Public Schools Versus Charter Schools

There are many issues that the candidates for the next mayor of Philadelphia are dealing with as they continue their campaigns. Some examples of issues that many citizens are concerned with include crime, taxes and jobs.

Another major issue, one that seems to be at the forefront of the upcoming election is education. If one would ask current Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, he would more than likely tell them that education is always an issue in this city.

The School District of Philadelphia operates with a $2.5 billion budget for over 220,000 students. This year, the school district is facing an $80 million deficit, and each candidate seems to have a different plan on how to deal with that deficit, as does current Mayor Nutter.

Mayor Nutter’s plan to deal with the school funding deficit calls for a raise in property taxes in the city, a plan that is opposed by all of the mayoral candidates.

At the heart of the education issue is the debate between public schools and charter schools, and which type should receive how much of the school district’s budget.

Approximately 31 percent of the schools that are part of the School District of Philadelphia are charter schools, and the remainder are public schools.

On the surface, it would appear that the candidates are attempting to sweep this debate under the rug. Democratic candidate Anthony Hardy Williams has said publicly that he is tired of beating up on one type of school. This is despite Williams’s campaign being backed by the Susquehanna International Group, which is known to be a proponent of charter schools.

Earlier on in the process, Williams also stated that he would be willing to accept a $35 million donation from the Philadelphia School Partnership, a non-profit advocacy group that is not associated with the school district. This $35 million donation would go towards increasing the number of seats in the city’s charter schools.

This suggests that Williams is on the pro-charter schools side of the debate, while some of his opponents, most notably Jim Kenney, are pro-public schools.

Kenney and Williams are on completely opposite ends of the debate when it comes to expanding charter schools.

According to Crowdpac, Kenney “supports the adoption of the community schools and a more aligned approach to delivering education and support to children.”

These community schools would be public schools placed in certain communities, and become centers for social and medical services for students and their families.

When Williams said he would accept a $35 million donation to increase the seats in charter schools, Kenney and other candidates opposed, saying that any donation should go towards charter schools and public schools equally.

The public versus charter debate is a hotly contested one, and many citizens have strong feelings for one particular type of school. Below is a visualization showing enrollment numbers, graduation numbers and dropout numbers for both public and charter schools in the 2012-2013 school year.

For these statistics, only schools that offer grades 7 through 12 were included, as those are the grades when some students will begin to potentially choose to drop out of school.

In Philadelphia in 2012-2013, public schools had a little more than twice as many 7th-12th grade students as charter schools. That is not much of a surprise, as charter schools have just recently started to grow in the city of Philadelphia.

The one common perception is that charter schools provide a better quality education, but some of the numbers, specifically graduation numbers, suggest otherwise.

As the visualization shows, 8,029 students graduated from public schools, compared to just 3,337 from charter schools. The number of public school graduates is greater on its own, but also when total enrollment is involved.

According to the data, 14.5 percent of public school students graduated, while just 12 percent of charter school students graduated. That does not seem like a big disparity, but when it comes to talking about tens of thousands of students, that’s very notable.

The piece of information that is positive for those who are pro-charter school is the dropout data. 1,402 students dropped out of public schools in 2012-2013. That is 92 percent of all dropouts that school year. Students who attend charter schools tend to stay there, and graduate in most cases.

While that information is positive for charter schools on the surface, it also makes a case for funding to go to public schools. In Philadelphia, there are public schools on the brink of closing. Many of the facilities need improvements, and the students do not receive the funding necessary for them to succeed.

All of the mayoral candidates agree that school funding is a major issue, but each has a different plan of attack. Some feel that adding charter schools is the way to go, while others would rather improve the current public schools.

When it comes to data and statistics, it appears that making improvements to the public schools is where the funding should go.

– Text and visualization by Jayson Loose

Changing landscapes: Looking to Philadelphia’s Promise Zone and University City for a way out of gentrification

A small, plain building sitting next to an open lot at 42nd and Lancaster Avenue might hold the start of major changes in the Belmont neighborhood. The building houses the New Africa Center, a museum showcasing people and organizations from the neighborhood that played a role in the African-American struggle for freedom, from abolition to emancipation to the Civil Rights era and today.

Abdul Rahim Muhammad, the executive director of the New Africa Center has a plan: rebrand the neighborhood to help preserve its history and identity as the processes of gentrification continue to alter the landscape of the community.

Recently designated one of President Obama’s Promise Zones, this area of Philadelphia was selected because roughly half of its 35,315 residents live below the poverty line. The Promise Zone initiative will focus on urban renewal through education, job creation and funding.

Muhammad wants to preserve the neighborhood’s identity in the face of the changes the Promise Zone funding may bring. Growing up a few blocks away from the Black Bottom, what is now called University City, he remembers tensions that brewed after the neighborhood received redevelopment attention decades ago.

“The branding for this is to make our footprint in the area to try and preserve that story,” he said.

If he can brand the neighborhood as the New Freedom District, Muhammad says this will help incorporate existing residents and create a smoother transition through the gentrification process. He said he hopes to work closely with University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University to collaborate on the transitions of the neighborhood while also retaining its original culture.

