Philadelphia City Council passed a bill on Thursday guaranteed to make more than a few of my neighbors angry.
The bill, sponsored by Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, would allow the city, by means of eminent domain, to seize 43 properties abandoned or blighted properties in Point Breeze, 17 of those properties privately owned, to ensure a mix of affordable housing in the booming neighborhood.
I live in Point Breeze, and Johnson is my Councilman. I’ll give him this – he’s about as visible and accessible a representative as you could ask for. I see the guy all the time. He’s talking to neighbors, sweeping up the trash, and conducting walking tours for fellow politicians. He has his finger on the pulse of the community, and on this bill, he’s been listening to what they tell him.
First, let’s talk about the underlying cause of the consternation over Johnson’s bill, and that angst can be summed up in one ugly word – gentrification.
A predominantly Black neighborhood for generations, Point Breeze in recent years has seen an upsurge in young, white hipsters moving in. For that, you can’t really blame the hipsters. Their parents abandoned Black neighborhoods in the ’60s, and now they’re lured back by the inexpensive housing market and the neighborhood’s proximity to Center City nightlife.
Developers see that happening, and pounce on every property they can get their hands on. Some they transform into expensive single-family homes, some they convert to apartments, and some they allow to lie fallow, waiting for the financing to redevelop.
Meanwhile, longtime residents, who for years put up with feeling abandoned by city government, are now at the center of the action, and fear the increased development will drive up property values, which could tax them out of the community they love.
It’s not an unfounded fear – the pattern has been repeated in cities all over the country, where grandmothers who’ve owned their homes for decades must move out because they can no longer afford the property tax increases that come with gentrification. I have a friend in San Francisco who calls gentrification “The Negro Removal Plan” because it has dramatically reduced the size and density of Black neighborhoods there.
As a consequence, Johnson’s bill is seen by some as a line in the sand – protecting longtime residents from greedy developers. It is seen by others as an impediment to progress – standing in the way of legitimate business and chasing money out of the city.
Developers see money – and they should. That’s what they do, and they shouldn’t be faulted for their one-dimensional thinking. Those properties you couldn’t give away a few years ago are being sold today at a king’s ransom. They don’t see the residents as salt-of-the-earth neighbors, they don’t see the properties as hearth and home – they see people standing between them and their profits.
And last, but never least, there’s the growing racial animosity involved whenever the word gentrification comes up.
Many of my new white neighbors are distrustful, and let’s be honest – afraid – of their recently chosen environment. You can tell. While some of the new neighbors go out of their way to speak and be friendly, others walk past silently with their heads down, avoiding eye contact. They make no effort to engage, and that causes some resentment among folks who see it as either aloof or disrespectful.
There are stories floating around about some new residents’ refusal to clean up their dogs’ droppings, or who move six or eight people into a house – all of whom own cars – leaving longtime residents to park wherever they can, often blocks away. Then there are the usual neighborhood complaints – noise, trash, whatever – that are instantly multiplied and escalated when race is involved.
The sad part is that if money could be removed from the equation, there’s a chance both sides could come together to form a compromise, if not an actual community. But you can’t remove money as a factor, because money is where the issue begins and ends.
I understand the developers’ desire to reap the financial rewards of investing in a neighborhood forgotten by their real estate colleagues. But I also understand the social and human ramifications of using financial status as a wedge – slowly marginalizing the poor and disregarding them as essential to the fabric of a community.
It is a dilemma as old as the Constitution, and as American as apple pie. The problem is, most of us have come to understand that when an issue comes down to people versus profit, there’s always a clear winner.
Daryl Gale is the city editor of the Philadelphia Tribune.