Penntrification: Race, class and politics in West Philadelphia

Road Kill Cafe float. Photo credit: Andres Freire

I’ve been a proud West Philadelphian my entire life. Growing up on a side street near 48th and Baltimore Avenue, my block was its own little community. We’d put up barriers to block traffic and hold parties; kids playing soccer and riding bikes in the street while the adults drank beer and grilled burgers and hot dogs. We had our own annual Mardi Gras parade, in which we dressed in elaborate costumes and decorated our cars as ‘floats’.

A major player in my neighborhood’s politics is the University of Pennsylvania. They own a lot of the land East of 40th street, and their influence and presence is felt for miles around. The relationship between Penn and the residents of West Philadelphia is the source of some tension, exacerbated by the fact that Penn insists on describing my neighborhood as ‘University City’.

A few years back someone clever designed a bumper sticker that read ‘This is West Philly, University City is a marketing scheme’.

For a while afterwards everywhere I went I saw these stickers. They were brilliant in that they were succinct, factual, and accurately captured the sentiment of many people from the neighborhood.

Unfortunately, West Philly has a reputation that includes drug dealing, theft and violence. University City is a marketing scheme. It’s a new moniker for the eight-block area between my house and Penn’s 40th street campus, designed to combat the perception that the university is in a dangerous part of town.

The objection from locals is mostly based around the class conflict between Penn and its students and the people who live nearby. Penn wants to raise the property values in the neighborhood,  pushing those who can’t afford to spend more on housing further west.

There is some evidence that the bumper stickers were effective. There is a burgeoning market for West Philly themed t-shirt sales. However, hip people are emphatically not wearing University City District gear.

On the other hand, most of the people I see wearing these west Philly themed t-shirts are, ironically, not from West Philly.

Gentrification [noun]

1. The buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle- income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses

2. An instance of gentrifying; the condition of being gentrified. -dictionary.com

Election night in West Philly. Photo credit: Dylan

There is ample proof that Penn has been successful in gentrifying my neighborhood. Growing up, I lived in the second-to-last house on my block. My home was pretty much the exact spot where my neighborhood changed from upper/middle to working class. The house to my left’s front door opened onto 49th street where pretty much everyone was African American. My house opened onto the cross street where everyone was either Caucasian or a light-skinned member of a non-African ethnic group. With very few exceptions, people who lived east of me had light skin, while people who lived west of me had dark skin.

Nowadays there are plenty of white folks west of 49th street. I see them come and go, wearing their West Philly t-shirts.

In fact, for the past two and a half years, I was one of them. I moved to a house on 52nd street, the only location within a seven block radius that I could afford. At the time, my housemates and I were the only white people on the block, although we had white neighbors on the 5100 blocks of both adjacent streets.

I bring up race to illustrate part of why gentrification is such an explosive topic. Penn’s recent neighborhood enhancements correlate directly with an involuntary migration of poor, mostly black people to houses further west. This is an understandable thing to get worked up about, especially considering Penn’s rocky history with poor black communities. Many still resent Penn’s role in purchasing and demolishing large portions of the “Black Bottom” neighborhood in the 50’s, much of which the city itself later declared as blighted and seized through eminent domain.

West Philly left, Center city right. Photo credit: desmorider

It’s easy to criticize Penn for its policies, but to do so without a better understanding of gentrification itself might be a mistake.

The issue that made the neighborhood vulnerable to gentrification is that some parts of it were genuinely unpleasant. Abandoned buildings lined many of the streets and slumlords owned houses, creating subpar living conditions. Crack dealing was common, and gunfire was an occasional accent to the cities nighttime noises.

Penn’s funding started the non-profit University City District (UCD) in 1997. UCD (still primarily funded by Penn) is responsible for bike patrols, free community meetings and events, as well as street cleaning, and other beautification services in the area. Its bike patrols help curb crime, and its other services bring up housing values, pushing slumlords to sell their properties to people who are willing to maintain better living spaces.

Penn also partnered with the Philadelphia School District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to open the Penn Alexander School, a K-8 public school subsidized to the tune of $1,330 per student by the university. The school provides private-school quality education in a neighborhood where the public school options are terrible. Young parents would be hard-pressed to match the quality of education without moving to the suburbs. The school’s catchment area falls nicely within University City, dramatically increasing the housing values.

While some people see Penn’s influence as an improvement to the neighborhood, many criticize the university for using its power and money to shape the neighborhood as an affluent white community.

Photo credit: Vincent J. Brown

Let’s do a thought experiment in which the enrichment of West Philadelphia happened in a different way. Lets imagine a group of community leaders got some money together to send local kids to college or trade school on the condition that they would learn a skill that could be used to enrich the neighborhood. One of the kids gets a business degree and opens a store selling high quality goods at reasonable prices. Several others learn trade skills and offer quality plumbing, and electric repairs. Another obtains an advanced degree and becomes a doctor, caring for the sick at a reasonable rate. All of them are able to hire people from the neighborhood to work for them, so the neighborhood becomes more fully employed.

As the quality and number of services provided goes up, the neighborhood becomes a more desirable place to live. This pushes rent and property taxes up. As the area becomes employed, business owners set up shop to capitalize on the resident’s disposable income. This increases the quality and number of services provided, and the cycle repeats.