Remembering the Past

As University City continues to expand, Muhammad and others in the neighborhood remember the time of the Black Bottom. The Black Bottom got its name from its location and its residents: a primarily African American community, located at the bottom of West Philadelphia. Bounded on the east and west from 32nd to 40th streets, Powleton Avenue in the north and Chester Avenue to the south, the Black Bottom, or commonly called the Bottom by residents transformed from the 1950’s until the 1970’s as University of Pennsylvania revitalization projects focused heavily on the neighborhood.

In the early 1950’s, the G.I. Bill brought an influx of students and funding to the schools bordering the Black Bottom: University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and University of the Sciences. The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority deemed the neighborhood a “redevelopment zone and teaming up with Presbyterian Hospital, the universities formed the West Philadelphia Corporation in 1959. Purchasing abandoned houses from absentee landowners, the partnership boarded them up or demolished them, leaving empty lots and homes.

In 1963, the West Philadelphia Corporation summed-up their views of the neighborhood in A New Concept for Old Neighbors: “Physical and social ills began to grow amid substandard housing. Crime and juvenile delinquency reared their evil heads. Hoodlum gangs roamed the Powelton-Mantua area.”

As a result, the document said, students lived in the crime-riddled neighborhood, whereas faculty chose to live elsewhere. The tension between students and residents rose when in 1956, a Korean student was murdered by what the authors of the report called “hoodlums who roamed the area.”

Thus, University City was born.

But tension remained between the neighborhood residents and the University. “As some cultures and humans clashed over perceived scarce resources. Some individuals and groups saw the opportunity to profit from the needs and struggles over land,” Dr. Walter Palmer, an instructor at University of Pennsylvania and a former resident of the Black Bottom wrote about the neighborhood’s history.

Adding to this tension, the city declared parts of the neighborhood blighted and used eminent domain to seize property and redevelop the land in the 1970’s. Over 2,000 black residents were displaced during this process of neighborhood beautification and university unification.

Not all former residents were upset by these changes. Resident Gloria Bickerstaff, 62, has lived in the area her entire life and saw the Bottom’s transition to University City.

“It was racial but now it’s together. The black and white, we are all together. I love it now more than back in the day. There was fights, stabbings and shootings. Everything was going on back in the day. Now we are more peaceful. I love it the way it is now,” Bickerstaff said.

Before the gentrification process, the neighborhood was unsafe, Bickerstaff said. “When I was growing up I got raped. But people didn’t care about us because I was down the bottom. It wasn’t like somebody was watching out for me like here,” she said.

The neighborhood, Bickerstaff said, is now far safer. Her current neighbors watch her as she leaves in the morning for work and makes sure she gets home safely.

An Ongoing Process

As the universities continue grow in student population and real estate, old wounds bleed anew.
“This area is changing. And just like the Black Bottom, and all this gentrification people are talking about going on right now and this urban renewal, it’s all good. But many times there’s still a lot of unfair and unjust things that take place,” Muhammad said.

So Muhammad and his allies plan to fight for the neighborhood. The New Freedom District idea was originally born out of conversations and meetings with community members when the area was declared to be a Promise Zones early last year.

During meetings with The People’s Emergency Center, residents discussed what they wanted for their neighborhood. What came of these meetings, Muhammad said, was a desire to preserve neighborhood identity. And with that, the idea of rebranding Lancaster Avenue as The New Freedom District was born.

Muhammad, 63, has lived in the area his entire life. He grew up during the Civil Rights movement. His father knew Malcolm X, whom he remembers watching preach about the struggle their community faced and coming over for lunch with his family. His father was so instrumental in the community that two Philadelphia murals were painted in his image.

Muhammad said he wants to turn the New Africa Center into a five-story facility that would offer a museum on the first floor, a business, arts and technology center on the second floor and low-income housing on the third. Already the space is used as a museum and the lot across the street is used as a soup-kitchen and venue for community concerts, programs, and movie screenings.

The area is rich in history and Muhammad plans to preserve the cultural heritage by offering tours of the neighborhood, which will focus on the abolitionist movement, the Quakers, and the civil rights history.

Working with others in the community, he has identified forty places in Belmont, Mantua and Powelton Village to include on the New Freedom District tours. Some stops on his future tour include The Old Quaker Building at 35th and Lancaster, The Martin Luther King Jr. memorial marker and Mural, the Underground Railroad and the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“Philadelphia is a tourist mecca and so my hope is that if we design this Freedom District and develop nice tours and preserve our story in a nice museum we can help create jobs,” he said.

While his museum currently has a focus on African-American muslims in the community, he wants to expand it to include African churches as well to show visitors the important role the faith community has played in organizing and supporting the area over its rich history, connecting current conditions to a long cultural heritage.

