By Jay A. McCalla
On May 2, there was fire in the Point Breeze section of our city, damaging several properties that were under construction. While the fire was first noticed slightly after midnight, it was lit several years ago and allowed to smolder to this point of ignition.
The residents of Point Breeze have long been the victims of all sorts of disinvestment. Their purchasing power declined along with employment opportunities. Paychecks became unemployment checks. Unemployment checks ran out. What followed was everything you’d expect to happen in a neighborhood that is quickly growing poorer.
The fact that Point Breeze is largely African American means the residents were additionally aggrieved by what they knew to be disadvantages they suffered merely because of skin color. Being poor and black is no picnic.
Einstein’s Theory of Relativity may be colloquially stated as “one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.” Such was the case with Point Breeze. As property values plummeted and abandonment spread, it became ripe for investors who could buy cheaply, develop and sell at a handsome profit. This behavior is ominously known as “gentrification” and sends chills up the spines of long-term residents of declining neighborhoods and provokes deep resentment in others who feel themselves being forced out in favor of folks who enjoy superior social privileges. They know their replacements won’t pay real estate taxes for a decade.
This is the Point Breeze that developer Ori Feibush met several years ago when he decided to execute classic investment strategies that are ancient and reliable. His vision was a renewed neighborhood with amenities and rising property values. Ori is neither shy nor retiring. He may, in fact, be “driven.” In addition to being the area’s most prominent developer, aka gentrifier, he ran for City Council against the incumbent African American.
The heated, expensive, high profile race between Ori and incumbent Kenyatta Johnson became just another forum for pro-development (pro-Ori) neighbors to face off against their opponents. The campaign was messy and emotional, with former Mayor Nutter calling Ori a “little jerk” and other, lower characters making statements that were openly anti-Semitic (Feibush is Jewish).
The May 2 fire has been in the making for years and was exacerbated by people who should have known better. There was zero leadership by a Mayor, Council people-at-large, or the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission.
Cities are citadels of differences. Religions, colors and accents churn in their midsts to create the dynamism that is New York, Paris and our Philadelphia. A commitment to serve or help lead a city must include a sincere interest in managing the “churn.” This is where we have failed miserably.
Our city government must become willing to engage changing neighborhoods so that fear and anger is tempered with facts and benefits. Long-term residents are likely to see an explosion in their home equity. The city must provide safe ways for these low income residents to access that new wealth and enjoy their lives more. These residents must also be assured that skyrocketing property taxes won’t reduce them to eating dog food. There must be formal, calming voices that thwart those who would be demagogues or fomenters of fear.
Gentrification is a fact of life in older cities and overcasts neighborhoods that have hit bottom or are in the shadow of expanding institutions such as Penn, Drexel, La Salle. One of the more unfortunate side effects of “Council prerogative” is that local “politics” is left to the appropriate District Councilperson. Zoning issues and property disposition impact the scope and speed of gentrification and those two items are in their hands. This can be grievously problematic when the councilperson has a stake in, or beef with, a given developer. They become part of the problem and cannot be relied upon as fair moderators of the “churn.”
Great cities must take great care in guiding their development so investors are welcomed and resulting disruptions are deliberately assuaged. Surely, our firefighters would appreciate the change in approach.
Jay A. McCalla is a former deputy managing director and chief of staff for Philadelphia City Council. He does political commentary on WURD900AM and contributes to Philadelphia Magazine. He can be followed and reached on Twitter @jayamccalla1.