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North Philadelphia meeting addresses gentrification

Residents say being ‘displaced’ from longtime communities is a human rights issue.

Condos under construction on Fitzwater Street, the former location of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church prior to its demolition back in 2011.
Condos under construction on Fitzwater Street, the former location of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church prior to its demolition back in 2011.Read moreGoogle Maps

PEOPLE FROM all over Philadelphia came together Saturday to tell their stories about gentrification at the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia.

Organizers had issued fliers calling for an "emergency town hall" to confront a "crisis facing black Philadelphia: the demise of our neighborhoods."

In gentrification, some neighborhoods are targeted for revitalization - but the new development leads to huge rent or property-tax increases that often force longtime residents out.

Sister Empress Phile, one of the organizers, said the group will host more town halls and ask for more public meetings, including congressional hearings.

Ultimately, she said, the activists plan to appeal to the United Nations that gentrification is a human-rights violation - when economic-development policies displace one ethnic group with another.

"In the very near future, we are going to ask for accountability from our elected officials," Phile said yesterday. "Questions have to be answered: How did this development occur? And what representatives within the community were contacted or notified?"

Phile said the federal Centers for Disease Control, as part of its Healthy Community Design Initiative, found that gentrification and displacement can have "negative consequences" on the health of some populations: the poor, women, children, the elderly, and members of racial/ethnic minority groups because of stress and the loss of social networks.

Denise Ripley, who spoke Saturday, lives on Uber Street near Jefferson in North Philadelphia. She said she is the only person from her old block, Jefferson near 19th Street, still in the area after new townhouses were built in 2005.

She said many people moved when the city bought their homes through the process of eminent domain.

Ripley said one neighbor, "Miss Ethel," a retired hospital technician, used to mentor teenage girls she took on trips to New York.

"She just wanted to show them another part of the world outside of North Philly, to let them know it was a big world out here, and that you can accomplish your dreams," Ripley said in an interview yesterday.

Ripley told the group of 50 to 60 people at the Advocate, at 18th and Diamond, that Miss Ethel moved to West Philadelphia.

"About six months later, she passed away."

Ripley, 56, said she believed Miss Ethel, then in her late 70s, died of a broken heart:

"I think it grieved her to have to move from the community she had known all her life. I was grieving myself. It tore the community apart. People I had known for 40 or 50 years were gone. I felt like we were being pushed out of our community."

But Ripley also urged people, especially homeowners, to stay on top of the issue by attending planning and zoning meetings. She said she fought to stay by demanding "a house for a house."

When he spoke, the Rev. Clarence A. Martin Sr.'s voice trembled with emotion.

He talked about clashes with some new neighbors in South Philadelphia, where the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church once stood, at 20th and Fitzwater streets.

Some new arrivals called police to complain about parking on Sundays and that the church services were "too loud."

"There was one young man who walked his dog in front of the church and he let the dog defecate there," Rev. Martin said.

"I asked him, 'Aren't you going to pick that up? And he said, 'The dog's got to go, what can I do about it?' "

The two men exchanged a few words.

"And before he left, don't you know that dog lifted his leg and urinated on the church wall? Then [the man] just walked off laughing."

Contacted yesterday , Mark McDonald, Mayor Nutter's spokesman, said: "If Philadelphians have a concern about public safety or quality-of-life issues, they can call the mayor's office. They can call 3-1-1.

"They can call any of the other departments they think might be appropriate to respond. We will do what we can to look into the issues that are raised."

Rev. Martin's church was demolished in 2011 because the 150-year-old building was structurally unsound; the dwindling and elderly congregation could not afford to repair it.

A PowerPoint presentation showed the red-brick church, built in 1861. The next photo showed the boxy building with six condominiums, marketed at $700,000 each, that replaced it.

Martin is still pastor of the Metropolitan AME at a new location in Lansdowne, Delaware County.