“These churches were founded by the Mother Bethel churches in the early 1800s. The whole idea was these people distinguished themselves as Africans and they weren’t calling themselves ‘colored’ and they weren’t calling themselves ‘Negros.’ In my generation we would say the Negro is nothing but a product of slavery. There wasn’t such thing as Negroes before slavery. Negroes were branded and so brutally treated, having no access to education or their own cultural links. Society told our people that we were inferior and we weren’t even human beings. These African churches show that these people thought of themselves as African and they were connected to their culture,” Muhammad said.

Muhammad said the community is already feeling the effects of gentrification due to increased property taxes in the last three years and worries about these community members who are slowly being pushed out under the banner of gentrification.

“People need to find ways to still accommodate people that have been left out. Social issues need to be addressed,” he said.

All Aboard?

Not everyone believes in the promise of the Promise Zone. Jennifer Johnson is a Temple University graduate student focusing on ceramics. A 53-year-old white woman from Powelton Village, Johnson has been closely following the developments in the neighborhood.

“The Promise Zone is crazy. It includes the University of Pennsylvania Law School. That is crazy to me. The University of Pennsylvania Law School runs Philadelphia. Every kind of middle class politician and above comes out of there. It is the seed of power in the city and the fact it got into the promise zone just boggles my mind,” she said.

Johnson decided to do something different to help preserve the neighborhood in the face of changes driven by growth at the universities.

The West Philadelphia University City High School and the University of Pennsylvania created a mosaic memorializing Black Bottom’s gentrification struggles in the late 1990’s. The mosaic, now chipped and in need of restoration, showed African-Americans in front of a row of homes putting their hands up as a bulldozer drew near. It also included a map of the Black Bottom and a heart with two hands holding onto each other.

With a putty knife and a mallet, Johnson removed the mosaic by herself in one week.

“It’s in terrible condition and I had a week to do it in. It is pretty intact and most importantly the heart and the hand came off in one piece. I was so excited I started screaming,” she said.

After saving more than 60 percent of the original mural, she is meeting with the high school’s alumni association to solidify a plan for the mural’s final resting place.

“I feel this obligation to the work and it seems really meaningful to me. My choice is to reinstall it on that site. That would be the dream. It has this huge narrative potential,” she said.

Johnson said the neighborhood should include more mixed income housing, where rich and poor people of all races mix on a daily basis. “That’s what the city used to be but I think we are moving to another city, like an apartheid city,” she said.

Quinton J. Alexander, 31, is an improv comedian who performs at the Community Education Center’s Meeting House Theatre in University City. He echoed similar concerns to Johnson about pushing out existing communities.

“We should be concentrating on the communities that are here now instead of forcing out the people that are already there,” he said.

Living in Newbold neighborhood, a recently rebranded neighborhood once known as Point Breeze, he said that rebranding efforts there led to the pushing out of existing residents instead of working to include them in the redevelopment processes.

Alexander’s comedy partner, Elizabeth Reindl, 23, recently graduated from Temple University with a degree in graphic design. She lives near Temple’s campus and noticed similar problems happening in that area.

“You want progress and you want things to get nicer but then there’s all those people that get left behind. I think you need to start with education and try to bring everybody up and get everybody to that level before you move forward,” Reindl said.

A Call For Government Support

Gregory Heller, the CEO of American Communities Trust, has over a decade of experience in community and economic development, real estate, planning and policy work. He has worked closely with Mayor Nutter on reform and discussed how to create a more seamless transition for neighborhoods undergoing gentrification.

“The biggest shortcoming I see in Philadelphia is that we have a very weak leadership in the business sector. I blame the mayor for that in part because somebody needs to be getting these folks together and say that it’s their responsibility to step up and invest in our city,” Heller said.

In many other cities, large companies located in the area invest millions of dollars into neighborhood revitalization projects, he said. Philadelphia’s major corporations, such as Comcast and Wells Fargo, tend not to invest in civic projects, he said.

“They should be giving big multi-million dollar grants each year that are combined with matching donations from the William Penn Foundation to fund big civic projects in Philadelphia,” he said.

Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate of the top ten big cities in the country. At the same time, Philadelphia has the highest rate of home ownership for low-income people.

If property values increase in a gentrifying neighborhood, low-income homeowners may permanently climb out of poverty through increasing equity. Focusing on supporting low-income homeowners is one of the best ways Heller sees Philadelphia moving forward. While there are programs in place to help low-income residents stay in their homes, many are unaware of the programs, he said.

The Low-Income/Hardship Payment Agreement offers multiple ways for long time homeowners to gain financial support when a neighborhood gentrifies and homes start to become unaffordable. The Longtime Owner Occupants Program offers property tax discounts.

Eligible low-income senior citizens may qualify for a Property Tax Freeze. This permanently freezes the homeowners property taxes until the time of sale or transfer so that they don’t suffer financial hardship from rapid tax increases.

“I think the city needs a legislative effort to strengthen these programs as much as they can and then a robust marketing effort to get the information about those programs out into neighborhoods that are starting to see rises in property taxes,” Heller said.

Heller said that every neighborhood in the city, including Belmont and Mantua, should have a team that would go door-to-door to disseminate this kind of information. Teams should also give property owners estimates of what their homes will be worth in the near future so that they can make a more informed decision when developers come knocking and ready to buy, Heller said.

