There is no greater metaphor for the manner in which gentrification is devouring and will continue — perhaps unabated — to displace the city’s African-American community than what transpired in last month’s Democratic primary.
Few suspected — at least not publicly — that in the aftermath of the primary, longtime incumbent Jannie Blackwell would be reduced to clearing out her office and making room for Jamie Gauthier. After all, a Blackwell, dating back to when her husband won the seat in 1975, has held the District 3 chair for the better part of 44 years.
But with the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University constantly expanding their territory, the West Philadelphia that once was is no more. “The Bottom” in West Philly, known as such as much for its geographic location at the lower half of University City as it was for its unwanted stratification at the bottom of West Philly’s socio-economic ladder, is almost extinct. It’s now replaced by new apartments and homes that former residents can only dream of inhabiting.
South of University City, Penn’s expansion continues to reimagine the neighborhoods of Southwest Philadelphia. Gone are the neighborhoods of the 1990s and 2000s that were characterized by drug wars, yellow police tape and bloodshed, replaced today by cafés, beer gardens, dog parks and homes now valued north of the $500,000 threshold.
In 1999, Blackwell announced a 10-year economic development plan for West and Southwest Philadelphia that led to the formation of nonprofit West Philadelphia on the Move. The plan, according to her website, was to “incorporate her vision for increasing affordable housing and job and business development.”
It was a noble effort that resulted in more than 1,000 new homes and affordable rental units. But if we are being honest, the lion’s share of the development today resembles nothing that is described on Blackwell’s website. Perhaps this is why, despite her outward protestations to the contrary, Blackwell found herself increasingly accused of engaging in councilmanic prerogative, which benefits developers of city land at the expense of lower-income residents.
Who is to say if this is true or not? For someone like Blackwell, who has always fought for those compromised by things such as inadequate education and poverty, the reflex reaction is to say that this could never be the case.
But being a politician is about adapting to what is necessary to get re-elected and nothing more. What we do know is that at some point, with gentrification showing no signs of slowing down, councilmembers in gentrifying areas such as Blackwell’s West Philly district eventually are going to have to make a deal with the devil or be moved aside.
This is an interesting time and place to be a member of Philadelphia’s City Council. Gone are the times as they were in 1979, when Lucien Blackwell and Fran Rafferty brawled during a council session over how police applied excessive force in a city that was far more segregated then than it is today.
Today, more than ever, our city is being segregated along the lines of the haves and the have-nots. Furthermore, the fact that Philadelphia is 44% African American and has the highest percentage of poor among the nation’s 10 largest cities sets in motion the inevitability that this friction isn’t going anywhere.
Gauthier, who like Blackwell is Black, was supported overwhelmingly by the better educated, the wealthier, those living in more expensive homes, and the young. Specifically, she received the vote of those gentrifying West Philadelphia.
Blackwell, on the other hand, received more votes from those with less education, less wealth, less valuable homes and the aging — or those who can’t afford to live in certain sections of West Philly anymore. And for the first time in generations this was simply not enough.
As Blackwell exits, there will be those who criticize her for not doing enough for the schools and the economy of those living in West Philadelphia. It is a legitimate argument; just look at what has become of her district. Then again, her district is no different than any majority Black city district.
From Mayor Jim Kenney on down, never believe a politician in this city who tells you that he or she is going to work to stem the onrush of gentrification, for it’s officially a losing proposition. Gentrification here is on autopilot and political tampering will not be tolerated. Never forget that.
Blackwell’s website states that “her overall vision is to improve her constituents’ quality of life — regardless of class, gender, or socio-economic status.” It further adds that “she continues to believe that there is a solution to every problem, and that when we work together, everybody wins.”
Sadly, the chasm that now exists between Philadelphia’s haves and have-nots makes this impossible, whatever the motivation may be.