The sharp rap of hammers echoed through a patch of urban land verdant with crops and speckled with color from irises and forsythias.
“You used to be able to sit on this block and hear nature,” Mara Henao, 31, of West Kensington, said while sitting at a picnic table in the César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden, which she helps maintain.
For eight years, the garden, adorned with sculpture that evokes Central American mythology, has been a source of food, beauty, and community gathering. Now, new construction is rising just beyond its borders, and a recent proposal for development along nearby American Street has served as an unsettling reminder that the space is borrowed land that could be taken away at any time.
“I would say everything is in jeopardy,” said Mike Moran, 36, another garden caretaker. “Nothing is under our control.”
The neighborhood, one of the city’s poorest, is the latest battlefield, Moran said, in a contest over what Philadelphia will become. The area is pockmarked with abandoned properties, with more than 300 held by the city land bank within half a mile of American and Berks Streets. Community residents see an opportunity for low-income housing, community centers, or preservation of the homegrown gardens that are a hallmark of the area.
The district’s City Council representative, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, wants affordable housing, too, but says that without new construction and development policies, trends already raising the area’s cost of living will become unstoppable.
“You need to be in the game,” she said, “because this market is going to do what it’s going to do.”
Her priority is transforming the main artery in the neighborhood, American Street, into a corridor of shops and apartments.
Once considered the best hope to revitalize some kind of industrial base for the city, American Street has for years failed to fulfill that promise. One of two proposals from Quiñones-Sánchez would change an area currently zoned for industrial use on both sides of American Street — roughly from Oxford Street to Lehigh Avenue — to permit residential development with commercial space on the ground floor.
Another bill would open the door to a plan by Scannapieco Development Corp. for a 20-story apartment tower on the vacant site of Morris Iron and Steel between Berks and Norris Streets, and a plan by Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha to build 40 rowhouses on nearby plots owned by the city.
Private developers are being drawn by easy transit access and the urgency to build before the city’s 10-year tax abatement expires, Quiñones-Sánchez said. They have no obligation to provide affordable housing for a community with a median family income of about $23,000 a year. The zoning change would require that 20% of all development be affordable housing over the next 50 years.
“This is by far the most aggressive overlay in support of mixed-income and low-income housing and job creation that will be in the books in the city of Philadelphia,” she said.
The bill to permit the apartment building also would require diversity among construction crews and opportunities for local residents to start businesses in commercial space, Quiñones-Sánchez said.
Some in the community, though, see their Council member ushering in development that will shatter a vibrant, largely Hispanic and Black section of the city.
“It’s a betrayal,” said Elizabeth Segarra, a homeowner near Norris Square. “That’s what she’s doing to this community. She sold us out.”
In 2019, the city issued 593 construction permits in the census tract that includes the proposed development site, according to the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections, eight times as many as were issued in 2015. Even with the pandemic, 132 construction permits have been issued this year.
The increase in building raised home prices to a median of $142,000, according to the real estate site Zillow, before the pandemic struck. That’s nearly 60% more than the price five years ago. Rents have been exploding, too.
“You have to have a roommate to get a spot down here,” said Anthony Patrick, 34, a supporter of the garden who spoke out against the rezoning proposal at a city planning board meeting in June.
In a community that’s more than 75% Black or Latino, residents said, something else about the new neighbors stands out. “When they say the neighborhood’s getting better,” Henao, a native Colombian, said, “that’s code for the neighborhood getting white.”
In Norris Square, on the opposite side of American Street from Iglesias Garden, a community that has struggled hard to rebuild itself is similarly wary of Quiñones-Sánchez’s proposal.
Patricia DeCarlo, a nearly 30-year resident on the square, has participated in dozens of rehabilitation projects. “We took existing houses that were vacant or destroyed and got them from the city for $1,” she said. “We turned them into apartments.”
Quiñones-Sánchez’s approach requires that a portion of future housing be available for people in the moderate income range, no more than 60% of the federally established area median income, which comes to about $40,000 for a family of four. But that standard, DeCarlo said, is not solely based on the neighborhood’s median, and would make the new properties too expensive for many. Almost a third of the area’s households make less than $10,000 a year.
Quiñones-Sánchez didn’t disagree but said the zoning change was just one tool she was using to create affordable housing. Other subsidies would reduce the unit cost to as low as 30% of median income.
Fierce outcry from the community led the city planning board to postpone its decision on the zoning changes until September.
“A high rise? Really?” Patrick said during the virtual hearing. “That’s not helping nobody here. Y’all need to create jobs here. Y’all need to make sure there’s affordable housing here. Bring some kind of income back into our neighborhood instead of bringing homes for people who are out-of-towners coming into our neighborhood.”
Of the zip code’s 9,600 workers, fewer than 300 have jobs in the area.
The community is also suspicious that Scannapieco already has plans in place. The Bucks County development company has not given campaign money directly to Quiñones-Sánchez, according to city records, but it did donate $25,000 to the political action committee Philadelphia 3.0 in 2016, which endorsed Quiñones-Sánchez last year. The company’s president, Thomas Scannapieco, also gave the PAC $25,000 in 2017.
Quiñones-Sánchez said she was not aware that the developer had contributed to Philadelphia 3.0. Anyway, she said, Scannapieco owns the land along American Street.
“Of course I have a relationship with that constituency,” she said. “That doesn’t mean they get to tell me what I do in my district.“
The development company did not respond to a request for comment.
In Norris Square, community efforts have addressed problems with drug dealing in the park, prostitution on the streets, and a large number of vacant properties in the neighborhood. Many of those vacant spaces have been claimed by neighbors for gardens, though they have no property deeds.
Quiñones-Sánchez sees the need for strategy and flexibility. The neighborhood needs jobs and affordable homes, she said, but she is trying to work within the reality that developers are eager to build there.
“I can’t control market forces,” she said. “All I can do is create some guardrails and some protections.”
The neighborhood, though, is marinating in uncertainty. Iglesias Garden’s volunteers are taking steps to gain control of the land it occupies but are uncertain when or whether that will happen. In Norris Square, there’s fear that efforts to reshape the community for those who live there ultimately paved the way to make the neighborhood more appealing to new residents.
“It is now the good lands,” DeCarlo said, referring to the neighborhood’s onetime nickname the Badlands, “and now that it’s the good lands, the gentrifiers are coming in.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.