As the city grows and neighborhoods change, the processes of gentrification can create uncomfortable tensions between existing residents and those trying to create cleaner and safer neighborhoods. Maybe there will never be a right answer, but, as history has shown, there are patterns. The patterns are complicated and the issues are different for everyone, but by looking back as Philadelphia looks forward, leaders, developers and citizens may find a way to restructure the restructuring process.

– Text and images by By Sarah Fry.

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Students break down “The Philadelphia Budget”

“It is important to know what is important to you when voting,” according to “The Philadelphia Budget,” a multimedia site created by the Photography Seminar class of 2015 from the Temple University Journalism Department.

budgetsite“The (upcoming mayoral primary) election will determine who drafts and proposes the budget,” according to the site, which explains that: “This will ultimately affect how money is spent within Philadelphia.”

The project identifies topics on which the candidates have stated positions, including education, poverty, crime and job growth, while the section of the site strive to answer the questions: “How Does the Budget Work?” and “Why Should You Care?

The “Affected Faces” section is also viewable as a book called “Money Talks.”

Millennials: Looking to the Northeast for clues about civic engagement

Above: Children play at the Tip Top Playground in Northern Liberties.

Pipeline Philly, a coworking space in Center City, is playfully stylish. The conference room overlooks City Hall and in the finished kitchen, the chrome of the espresso maker reflects the accent colored red bar stools. A weathered brown leather punching bag hangs from the ceiling and Chris Krewson, the editor of Billy Penn, encourages everyone to have some hummus before settling in for “The State of the City: A Conversation with the Pew Charitable Trusts,” an event hosted on April 7th by Billy Penn.

“There are two futures being written for Philadelphia right now. One of them is being written in Center City. The other is being written in the Northeast,” says writer and journalist Sandy Smith to the gathered crowd.

The event was planned to discuss key findings from PEW’s annual assessment of Philadelphia, with a specific focus on “what the numbers say about the city’s strengths and its challenges for millennials.”

Pipeline is painstakingly hip, but the men and women gathered for the event are slightly older than the environment would suggest. As the discussion made the quick loop from ‘What are the millennials doing here?’ to ‘Will they stay?’ it became clear that this event was about the millennials, not necessarily for them.

According to the Pew study, 54 percent of millennials consider Philadelphia “an excellent or good place to live,” which makes sense. Philadelphia was recently ranked #3 on The New York Times list of best places to visit in 2015. The population is booming, as is tourism, but things that bring tourists to Philadelphia don’t necessarily encourage young people to stay and raise families.

Smith, a Harvard grad, who occasionally writes for Hidden City Daily and Phillymag.com says, “I think something none of us are thinking about – and the planners and builders of Auto Age suburbs certainly didn’t – are neighborhoods that can accommodate people at all life stages.”

Northern Liberties, a neighborhood just outside Center City, nestled between Fishtown and Fairmount, has a population made up of between 30 and 40 percent millennials. The dog parks, restaurants, boutique shops, and small, pricey Piazza apartments are targeted at this demographic. On the corner of West Allen Street and Hope Street, is one of the neighborhood’s few child friendly areas, Tip Top playground. Children occasionally swing on the dilapidated swing set. The area is very popular, however, with dog owners, who let their dogs off leash to play fetch in the hockey rink, and jazz bands practicing for the Mummers parade.

According to Pew, “only 36 percent of millennials said they would recommend the city as a place to raise children, while 56 percent would not. With many young adults starting to raise families or thinking about doing so, this view is a not a positive sign.”

Children plan in the Sister Cities Fountain on the Ben Franklin Parkway
Children plan in the Sister Cities Fountain on the Ben Franklin Parkway

What could be a positive sign, however, is the redevelopment of certain areas of the city, aiming to make green spaces more family friendly. Logan Square, a historic area located on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, recently revamped the Sister Cities Park.

On one of the first warm days on spring, small children dart through the fountains, wade in the boat pond, and form an impatient line in front of the pop-up Rita’s Water Ice stand. The Free Library of Philadelphia, only a block away, has set up an outdoor children’s library by the Logan Square Café and parents sit in the grass, reading to their children.

When, though, does this become a community, rather than a weekend attraction? This is the test that Center City desperately needs to pass. With more and more green areas cropping up, it’s clear that this development is aimed at encouraging people to put down roots. Once rooted, it may be more difficult, or less appealing, to move away.

“You think about New York City,” says Dr. Judith Stull, a sociologist who teaches at both Temple University and LaSalle University. “Manhattan is the place to be if you can afford it, but if you can’t afford it you go to Brooklyn. It’s economic in terms of how much housing can you afford. If you want a big house but you can’t afford the schooling then you go to the suburbs. On average, the suburbs do a better job.”

Safer neighborhoods, better schools, and more space rank high on the list of motiving factors to leave the city. What the millennials are asking for, although not in so many words, is a sense of community. Despite efforts within Center City to establish this sense, it’s already established farther out, in Northeast Philadelphia.

