With their neighborhood on a wave of change, Mantua community leaders and activists are working to make sure long-time residents stay afloat.

Their fight is centered around a plan to rezone the entire neighborhood from a multi-family residential designation to single-family area. A change in zoning would make it more difficult for developers to build student housing, with Drexel University nearby.

“I’m not anti-development,” said De’Wayne Drummond, president of the Mantua Civic Association. “We just want to be at the table.”

Mantua, much like the rest of West Philadelphia, has not seen a change in zoning since the 1950s. Developers do not need a variance from the Zoning Board to build multi-unit apartments in the area under the current zoning designation.

With the expansion of Drexel University and the adjacent University of Pennsylvania, an increasing student population has caught the interest of outside developers.

Drummond grew up in Mantua. The 36-year-old served as a planning member of the We Are Mantua Transformation Plan before he joined the civic association.

During a recent tour of the neighborhood with a Tribune reporter, Drummond pointed at one of the newer student apartments.

“There’s no porch,” he said. “Mantua was more family-driven, once upon a time.”

Mantua stretches from 31st to 40th streets in West Philadelphia north of Spring Avenue, facing railroad tracks and then the Schuylkill River just beyond. The area was first a white working-class neighborhood. Black families began to move into the neighborhood during the “Great Migration” of the 1920s for work in manufacturing and city offices.

The 1950s was Mantua’s heyday, with a peak of 19,394 residents and a booming commercial district on Haverford Avenue. By the next decade, a combination of drugs, gang warfare and white flight nearly decimated the area.

Community leaders like Herman Rice and the Rev. Andrew Jenkins rallied to save the neighborhood. Together they pushed back against the drug gangs and established after-school programs for the neighborhood’s children.

Nowadays, the community’s population hovers around 5,590 residents.

During Thursday’s tour, Drummond pointed to tiles lining Brandywine Park with paintings of the family names of Mantua residents. The park was redesigned in 2014 through a collaboration between “We are Mantua” and the civic association.

“I made a tile for my family, who came here in 1942,” Drummond said. “My grandmother came from Virginia. She heard of the opportunities here.”

Now 75 years after his grandmother moved into the neighborhood, opportunity is exactly what Mantua residents are looking for.

In 2013, former President Barack Obama issued an executive order to designate Mantua as one of the 20 “Promise Zones” nationwide. Mitch Little, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, said the city acted as the lead applicant for the initiative.

“It was really about building the strengths of the neighborhood to improve conditions for its residents,” Little said, sitting in an office overlooking Logan Square.

Obama’s executive order did not come with federal funding. Instead, it put a spotlight on Mantua as a place where the city should put effort toward improving.

As executive director of the Mount Vernon Manor Community Development Corporation, Michael Thorpe is a key player for improving Mantua. Having grown up on 39th and Folsom streets, he too sees the wave of development coming.

“I always use the illustration that water rises,” Thorpe said, raising his hands. “It raises everything that’s on the water.”

His mission includes bringing affordable housing to Mantua and improving schools. He is also working to bring a supermarket to an area that has been without one since 1992.

Thorpe said he is excited about the Promise Zone designation.

“As long as we’re making sure that our focus is on the community, making sure that everything we do is in line with our mission, I think it’s an amazing thing,” he said.

After the tour of the neighborhood, Drummond sat down inside the Charles L. Durham Branch of the Free Library and shared his feelings about the future. Drummond said he was optimistic about the Promise Zone initiative, and worries about the extra attention it could bring.

“I think change can be a good thing, but change can also be a hard thing,” he said. “Change can bring joy. But it could also bring trauma.”

Much of Mantua’s change centers around the fight for new zoning.

On Thursday, Drummond and other community members will gather at the Grace Lutheran Church at 3529 Haverford Ave. for a meeting on the proposed zoning change. The meeting is open to the public and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell is expected to attend.

“This is a big thing. This is the tangible thing that the community has been waiting for,” Drummond said.

To outsiders, the area between 31st and 40th streets is called Mantua. Drummond refers to his neighborhood as “the Bottom.”

He said, “In the Bottom, the only place we have to go is up.”

mearls@phillytrib.com (215) 893-5732

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