There Goes the Neighborhood

As gentrification pushes northward, a community of survivors is slowly displaced.

By Kia Gregory
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 26, 2005

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In the '40s right through to the early '60s North Philadelphia reflected the city's burgeoning middle class, a large swath of land bumping up against the heart of the city.

But then came flight, followed by blight, and now most people think of North Philadelphia as hell on earth, the scourge of society.

Trash. Drugs. Blight. Poverty. Shootings. Robberies. Gangs. Rapists.

It's the cancer that's kept Philadelphia from being a first-class city. A place that would be better off bulldozed.

In reality, of course, North Philadelphia has always been a far more complex place. It's not one neighborhood, but many.

Some neighborhoods are hopelessly lost, and others struggle to keep their grip. But there are also blocks and blocks where dignity has always ruled, where homes are well-maintained and neighbors pull together.

But now North Philadelphia, both the Godforsaken and the handsomely preserved, is disappearing.

It's disappearing near Temple, where the university is ever expanding, and in Fairmount, Fishtown and Northern Liberties, where private developers are investing millions. It's disappearing in targeted neighborhoods where suburban-style housing is replacing crumbling row homes and garbage-filled lots.

Center City is pushing north, and the unimaginable is happening. North Philadelphia is becoming the new action.


The changing face of North Philadelphia can best be witnessed in Old Kensington--the southern portion of Kensington, located north of Northern Liberties and west of Fishtown--once a poor and predominantly black and Latino neighborhood.

Here, corner stores and mom-and-pop bodegas now share space with coffee shops, restaurants and trendy bars. Luxury condos and high-end apartments sit within view of a homeless shelter. The streets are busy with dog walkers, joggers and college students--the young, the white and the middle class.

A movement is even underway to rename Old Kensington. The new handle: North of Northern Liberties.


It's the first day of 2005, and the small congregation at Crusaders for Christ Missionary Ministry is intent on saving souls, namely their own. The crumbling brick apostolic church has sat uncomfortably on the corner of Fourth and Thompson in Old Kensington for more than a decade. At its peak the church boasted 70 faithful members. Today the 20 congregants in the cramped sanctuary are being warmed by a space heater in the back of the room.

The church holds an all-night prayer vigil every New Year's. The scripture this year comes from John 10:10: "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."

For pastor Donna Saunders, 57, a neighborhood resident for more than 30 years, the thief has had many faces: white flight, government neglect, blight, crime and drugs. Today, ironically, the thief is the redevelopment of her broken neighborhood.

It's a little past 10 on Saturday morning, and the church's front door has been locked since Friday evening. Rev. Saunders stands at the podium, shaking a tambourine and singing about the joy, joy, joy of the Lord. Behind her a picture of a black Jesus crowned in dreadlocks hangs next to a large cherrywood crucifix.

"Come on, y'all," Saunders says, her soft voice emboldened by the microphone. "Let's praise him for the new year! Hallelujah! We're here to praise him!"

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