In Burlhome, Marian Fruehwald is the neighborhood cookie mom. A Girl Scout leader for the past fifteen years, she started when her oldest daughter, Kate, was in the second grade. Her husband, Franz, is a Boy Scout leader, continuing even after both of their sons were grown. They met as undergrads at LaSalle University and raised their children not far from where they grew up. Their involvement in the Scouts, as well as other aspects of the community, have kept them from moving, even after their youngest daughter left for college.

“Once in, if we run a good program, they usually stay,” Mrs. Fruehwald says of her troop. “We have six high schoolers at present. We do deal with girls who have multiple activities. It is ok to miss meetings for practices, rehearsal or homework; that is a fact of life. These days we keep in contact with the girls about what we are working on, so it is their option to keep up. Our program is girl driven. We had years where all the girls wanted to do was crafts so that is what we did. There have been times when they wanted to go places, so that is what we did. They are always interested in eating! If you do what they are interested in they stay.”

This seems to be the tact that groups and organizations in Center City are currently trying. Keeping millennials interested may keep them stationary. The Northeast has certainly seen success in this, with their longstanding religious and social affiliations rooting people to their communities.

The Fruehwalds, like their neighbors, are active members of the parish. Mr. Fruehwald is Eucharistic minister and brings communion to home-bound members of the community. He also teaches Sunday school classes at St. Cecilia’s Church, one of the largest and most successful parishes in the Northeast. While other Catholic schools are combining, St. Cecilia’s has no trouble filling pews and classrooms.

The Fruehwald’s sit in the same row every Sunday, Blessed Mother side, in front of the Baptismal font. Certain families, ones that have put all of their children through the same school and have deep ties to the area, all seem to have their own pew, unofficially reserved. Mr. Fruehwald, recognizable in his signature beret, walks their manically friendly golden retriever, Daisy, twice a day, and uses this time to keep up to date with the neighbors, people he has known for almost twenty years.

Half of the 20- to 34-year-olds questioned in a recent Pew study said that they didn’t see themselves staying in Philadelphia for more than five to ten years. According to the study, “The millennials cited job and career reasons, school and child-rearing concerns, and crime and public safety as the primary reasons for their potential departures.”

Fred Moore, a member of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network, says, “It seems pretty rare that any community in the metropolitan area stays together long enough to form a tight social fabric.” A tight social fabric is exactly what keeps people tied to the Northeast neighborhoods, and it’s something Center City is trying to replicate.

The Petco Unleashed at 2nd and Girard is having a ‘Paw Art’ event – bring your pet and use their paws and some paint to create an 8” x 10” painting. The Raven Society, an offshoot of the Free Library of Philadelphia geared towards millennials, is hosting a Rooftop Biergarten on May 18th. Indego recently put a bike station at 2nd and Germantown Avenue, part of their initiative to bring bike shares to Philadelphia. The stocky blue bikes are more likely to be spotted being ridden than parked in their stations. Log-on to Philly MeetUp and find groups for everything from pickleball enthusiasts and mommy and me outings, to a knitting group near you.

Philly MeetUp, the Raven Society, and Young Involved Professionals are only a few of the groups in Center City that are based on fostering civic and community involvement in the millennial population.

Rachel Mancini, an events coordinator at Al Dia, Philadelphia’s Latino-focused news organization, says that they are “invested in making sure that young students and individuals feel compelled to stay in Philadelphia.”

They’re gearing up to host an event called the Diversity Career Fair on Thursday, May 19th in The Hub Commerce Square. This event will feature a resume station, a LinkedIn headshot booth, and a networking luncheon. One of the scheduled speakers, Max Conaboy of YIP, will be speaking about millennial involvement in the city.

“Millennials are actually are the core of our Career Fair. We’ve been targeting college-aged students and young professionals in our outreach and promotions. All of the speakers and workshops were conceived with younger career seekers in mind. Our events – and editorial content for that matter in our newspaper AL DÍA News and our website aldianews.com – seek to capture the next generation. There is definitely a substantial movement happening here in Philadelphia to build the foundation for young people to stay and remain involved in this city,” Mancini says.

With all of this effort directed at keeping millennials in the city, could it be possible that the next wave of flight to the suburbs will be small one? Can young people be tempted to stay in the city limits?

“They never have,” says Dr. Stull. “The gentrification cycle, the movement is continuously moving outwards. You have Center City, and then you have the zone of transition – it’s changing but it hasn’t changed.”

Therein lies the problem. While great improvements have been made to the infrastructure of the city, it’s just not enough to make much of a difference. Instead of staying to fix a broken system – like the school system – millennials are choosing to move to areas that already have the established services they need.

“The public school system does a better job than private schools but what you have in the city of Philadelphia, unfortunately, is this vast underclass that’s been left behind so people don’t have faith in the public school system,” says Stull.

“You learn from history. It just reprises itself in slightly different forms, with a slightly different constellation. It’s already happened in different ways in other times. As the city boundaries change, what is suburb and what is city, by definition, changes. There’s an inevitable press to move further out, where you get space and where you get schools.”

