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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Saunders wants to get the church's kitchen running so she can sell dinners--barbecue chicken and fried fish--to raise money and give the church a steady income. For her, the church represents a stabilizing force in the community.

She should know. Years back, when Saunders made her living as a singer, she was addicted to alcohol and pain pills. She ended up living on the street with her three children. