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Francisville in transition

Older residents fear gentrification may push them out.

JOHN JACKSON swept the sidewalk outside his house in the late-afternoon sun. A huge American flag hung out front, where a lethargic brown-and-white beagle sat inside a fenced-off driveway and front yard filled with flowering trees and potted plants.

Jackson lives on Brown Street near 19th, in what has become the increasingly "hot" real-estate market of Francisville.

The neighborhood, for years predominantly African-American with some Latinos, has a growing number of newcomers, many of them white and Asian professionals, residents say.

Newer three-story houses tower over one-story homes built in the 1980s by the Philadelphia Housing Authority and bought by mostly black teachers, bank employees and government workers.

"We have been cheated," said Jackson, a parochial-school administrator, who is black.

"We are paying the price for investment in this area where everybody who is buying here now will have a 10-year tax abatement, while our property taxes are being tripled.

"Our own kids will not be able to buy a home in this area, and that's very disturbing."

The gentrification of the 28-square-block neighborhood has made Francisville a prime example of the tensions and fears of higher property taxes that often accompany change in Philadelphia.

City Council President Darrell Clarke, whose district includes Francisville, said he wants to ensure that longtime residents aren't forced out by higher taxes. He said a gentrification-relief law signed by Mayor Nutter on June 25 is aimed at helping them.

"Why should the people who have lived in these neighborhoods when it wasn't fashionable have to move?" Clarke asked yesterday.

But Clarke has been a lightning rod for tensions in Francisville. Many developers say they are outraged that he has put a "hold" on the sale of all city-owned properties in the district, including at least 12 in Francisville.

Clarke said his main concern is to make sure some affordable housing remains in his district.

Some newer residents are disappointed that the Francisville neighborhood organization didn't fight the approval of JBJ Soul Homes. The $20 million project, funded by musician Jon Bon Jovi for Project H.O.M.E. and People to People Inc., will bring a complex of commercial and residential housing for the homeless to the intersection of Broad Street and Fairmount and Ridge avenues.

Penelope Giles, executive director of the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corp., said some newer residents objected to the low-income project at what they considered the gateway to a renewing Ridge Avenue corridor.

New houses on Uber Street, which stretches north from Fairmount Avenue between 19th and 20th streets, sold for as much as $670,000 in the last five years, city records show.

But houses similar to Jackson's sold at prices ranging from $27,000 to $44,000 between 1992 and 2000. The market value of some of those $27,000 homes is now listed between $223,000 and $230,000.

A house on Uber Street near Brown, which Arlene Lee bought for $44,900 in 2000, was assessed recently at $335,900.

"If they go with the $335,000 figure, my taxes will jump to $4,000, [from $800 last year]," said Lee.

N. Philly or Center City?

Francisville - bounded by Fairmount Avenue on the south, Girard on the north, Corinthian on the west and Broad Street on the east - is an old Philadelphia neighborhood.

Longtime residents say it always has been considered part of North Philly. But city Planning Commission documents began branding Francisville as part of Center City in the last couple of years.

"If you say North Philly, it has less cachet," said a real-estate developer who asked that his name not be used. "But you can say Fairmount, Francisville and Northern Liberties. A lot of it is a psychological barrier, or cutoff points for white people."

Alfred "Magic" Whitten, who lives on Uber Street, said the changes have been both good and bad.

"We know the city has a problem and needs money, but it's like they're trying to push us out of here," Whitten said. "We're going to have to fight to stay here."

Whitten and his wife, Marilyn, live in a former Philadelphia Housing Authority house they bought for $27,000 in 1992.

Whitten works two jobs to make ends meet. In the daytime, he repairs door and window screens. At night, he works as a janitor.

But some of the tensions aren't just about paying higher taxes.

Black residents have clashed over the role of Giles, who also is black.

Giles and the FNDC board have long pushed for the economic revival of the Ridge Avenue business corridor. Giles' rallying cry has been that "economic diversity" is necessary for the corridor to thrive.

Last month, Giles poured out her frustrations in an emotional 15-paragraph letter titled "Dear Francisville," urging longtime residents and newcomers to set aside their differences. She had not distributed the letter as of yesterday, but shared it with the Daily News.