While the Pew studies find that “the millennials’ affection for Philadelphia is conditional. And for the city, the stakes in meeting those conditions are very high.” It’s safe to say that efforts are being made. Only time will tell, however, if those efforts prove fruitful.

A child runs through the parking lot at St. Cecilia’s Church in Northeast Philadelphia.
A child runs through the parking lot at St. Cecilia’s Church in Northeast Philadelphia.

– Text and images by By Alexandria Peachey.

African-American activists discuss mayoral election

Hip-hop artist and activist Pili X, and poet and activist Malik Amari share their thoughts on what they want from Philadelphia’s next mayor. Primary elections are scheduled for May 19th. Reporting from Temple University: Terrence Oliver.

Small business owner struggles to keep up

Some small business owners are still recovering from the recession. In Center City, barber Anthony Di Reno says it’s hard to keep up with rising taxes. Reporting for TUTV: Phil DuPont in Center City.

Zoning: How the Next Mayor Can Help Enforce the New Code

Officials in Philadelphia city government expect a certain type of person to object when a new development project comes up for public hearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment or the City Planning Commission, says Joe Schiavo, chair of the zoning committee at the Philadelphia Crosstown Coalition. And for the most part, that stereotype is grounded in experience.

For all the effort and time it takes to show up at a meeting on a weekday and wait through hearings on unrelated projects just to learn, as is often the case, that the hearing you’re interested in will be postponed, the process weeds out those whose passion can be quelled by inconvenience. The rare few who make it through the slog can come off as hysterical, fist-pounding NIMBYites, because they shout and scream, point fingers at officials and, in fact, pound their fists on tables.

Joe Schiavo is not one of these stereotypical objectors, though over the last fourteen years he has become a self-described “zoning geek” and has worked in a number of roles to preserve the character of the Old City neighborhood where he has lived and worked since 1981.

“It’s interesting that in my many attempts to reach out to city council and the mayor, about zoning issues among other things, they’ve been startled that I’ve approached them from a rational perspective. This says a lot about how they see the public,” Schiavo says.

But city government’s apparent surprise, which might offend some, hasn’t changed Schiavo’s approach.

At a recent meeting of the Philadelphia Crosstown Coalition, which represents 19 neighborhood civic groups from across the city, Schiavo showed just how unruffled he can remain even when discussing the maddening world of zoning in the city. Of all the coalition members, most of whom are lawyers and all of whom are well-educated and knowledgeable about city policies, Schiavo was the coolest. He remained calm as he spoke for more than a half hour about the tangled dysfunction of the zoning system, which he has attempted to navigate on the coalition’s behalf.

The other members who commented during Schiavo’s talk were flustered with the inconsistencies. Their voices rose as they described the backward appeals and variance processes for new developments. Others listened as they leaned back in cushioned office chairs around the long, polished board table at the law offices of Aston Kill in the PNC Bank Building on Market Street. Schiavo sat forward in his chair and wore a sleek black turtleneck, his close cropped hair and precise diction betraying his earlier life as a retailer of fine European furniture and lighting. He looked and sounded unlike nearly anyone else in the room, yet he seemed at ease and more sure of the intricacies and jargon of zoning than many of those with law degrees who sat around the table.

As Ryan Briggs reported in City Paper last year, after nearly six years of attempted reform under Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration, the Zoning Board of Adjustment still spends an inordinate amount of time and money hearing requests for variances to the newly updated zoning code. Briggs showed that the ZBA’s metrics for granting variances were unclear, often favoring requests that include off-street parking that disrupts pedestrian flow, but refusing requests that exceed the height restrictions or density limits in the code. Lawyers familiar with zoning regulations told Briggs that city council members got their hands on the updated code before it was finished, adding unnecessary complexity which has resulted in the continued dysfunction of the board.

Schiavo, who closely followed the creation of the new code over the last four years, says the problem lies not with the content of the code, but with how it’s applied. “I think the zoning code is good. But a new zoning code doesn’t fix our problems if the culture doesn’t change with it,” he says.

Coalition members say Schiavo and his committee are key in navigating these complexities. Ilene Wilder, chair of the coalition’s communications committee, and a former DC lobbyist, says Schiavo’s confidence and clarity comes with experience. “These guys, like Joe, really enjoy what they’re doing here. They’re good at translating the legal language so the rest of us can understand it. And someone like Joe, who is retired, uses the coalition to keep his hand in the game.”

Sam Little, an architect and former president of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, says Schiavo warned him and others in his group about how proposed changes to the zoning code might affect their neighborhood. Though they didn’t know it at first, the changes could allow a 12-story building to be built right next to a three-story townhouse. Schiavo helped Little and the LSNA draft and present a letter to city council to voice their concerns.

But Schiavo, who says civic engagement was not something he grew up with, did not arrive fully-formed as a dispassionate zoning geek. It took a creeping change in the neighborhood where he lived and did business for decades to spur him to action.