This scenario is much more inspiring than the Penn takeover story, but it’s still a story of gentrification. The bottom line is that when a neighborhood improves, poor people get pushed out, and wealthier people move in. In the case of West Philadelphia, that means black people moving out, white people moving in.

Penn injected a steady flow of cash straight into the veins of west Philadelphia. In doing so, they reduced crime, raised property values, created jobs and provided excellent services to residents. We only start to become uncomfortable when we acknowledge the effect that those improvements have on the race and class demographics of the area. Is the University of Pennsylvania a racist colonizer of West Philadelphia, toying clumsily with the lives of its neighbors, or a community-minded benefactor, tirelessly working to improve the circumstances of the neighborhood it’s a part of?

‘Somewhere in between’ and ‘it’s more complicated than that’ are probably both viable answers, but to truly judge Penn’s actions we need to have a better understanding of the nature of poverty and wealth in housing. Is there a way to improve poor neighborhoods that betters the lives of the people along with the infrastructure? Is there a model where this has been successful?

My answer: I don’t know, but I would love to find out!

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9 Responses to Penntrification: Race, class and politics in West Philadelphia

  1. Chris says:

    Yo Matt,
    I enjoyed the piece here. The balance between positives and negatives of gentrification — city neighborhoods have always needed new blood, but at the loss of recent identity is challenging — is a really important issue, so thank you for trying to suss out some thoughts on it.

    I’m a big believer in making stronger neighborhoods by accepting, even welcoming, change but celebrating what is unique and what has existed before. That means new residents and legacy residents alike have to be willing to embrace what is good (and mitigate what is not) about their changing neighbors.

    For myself, I want Fishtown to do a better job of integrating what was where and what is new. That can be easier when the socioeconomics (and race) are somewhat closer, which is why, I think, the areas around Temple and ‘University City’ and increasingly Kensington and Brewerytown are more challenging, but it should be a goal nonetheless.

    *If you move into a neighborhood, remember that there is a world that has existed before you. Find it, learn it, respect it. It’s OK, I think, to help mold it — that’s the beauty of city neighborhoods — but it is so much sweeter when we can do that in partnership with legacy neighbors.

    I also wanted to make a somewhat smaller point about University City. I’m as frustrated by newly summoned neighborhood names as much as the next guy (I have always been frustrated by the conjured idea of ‘Midtown Village’) but what has happened in the last generation between Drexel and Penn is so dramatic that I tend to face the historic reality that it needs a name.

    And as any celebrant of West Philly knows, that part of the city is so vast and so varied, that I desperately want us to have MORE neighborhood names to supplement the ‘region’ of West Philly. In the past, we used parish names and intersections, playgrounds and schools to describe to other locals where we were from, so I do want us to uncover and rediscover the ways to describe our corner part of the city.

    West, North, South, Northeast, Northwest, the riverwards and, yes, Center City are all too big and too diverse parts of our city for us to not also want neighborhood distinctions, in addition to blocks. It’s the healthy end of a vibrant and celebrated city.

    So while its roots caused pain for many residents, today I most certainly do see University City as a neighborhood unto itself and always push friends and acquaintances on *where* in West Philly they might live. Thanks for the thoughts!
    -cgw

  2. I had always been at least a little conscious of the gentrification of West Philly, but it never really jumped out at me until I came back from college and moved to a different part of the city. The lines that are drawn in Philly are really startling. I lived in Germantown, where the rent was quite low, but just across Wissahickon Avenue from me, in East Falls, there were a couple of high-priced apartment buildings and Penn Charter School. Even that wouldn’t have been quite so surprising to me if I wasn’t also living with my girlfriend, who grew up in Oakland, and was living with me to attend grad school (in fact, she was going to Penn, but it was for her Master’s of Social Work). She was doing her internship at a Mastery charter school in deep West Philly, and it made her quite angry to commute to her internship in a neighborhood where broken glass and bullet casings were the norm and drive past the sprawling campus of Penn Charter and all the Lexuses, BMWs, and other excessive luxury cars were lined up to pick up their kids after school.

    Another interesting, though mostly unrelated tidbit is that I found that the farther away from Philadelphia you get, the broader people’s definition of Philadelphia becomes. At school in the mountains of western North Carolina, I met people who claimed to be from Philly, but who admitted, when pressed, that they were from as far afield as Doylestown. Needless to say, I scolded them for having such a liberal definition of Philadelphia, given that I grew up just west of 49th Street.

  3. Nora Nafaa says:

    Hi,

    I really found your article very interesting. That’s my master thesis topic and I really like the fact that you try to find a real analysis on this urban transformation. I would be please to share with you some of my research results.

    Nora

    • Awesome Nora, I’d love to see some of your research. I’m emailing you now!

    • Saurabh says:

      Hi Nora. I am interested in doing a small project to cover the effects of changes in demographics, race etc. in West Philadelphia leading to a change in business environment. Would you allow me to take a peak at your research. Thank you, Saurabh

  4. Pingback: I bought a house! | Always Hungry

  5. Pingback: West Philly | branching out

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