the logic of anti-Blackness — a worldview that gives less value to Black people’s lives in relation to whiteness.

When forced to leave a neighborhood as a result of rising costs of living, Black families often move to equally or more impoverished areas. In this way, gentrification constitutes violent displacement.

In a 2019 op-ed for The Inquirer entitled “Gentrification displaced my family from Point Breeze,” Angelita Ellison wrote that “often times, newcomers want to distance themselves from longtime residents.”

Episodes of gun violence often intensify this tendency.

Urban studies and other social science scholars insist that the media is responsible for bolstering the stereotype of serious youth violence as a “disease” or a “problem” exclusive to Black and brown neighborhoods from Philadelphia to London. It is precisely this kind of devaluing of Black life that Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson anticipated when he wrote on Instagram that the shooting “is not a reflection of the citizens who live in the area of 23rd and Oakford Streets.” It is significant that as a Black politician who represents our district, he felt compelled to defend the reputation of Black people who live here.

Then again, when I was looking for a home to buy in 2021 and asked a Philadelphia real estate agent what he could tell me about Point Breeze, he said there was “nothing to see” south of Washington Avenue. Councilmember Johnson was speaking precisely to the kind of audience that sees Point Breeze as having “nothing” to offer in terms of a good life.

And this kind of devaluation makes our neighborhood more vulnerable to revitalization projects that have served as foils for the displacement of Black Philadelphians across South Philly.

While gentrification might appear to many as a nonviolent phenomenon, it is our moral and political obligation to stand against the ways that it devalues Black life.

Alejandra Azuero-Quijano is an assistant professor of anthropology at Swarthmore College who lives in Point Breeze.