There’s a new dirty word in Philadelphia — “gentrification.” The internet dictionary defines gentrification as “the process of renovating and improving a district so that it conforms to middle class taste.” Sounds innocent enough, right? Well, the angry residents of neighborhoods such as Point Breeze and Grays Ferry don’t think so. To them, their answer to “gentrifying” is “keep your hands off our neighborhood!”
Gentrification means different things to different people. As my old boss used to say, “Where you stand usually depends upon where you sit.” If you’re a developer, gentrification means an opportunity to build and sell high-priced housing. Often, it also means a 10-year tax abatement for the folks buying these houses, the city’s way of attracting new residents who contribute to its tax base. If you’re a longtime resident, gentrification often means fear of higher property taxes, displacement and cultural and racial changes that “destroy” your neighborhood. The battle lines have been drawn, personified by what often seems like a blood feud between Councilperson Kenyatta Johnson, whose diverse Second District includes Point Breeze and Grays Ferry, and real estate developer Ori Feibush.
This is one of those divisive issues where my sympathy resides on both sides. Uncle Nunzi claims that I take every issue and find the middle position. But it seems to me that a little give on both sides here will go a long way toward resolving a dispute that is tearing these two neighborhoods apart.
Candidly, when Point Breeze and Grays Ferry were hit with gentrification, the neighborhoods were long past their glory days. According to Philly.com (now called “Inquirer.com”), Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the nation. Not a coveted title. This city has too many residents who need services but can’t contribute to its tax base. We need new residents — residents who CAN contribute to the tax base, and in the process, help support programs that help pay for programs to alleviate poverty. We can’t turn our backs on that reality.
On the other hand, the character and strength of any big city is in its neighborhoods. Philadelphia is no exception. Council has tried to address the problem when the building of new expensive housing is accompanied by steep increases in property taxes. Steep increases often force longtime residents out. The LONGTIME OWNER-OCCUPANTS program is an attempt to address the problem. It provides tax breaks for property owners who experience a 300% increase or more in their property tax in one tax year. The HOMESTEAD EXEMPTION program also helps by reducing the tax value of a home by $30,000. In addition, Council has introduced a bill that would provide 2,000 units of affordable housing in the area. It’s time to consider eliminating the tax abatement for buyers of new luxury housing in gentrified areas and replace it with a tax abatement for longtime residents. The tax abatement served its purpose at one time, but that time has passed. While I applaud Council for taking the aforementioned steps to help longtime residents, I believe much stronger measures are needed. But no matter how MANY measures the Council enacts to help these folks, the old Point Breeze and Grays Ferry neighborhoods are never going to stay the way they were. And politicians must be honest about that with longtime residents. If not, they’re only going to add to their disillusionment, anger and frustration.
Does Councilperson Johnson really think his bill banning balconies and bay windows in new construction in Point Breeze and Grays Ferry is going to accomplish anything? Johnson claims the ban would help preserve the character of these neighborhoods. Why are bay windows perfectly fine in the older neighborhoods of West Philadelphia, but not Point Breeze and Grays Ferry? Johnson might as well also include a ban on white yuppies walking their dogs in those neighborhoods and a prohibition against fancy coffee houses and a WHOLE FOODS market. Change is going to happen. Just ask the folks who live in the Graduate Hospital area.
If you want to be honest with the residents of Point Breeze and Grays Ferry, you can’t pretend that you can turn back the clock to an imaginary time. Everyone is going to have to accept that change is inevitable. Residents are all going to have to learn to live together and tolerate one another’s differences to make it work. That means BOTH the mostly minority longtime residents and the mostly white affluent newcomers to the area. Banning bay windows addresses a symptom, not the cause.
Adjusting to change is difficult. I’ve never lived in the Point Breeze or Grays Ferry neighborhoods, but as a former forever resident of South Philadelphia, I’ve witnessed the difficulty that some of my friends have had with the changes on East Passyunk Avenue. It’s not the same, some of them complain. They don’t like the new shops and restaurants and the changing culture. They view these new residents, shop owners and customers as “outsiders.” What they ignore is the reality that the old East Passyunk Avenue was dying before the revitalization that turned that area into a trendy hot spot.
Back in the mid-’80s in an interview I did with Chicago Cubs broadcasting legend Jack Brickhouse, I moaned about the plan to put lights in Wrigley Field. Brickhouse listened to my complaints and then replied, “It’s the only way to save Wrigley Field, Tom.” A lesson that doesn’t apply to just old ballparks. ••
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