*

Schiavo and his partner, Janet Kalter, established their furniture and lighting business, OLC, on North 3rd Street in Old City back in 1981, just as the neighborhood started to change. In 1986, William A. Kingsley, then-president of the Old City Civic Association, told the New York Times that the shift from the 1970s, when the neighborhood was mostly wholesale retail and light industry, to the mid-1980s, when it became the center of Philadelphia “yuppiedom,” was dramatic. One developer, at the time, compared Old City to New York’s SoHo.

For Schiavo and Kalter this first wave of changes couldn’t have been more welcome. Who better to market their fine European furniture and lighting fixtures to than young professionals looking for Philly’s answer to one of New York’s trendiest neighborhoods?

But then the neighborhood kept changing. Through the 1990s and into the early-2000s more than 100 restaurants and bars opened in Old City, many of them clustered around Chestnut Street. Schiavo says he saw this process gradually transform his burgeoning residential and high-end retail neighborhood into a magnet for out-of-town late-night revelers. For most, the shift was imperceptible. First, small cafes and restaurants opened in the neighborhood. When those establishments grew to at least 30 seats, they applied for liquor licenses, grew even larger and transformed into bars and clubs that stayed open until 2 a.m., blasting music, their fist-pumping patrons spilling out into the streets.

“The cumulative negative effects – public drunkenness, public urination, fights, stabbings, shootings, late night noise nuisance and vandalism – all of [that] was having a detrimental effect on the quality of life for our residents. Some of us were concerned about the potentially negative impacts of hosting any more of those [bars and night clubs],” Schiavo says.

As his concerns grew, Schiavo joined the Old City Civic Association in 2001 and started down the path to zoning geekdom.

And like a true geek, Schiavo describes the complexities of zoning with a metaphor, well, actually two metaphors. In the first, Schiavo depicts the zoning code and its many neighborhood overlays as a number of transparencies laid over each other on top of a map of the city. Each one of these transparencies changes how development is governed in the underlying areas. The second metaphor is less exact, but perhaps more evocative. Decoding the zoning code, Schiavo says, is like peeling back the layers of an onion. And like the metaphorical onion, zoning regulations make most people want to cry.

But not Schiavo.

For him, the process is straightforward, if not without significant problems. When a developer wants to build in Philadelphia, they must follow the zoning code. As the regulations are written, if the developer believes the zoning code presents a significant hardship for developing their property, they can request a variance from the ZBA. This variance details how the developer wishes to break the code. The problem is that developers and the ZBA have stretched the meaning of “hardship” to include economic factors, Schiavo says.

“The variance request should address something unique to the property being developed,” Schiavo says. A legitimate hardship, under the code, could include topographical features, such as hills or waterways, which make it very difficult to build on the property according to the rules of the code. But developers request, and are often granted, variances for both size and commercial use, based on maximizing their profits.

Many developers wish to exceed the height or square footage restrictions built into the zoning code and request variances to do so. The bigger the residential or commercial space, the more money the developer can make on the property. Others, like the proprietors of those restaurants-turned-bars in Old City, want to skirt the zoning code because it stands in the way of their business plans.

“When someone wants to propose a 12-story building in a three-story neighborhood, it’s upsetting. You have to ask if the project is in contextual scale,” Schiavo says. In Old City, for example, the overlay to the zoning code restricts developers from building structures over 75 feet wide. This part of the code preserves the nature of the neighborhood: packed with row houses and larger, but still varied, residential buildings with first-floor retail and businesses. Without the code, a developer could buy up a string of adjacent properties, demolish them and build a massive, wide, uniform structure, changing the look and feel of the streetscape.

The way Schiavo explains it, zoning may be a needlessly complicated issue, but influential developers have an even more backdoor way to receive a variance to the code. City council, in special circumstances, can grant such variances through legislation. In these cases, having someone like Schiavo review bills dealing with zoning is essential, says Wilder, the coalition’s communications chair. “We have the benefit of these people who can interpret these bills. Especially someone like Joe, who is so thorough. And even more important than interpreting what is in the legislation is knowing to look for what’s left out,” she says.

Most developers don’t need to go the route of legislation though, as the ZBA grants nearly 80 percent of developers’ variance requests, according to Schiavo. This record of lenience with the code adds to the frustration and sense of futility with which most people approach the variance appeals process. “People who attend these [ZBA] meetings think decisions have already been made, that the rules are dictated by the applicants. Even I always expect to lose. But I go in hoping to at least pause the process,” Schiavo says.

Despite this seeming futility, Schiavo still sees the ZBA appeals process as vital in any community’s struggle to retain its character.

Neighborhood groups like the Old City Civic Association play another key role in this process. Before a variance request is even heard by the ZBA, a registered community organization – usually a civic non-profit group – informs people in the neighborhood of the request and holds a meeting where private citizens can voice their concerns directly to the developer. If the variance falls within a certain threshold of breaking the zoning code – in other words, if it’s not too egregious – the stakeholders then meet as part of a process called the Civic Design Review, where an advisory board will hear each party’s testimony and make recommendations to the ZBA.

