Herman Wrice saw it coming.

It was as if Wrice, the iconic community organizer turned antidrug crusader, had seen into the future as far back as 1969, when bulldozers began mowing down rowhouses in Mantua like overgrown weeds - all to make room for parking lots.

Back then, Wrice, along with a group of fellow activists, stood firm against those private developers seeking to make a quick buck under the guise of "neighborhood revitalization." The locals demanded that no construction be done without the approval of residents first.

The community eventually won that battle, but Wrice wasn't finished. He used the victory to issue a warning to his own folks:

If we don't protect our own community, he said, it will be only a matter of time before it gets taken away from us.

Which turned out to be prophetic, as the narrow swath of neighborhood nestled just north of Drexel and Penn has, for all intents and purposes, been taken over by students.

Still, not even Wrice could have predicted the cruel irony that would occur 40 years later: The mural painted in his honor, paying tribute to a man once hailed as the driving force behind community empowerment, would fall victim to community displacement itself.

Sadly, it won't be long before the mural, which looms larger than life on the wall at 34th and Spring Garden, will be covered up by a residential triplex that developers intend to build on the parcel of land next to it.

"You can see our backs are against the wall - literally," says E. Darnell Ryans of Mantua Cares, a local nonprofit that launched a too-little, too-late petition drive in protest.

Turns out the developer's plan was already on its way to sailing through zoning- board approval, practically a given in these economic times.

"The city's pro-development right now," says Martin Cabry, director of zoning for Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell. "To say no is going against the grain of progress."

Problem is, in Mantua, progress almost always benefits the student population. More than 80 percent of all new construction in Mantua has been student housing.

Great for developers. Great for students. But not so great for indigenous residents who usually can't afford market-rate rental prices.

At this rate, they may get pushed into the Schuylkill.

For years, the story of Mantua, traditionally dismissed as the "bottom" of West Philadelphia, has been told through struggle. The struggle of a community, where 44 percent of residents live below the poverty line, to fend off developers with deep pockets looking to deepen them off student largesse. Not to mention the struggle against crime and drugs.

Through activism, Wrice gave residents the tools to fight back. As founder of the nationally revered Young Great Society in the '60s, he transformed gang members into neighborhood role models.

He died unexpectedly of a heart attack at only 61 in 2000.

"Herman Wrice is the John Wayne of Philadelphia," gushed the first President Bush, after learning how the father of seven would don his trademark hard hat to confront drug dealers, prostitutes, and other assorted blight-bringers through Mantua Against Drugs, the group Wrice founded in the late '80s.

Which is why the covering up of his mural has touched off a firestorm. Who could possibly think Wrice's legacy would be expendable?

"The mural is not just a picture of a man," argues Jean Wrice, 70, Herman's widow. "It's a picture of a movement."

Obviously, the community thought so, too. It raised enough of a fuss that it forced the developer to agree to pay $25,000 to the Mural Arts Program for the cost of re-creating the Wrice mural, either on the wall of the triplex or someplace else, Ryans said.

Still, Jane Golden, executive director of the Mural Arts Program, concedes that as development increases, the prospect of losing more murals is real.

"We have to find corner properties and good sites that are strategically placed," Golden says. "It's up to us to be inventive."

As much as the image of Wrice is cherished by Mantua residents, the deeper issue goes far beyond the mural.

"When developers push out the community, it creates a nomadic environment," Ryans says. "When you have a profit-driven entity that starts imposing on a community that can't fight back, it's at the expense of our lives."

Contact columnist Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or Ajohnhall@phillynews.com. Read her work: http://go.philly.com/annette.