Residents say Councilwoman Quinones-Sanchez turned her back on them.
The neighborhood looks like a diversity officer’s dream. White, black and Hispanic people can all be spotted on the same block. Competing Latin and punk music blares out of neighboring houses while hip-hop blasts from a car cruising down the street.
It’s also a poor neighborhood. According to 2007 census estimates, the median income is $16,237, and 47 percent of the community lives below poverty level.
The economics of the area show up in its considerable amount of vacant land. In between houses, schools and old factories lies plot after plot of unused space, the usual mixture of grass and concrete, gravel, glass and trash. In total, nearly 25 percent of the land in the neighborhood is empty.
Bounded by Girard and Diamond and Front and 10th Street, in places the neighborhood is called Norris Square, Ludlow, West Kensington or Old Kensington. Eastern North Philadelphia is a helpful blanket term to cover the whole area.
“Why don’t you just call it Northern Liberties II?” says resident Freddie Cuevas, drinking a Corona across the street from the Al-Asqa Islamic Society at Germantown and Jefferson. He’s only half-joking.
Gentrification is hitting the neighborhood hard, with pressure coming from Northern Liberties to the South, Fishtown to the East, and Temple University to the west. According to the Eastern North Philadelphia Coalition (ENPC), a group of churches, community groups and civic associations, the price for a typical house has risen from about $40,000 in 2001 to $250,000 or more in 2007.
“My Dad bought a house for seven grand in the 1970s,” Cuevas says. “Now it costs $250,000. There’s lots of vacant land but you can’t buy it. It’s too expensive.”
Year of decline and neglect have left the neighborhood short of vibrant public spaces, thriving businesses and local jobs and services. Meanwhile, development pressure from surrounding neighborhoods is ratcheting up housing prices and pushing out longtime residents.
ENPC has a plan to tackle both problems at once, to acquire vacant land to revitalize the area while maintaining affordable housing for local residents. However, they depend on the city to hand over the land, and they say Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez is giving them the cold shoulder.
“She’s afraid to meet with her constituents for some reason,” says Nora Lichtash, a member of ENCP’s leadership team. “We feel like she should meet with us and tell us why she can or can’t do this.”
ENCP wants to create a community land trust, in which the community would own the land and lease it to groups providing affordable housing, local businesses, and green space. They’ve made a plan, identified parcels to develop, and want the city to transfer certain vacant lots and buy others using Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI) money.
Land trusts can be effective in combating gentrification in the right circumstances, says Temple Professor Carolyn Adams. “A community that creates a land trust is trying to take a particular geographic location out of the marketplace so that its price is not affected by any upward movement in market values that might ultimately force gentrification in the community,” she says.
“There has to be a responsible and cohesive organization that sets out to ID an area, agrees that it’s an area they want to take out of the market, and that will work with property owners so the trust owns the land and the owners own the structures. You have to have a good quality organization that is coherent and can act as a permanent steward.”
ENCP, wanting to be that steward, held a community meeting about the land trust March 23 at Temple Presbyterian Church at 7th and Thompson, attended by nearly 200 people. Staffer Justin Diberardinis attended in Quiñones-Sánchez’s place, but the ENCP wasn’t satisfied and created fliers and postcards documenting the councilwoman’s absence. On March 25, members descended on her office in City Hall to demand her attention, but they missed her by five minutes.
Quiñones-Sánchez is not amused by the coalition’s antics. “I meet with them every three months. I’ve been very supportive of their proposals. I told them the month before I couldn’t attend because of budget hearings in light of the fact that the issue wasn’t time sensitive,” she says.
She controls $4.2 million in NTI funds and says she is willing to use it for ENCP’s goals. However, Mayor Nutter has temporarily frozen the funds pending a review by the City Controller.
“Am I willing to spend it? I have, and I will be,” she says.
In fact, the only NTI funds released by the councilwoman before the freeze were to the Evelyn Sanders Townhouses at 9th and Indiana through Women’s Community Revitalization Project, a member group of ENCP of which Lichtash is the director.
Further complicating matters, community development group Association Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM), is active in the area and may be competing for some of the same land parcels.
“APM just got nationally funded. They may already have projects on line,” Quiñones-Sánchez says.