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In long impoverished Mantua, signs of change spark hope, and gentrification fears

As change and development threaten the proud neighborhood in West Philadelphia, residents and community activists seek more direct control over the process.

The 3800 block of Melon street in Mantua. Once a blighted block, the area has started to turn around - in part, thanks to the Philadelphia Mural Arts program.
The 3800 block of Melon street in Mantua. Once a blighted block, the area has started to turn around - in part, thanks to the Philadelphia Mural Arts program.Read moreCAMERON B. POLLACK / Staff Photographer

By the time President Barack Obama stood in the East Room of the White House in 2014, ready to make an announcement about a 2-square-mile West Philadelphia enclave, part of it had already spent ample time in the news.

After all, the stretch from Girard Avenue to Sansom Street and from the Schuylkill to 48th Street included Mantua, where Kermit Gosnell performed illegal abortions that left a woman and several babies dead and where a prominent activist was gunned down while handing out trophies for a youth basketball league. It was the same neighborhood where, week after week, headlines of gunshots and crime had become almost normal.

But Obama's announcement had a different tone: These two square miles would become one of his administration's first five "Promise Zones," he said, part of a program that would give 20 high-poverty communities a chance to change.

In theory, the initiative would create jobs, bolster safety, improve education, and increase affordable housing, though no money was included. Instead, the designation would give these communities preferential treatment when they applied for federal grants.

In practice, has anything changed?

According to city officials such as Mitch Little, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, which steers the initiative, the answer is a resounding yes. "I think that we've helped bring close to $60 million to the zone," Little said.

As in many rapidly changing communities across Philadelphia, however, this transformation — and what is causing it  — is a bit more complicated.

The Promise Zone is no homogeneous community. It encompasses the Mill Creek, West Powelton, and Belmont neighborhoods; Powelton Village; and parts of University City,  including Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Perhaps none of these has experienced as much change in recent years as Mantua, which extends from the Schuylkill to 40th Street and from Spring Garden to Mantua Avenue. Noted for poverty as well as crime, it has experienced new developments in what had been dilapidated spaces.

Change has been a double-edged sword for this neighborhood, which residents and local leaders say has for a decade badly needed improvement. Though newer, sleeker apartment buildings have certainly helped reduce the number of overgrown lots and ramshackle houses — according to Mantua's Transformation Plan, 32 percent of parcels in 2013 were vacant — they also have created affordability challenges and stoked fears of gentrification as developers increasingly cater to more affluent individuals and students spilling over from off-campus housing.

"We, as a community, are concerned about protecting our history, protecting the fibers of the community," said Michael Thorpe, executive director of the Mount Vernon Manor Community Development Corp. "You want to be welcoming to everyone and inviting to all people, but we want to make sure that the voice of residents in the community are heard."

More than in any other period in its history, Philadelphia is facing a gentrification dilemma. Neighborhoods in all directions are undergoing significant upheaval as the city's rising stardom has attracted residents and investors from along the Northeast Corridor. As more housing has gone up in response, development has increasingly encroached on once-shunned areas.

Mantua's metamorphosis has been slower than that in South Philadelphia, Fishtown, Brewerytown, and the Cecil B. Moore neighborhood. But with Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania directly to the south, and the $3.5 billion Schuylkill Yards project — the 14-acre district of laboratories, offices, residences, and shopping proposed by Drexel and developer Brandywine Realty Trust — set to break ground near 30th Street this year, many residents worry how Mantua can best weather it.

"The time is now for us to think about: Is this an inclusive city? Is this a prosperity that can be shared by all of our citizens?" Little said. "Or does this become a tale of two cities?"

To slow gentrification, community organizations have begun stepping up. Earlier this year, after years of prodding, Mantua residents persuaded City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell to introduce legislation that would rezone commercial and multifamily districts here to districts that would include more single-family housing. The measure passed in June.

Similar legislation was implemented in the Cecil B. Moore neighborhood this year. Both bills aim to slow developers' ability to build large, multifamily developments in areas traditionally known for single-family houses, to promote more home ownership.

"It's something that is a tangible win for the community," said De'Wayne Drummond, president of the Mantua Civic Association. "We're not anti-development; we just want to be a part of the process when it comes to the community being developed."

Having a seat at the table has worked. Earlier this year, a group of Mantua community organizations negotiated with Drexel and Brandywine Realty Trust to control how Schuylkill Yards would affect their community. After they voiced concern that the project could put upward pressure on home values and change the neighborhood, Brandywine said it would commit $5.6 million to Mantua and surrounding areas, including $3.1 million for affordable housing and small-business development and a $500,000 contribution to a low-interest credit line to help minority entrepreneurs get businesses off the ground.

Meanwhile, efforts toward more affordable-housing options have been underway, too. Earlier this year, renovations were completed on 46 apartment units at Mount Vernon Manor Phase II, an affordable-housing community rehabilitated using federal, state, and city funds after years of sitting nearly uninhabitable. Those renovations followed restoration of 75 affordable units at Mount Vernon Manor Phase I. Today, both offer subsidized and low-income tax-credit units. The wait list is more than 3,000 people long.

Despite such efforts, however, student housing continues to spread in Mantua, with some developments fetching rent as high as $1,600 a month for three bedrooms.

"It's a lot of private developers coming in, and the majority of them are not doing affordable housing," Drummond said. "It's basically geared toward students to live close to institutions. … I haven't seen too much geared toward families."

Even so, residents say, Mantua remains Mantua: fiercely proud, culturally rich, and still beset by economic difficulty and crime. The neighborhood still has no grocery store, and shots continue to ring out on many nights. In 2009, the median income for a Mantua household was $19,700  —  47 percent lower than the citywide median income of $36,700.

But slowly, subtly, Little said, things are improving — on the neighborhood's terms, even if it's difficult for residents here to detect. Thanks to the Promise Zone, the city was awarded a $30 million "Promise Neighborhood" grant over five years from the U.S. Department of Education, aimed at expanding literacy, improving job training, and providing behavioral support for seven public schools in the area. A grant of nearly $600,000 has been obtained from the Department of Justice to improve public safety, Little said. And a Department of Housing and Urban Development grant was secured to boost resources to crack down on predatory mortgage lending.

"Being poor can be a full-time occupation," Little said. "… Our residents, they have turn-off service notices, tax situations, or children to deal with. … [They] just want to see change."

“The hope is that with the Promise Zone, there is a lot of coordinating and creating complementary services in this particular area,” he said. “Then, it becomes really about system change.”