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.