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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The organist bangs the keys of a shiny white organ, and a musician beats the drums in a rapid pulsating tempo. The congregation--half adults, half children--is up out of their plastic folding chairs, clapping and tapping their feet. The floor, covered in burgundy patchwork carpet and cracked fading linoleum, vibrates. The thick smell of kerosene fills the room.

A petite woman with a gentle, motherly voice, Saunders is dressed in a black cap, brown shirt and black pants. A gold cross hangs from her neck.

"If he's going to break our yokes, we have to lift up holy hands and give him praise," she tells the congregation. "Hallelujah!"

The tempo slows with the hymn "I Surrender All." The adults close their eyes and stretch their hands toward the church's sagging ceiling. Some wave their arms; others jump up and down. Tears stream down the faces of many.

"Come on," Saunders says. "Give it up to God! You got to surrender for real. You can't just sing the song. All that kept you down in 2004, now we turn it over. In 2005 we're coming alive!"

Outside, Saunders' Old Kensington neighborhood is doing just that. As she herself puts it, "The whites have been easing in without us even knowing it."

When Saunders moved into her home on the 400 block of Master Street 30 years ago, hers was the third black family on the block. Houses were well kept, with plants out front. Neighbors said hello and knew each other by name.

But as more blacks moved in, whites left, and traditional urban ills took up residence.

Then last summer Saunders says she noticed people, white people, walking around the neighborhood again. Today when she walks the two blocks from her home to the church, she sees pickup trucks loaded with wood and dumpsters filled with debris. Men wearing spattered blue jeans and dirty work boots carry building supplies and tools.

Saunders points to houses where members of her congregation, like Ellen and Delilah, used to live. Most every building on Fourth Street has been bought and renovated or is in the early stages of becoming privately developed market-rate housing.

In Saunders' neighborhood, where the median household income is $23,720, housing prices skyrocketed 200 percent between 1997 and 2002. A small two-bedroom house down the street from the church is selling for $99,000. An adjacent three-bedroom, two-bath is selling for $230,000.

Past Girard Avenue and into Northern Liberties, block after block boasts multiunit luxury condos and townhouses, beginning with the Cigar Factory Condominiums, a building that once housed the nation's largest hand-rolled-cigar factory. It now holds 32 loft-style condominiums starting at $337,000. Occupancy is close to full.

Down the street from Saunders' house, just past Project H.O.M.E.'s shelter for women and children, a monstrous decayed warehouse is being transformed into 125 luxury condos.

Saunders' old storefront church shivers in the midst of the redevelopment.

She and her husband regularly find fliers stuffed in their door with the teasing headline: "Buy Your Home for Cash." A developer who owns several properties on Fourth Street recently asked to buy her church for $35,000. Saunders refused. "I'm going to fight tooth and nail to stay in this community," she says. "I'm not leaving because I'm a fighter."

For Saunders, a diabetic, the offer must be tempting. Her income consists of her son's disability check and the rent she collects on three old properties in the neighborhood. At the moment all three are empty.

At one point the church was 10 months behind on its $349.81 monthly mortgage and delinquent on its gas and electric bills. It needed a roof, a working bathroom and interior walls.

Saunders sold one of her properties for $47,500 after purchasing it 15 years ago for $7,000, to settle back rent and make repairs on her church. She now owes the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections more than $5,000 for the unlicensed work of her son and church members, as well as fines for plumbing and structural violations. She owes the city another $5,000 in back property taxes on her home. In the last five years her property taxes there have quadrupled.

On this particular Saturday the church collects $88 in offerings, following Saunders' urge to "dig deep." She says the congregation is dwindling as members leave the neighborhood in search of lower rents. The offerings consist mostly of crumpled dollar bills and handfuls of coins.

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