Sam Little, the former president of the Philadelphia Crosstown Coalition says frequently the developers get what they want early in this process, with residents agreeing to the variance even before it’s heard by the ZBA.

Still, the most controversial variance requests often move beyond these meetings. And although the members of the ZBA make the final decisions about whether to grant a variance or not, the dysfunction of the system comes from the top, Schiavo says. “You have to change the culture of land use decision-making in the city of Philadelphia. We’ve changed the code, but not the culture.” Schiavo proposes that the mayor, whether it be Nutter or his successor, set a mandate that not more than 15 percent of variance requests be granted. Variances, after all, are a deviation from the plan.

“The goals of the ZBA should be the goals of city government, not the goals of the developers,” Schiavo says.

But Schiavo’s experience over the last few years has been anything but indicative of a change in the way development and zoning works in the city. Back in 2006, Schiavo and his partner sold their business to two of their employees. This gave him more time and energy to invest in his work with the Old City Civic Association as the chair of its liquor license committee and vice-chair of its development committee. Then in May of 2013, after 40 years of activism, the association disbanded after lawsuits filed by disgruntled developers made it impossible for the nonprofit to insure its directors and officers. Schiavo has since been a vocal supporter of State Senator Larry Farnese’s Anti-SLAPP legislation, which would protect individuals and civic groups from such frivolous legal actions.

Ironically, though he now serves as the chair of the zoning committee for the Philadelphia Crosstown Coalition, Schiavo cannot become an official member of the coalition. After all, it’s a coalition of civic groups and Old City, where he still lives, no longer has a civic group to represent it.

– Text by by Michael Buozis.

– Photograph of Joe Schiavo by Anna Hiatt, Courtesy of The Truth About Trees.

Grays Ferry Wants Change From New Mayor

“They need to do something for the kids in this area,” Joe Finnegan said. “They don’t have anything to do. There need to be more playgrounds and after school programs. There has to be jobs for these young kids coming out of high school as well. With all this crime, parents have to be more responsible for their kids, then there wouldn’t be as many of these problems.”

The impact that the next mayor of Philadelphia will have on the city will be felt heavily by neighborhoods that are under-serviced. One such place is Grays Ferry, located in South Philadelphia. This once stable, Irish-Catholic community has been marred by racial tensions, crime and economic despair since the 1970’s.

This hardship is still felt in the present day. Lifetime resident Dave Renna remembered better times.

“This neighborhood used to be nice,” Renna said. “You had so many corner stores, a bakery right down the street, stuff like that. Everybody knew each other and watched each other’s back.”

Renna also highlighted the policies that have affected the residents economically.

“We need to get money back in the neighborhood,” Renna said. “(Mayor) Nutter’s trying to get funding in too many different ways. I’m a smoker, and he put a two-dollar tax on the cigarettes. I pay school taxes, and he’s hurting everyday people economically. Why should we suffer?”

Despite these complaints on the current city administration, there is hope from the Grays Ferry community that changes could come from a new mayor. The favorite candidate throughout the neighborhood seems to be former Philadelphia City Councilman James Kenney. Lifetime neighborhood resident Carroll McCollum weighed in on why Kenney has garnered the support.

“He has the support of the fireman, cops and teachers,” McCollum said. “I think he would be the best for the whole city, not just Grays Ferry. We need a mayor that’s going to stand up and say, ‘let’s be a city again’.”

Similar to Renna, McCollum has complaints with the current administration.

“Nutter’s more concerned about his image than anything else,” McCollum said. “He’s handcuffed in certain areas, but in some situations, like the education funding, a better job could be done. Now people around here have to send their kids to Catholic schools that cost ten thousand-dollars-per-year.”

Another prevalent issue for the residents of Grays Ferry is housing. The residents mentioned that the University of Pennsylvania, located directly across the Schuylkill River from the neighborhood has promised for years to expand. In theory, this would allow infrastructure to be improved, and have prospective homebuyers congregate to Grays Ferry.

Finnegan, a former resident of the community, commented on the importance of this issue.

“We’ve been ignored for a long time,” Finnegan said. “There’s Section 8 housing, absentee landlords all over the place. They don’t fix the properties, they all fall apart and then the tenants don’t have the money needed to fix it up themselves. If Penn follows through with what they’ve been saying for years, then hopefully that could mark an improvement.”

With the crime prevalent in the neighborhood, Finnegan also believes that it is important to keep the youth occupied in productive ways. He noted that doing
this would benefit younger people in the community. As a new father in the city, he wants it for his own family, and others in the same situation.

Ultimately, the new mayor of Philadelphia will have to make policies for the entire city, and not just the community of Grays Ferry. What these residents of the neighborhood highlighted, showed the concern that they have for the preservation of their home. Whether change will come or not, it is equally important that people like this care about where they live. That is the first step.

– Text and image by Patrick Smith.

Voters discuss poverty at Temple University

Voters on the main campus of Temple University discuss how poverty will shape the election of the next mayor in Philadelphia, one of the poorest cities in the nation. Reporting for TUTV: Nicholas Cutrona at Temple University.