By Karen Warrington
I live on a stretch of land in Philadelphia that is decreasing rapidly and is in danger of disappearing. The phenomenon is not caused by beach erosion or by being located on a geologic transform fault, such as California's San Andreas Fault. I live in North Philadelphia.
My neighborhood is being eaten away as pricey real estate development moves forward at a rapid pace. Recently, I toured a townhouse under construction at 24th and Brown Streets; it was selling for $700,000. Years ago, this house, located west of Broad Street in the northern sector of the city, would have been identified as North Philadelphia. But no more. Now, it's described as being in the Art Museum, Spring Garden or Fairmount areas.
The online encyclopedia Wikipedia even weighs in on the expanse of North Philadelphia. It explains that in 1984 the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority identified the area as having three divisions: East and West Oak Lane/Olney, Upper North Philadelphia, and Lower North Philadelphia.
The dimensions of North Philadelphia fluctuate. The identification of the sprawl of North Philadelphia is mostly applied when things go wrong, and relabeled when describing revitalization and gentrification. When crimes take place, media folks tend to discard North Philly subdivisions and North Philadelphia becomes synonymous with urban blight, abandonment, poverty and violence.
When I was a child, the mix of North Philly communities included well-swept streets, window flower boxes, and energetic block captains; a diverse mix of races and cultures; as well as poverty, neglect and governmental underfunding. But increasingly, "slum," "ghetto" and "the badlands" were the broad-brush, stereotypical descriptions favored by reporters to describe our vast area. And so, North Philadelphia symbolized what had gone wrong in urban America.
But things they are a-changing! Real estate speculation in the area has become an art. Six-figure-income yuppies have discovered North Philly's multiple empty lots, where they can build townhouses with garages and decks. Investors are transforming shuttered factories into pricey condo lofts. And the greatest gift of all is the discovery that Fairmount Park is the best backyard ever. It's a new day.
In keeping with the transformation of North Philadelphia, SEPTA's Broad Street subway line renamed the former Columbia Avenue station. It is now the Cecil B. Moore/Temple station in deference to the famed civil-rights attorney and a university that has devoured thousands of acres of the North Philadelphia landscape and built blocks and blocks of campus housing for students. Many now refer to the neighborhoods surrounding the university simply as Templetown, as the university buys up hundreds of residentially zoned properties and turns them into student rooming houses.
Last month, on Election Day, I was surprised to see so many of my neighbors making their way to the polls using canes, riding on motorized scooters and carrying oxygen packs. These are the homeowners who decided to stay in North Philadelphia during the height of black and white flight from the inner city.
Some of these people are the folks who understood their neighborhood's proximity to Center City, public transportation, the park, Penn's Landing, Interstate 95, the Schuylkill Expressway, and the world's oldest zoo. Many were solid middle-class professionals who believed in the notion that North Philadelphia could thrive. Well, it looks as though they were right, even though it was a loooong time coming and the name may not survive.