"Can we achieve economic diversity and restore the health and vibrancy of our neighborhood? . . . That's a no-brainer, we damn well better or find ourselves transplanted to another economically segregated community rife with the same deplorable conditions because guess what, change is coming whether we like it or not . . . ," she wrote.

Giles, 53, grew up in Francisville, lives there today and still has strong ties to what she said was a thriving working-class neighborhood where people shopped on Ridge Avenue.

But some black residents say they consider Giles a "traitor." A few have accused her organization of helping "outsiders" buy property without giving longtime residents a chance to buy long-vacant lots.

"People are angry and they don't understand what they're angry with me about," Giles said in a telephone interview Monday. "My frustration lies in understanding the bigger picture; about how it's the economic segregation that creates all the bad things."

"[W]e can stop saying, 'They're pushing us out, they're pushing us out,' and realize that we, the poor people in this neighborhood, have a voice, we have a vote, and we can demand that the politicians put laws into place so that as our neighborhood improves, we are able to stay here."

Giles wrote her letter after her organization was criticized by some property-owners for alerting the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections about alleged code violations in an effort to push them to sell to wealthier developers.

On the plus side, one project that even Giles' critics have praised is a farmers market every Friday on Fairmount Avenue at 19th Street. They say it has been a unifying force, although fewer farmers are participating than when it started.

A remark about N.A.

Longtime residents say they have other reasons for mistrusting Giles' organization.

Laura Whortenberry, 69, a retired Veterans Administration employee, moved into her 20th Street home as a renter in 1981 and purchased it from PHA in 1994.

Whortenberry recalled an incident in which a group of black residents went to a meeting chaired by Giles at the rec center: A white man in Giles' organization supposedly stood up and told the black people in the room, " 'The N.A. [Narcotics Anonymous] meeting is across the hall.' "

"We were livid," Whortenberry said. "When he said that, people erupted. We said 'you assume because you saw a lot of black faces, that we were there for the N.A. meeting?' "

Another example of what longtime residents consider the arrogance of newcomers was an effort about five years ago to change the direction of Uber Street, a one-way southbound street, to northbound from Fairmount Avenue.

"We fought that," Whitten said.

And about a year ago, when residents of the one-story former PHA houses on 20th Street went to a meeting to speak out against the construction of the three-story houses, Giles described their older houses as "matchstick" houses, they said.

"I was just shocked that she actually came out and said that," said Beverly Davenport, who, with her husband William, moved into their their 20th Street home in 1981 and bought it in 1988.

"They didn't give us these houses. We had to qualify for them. She made it sound like they were given to us."

Giles said she had not intended to insult the residents. She said that when the PHA houses were built, her late mother, along with a community leader and others in the area, often criticized PHA for building the houses too small, especially since they were replacing three-story brownstones.

Several people said the tensions in Francisville are not about race - they are economic issues that boil down to old vs. new.

Gerard P. Grandzol, a white board member of Giles' group, said the issue is "socioeconomic . . . although it is exacerbated along racial lines."

But Ruby Jean Howard, 82, who lives on Uber Street, said her encounters with new neighbors have been mostly pleasant.

She said an Asian-American woman down the street always asks when her great-grandchildren will come over to play with her children. "They laugh and play together on the sidewalk and ride their bicycles," said Howard, who is black.

"I don't even think about skin color," she said. "I'm used to all people. I can fit in with anybody."

Howard said she already went to City Hall to have her property taxes frozen because she is a low-income senior citizen. She does not fear that higher property taxes will push her out.

"I'm not worrying about it," she said. "I'm not going anyplace until the good Lord calls me."

Older residents say race becomes a factor when they see newer arrivals getting special treatment from the city

Una Vee Bruce, 70, a longtime community activist who has been one of Giles' sharpest critics, said several residents told her that a group of white men came to the recreation center at 7 p.m. one night last summer. They supposedly asked the mostly black neighborhood children who were playing baseball to leave because it was their time to play ball. The children's parents and grandparents were surprised to see that the men had brought a keg of beer.

A city worker who lives in Francisville said that no alcohol is allowed on city rec-center grounds.

"There's a whole lot of double standards that go on," said Bruce, who for years worked with the development company Community Ventures to build affordable housing in the area.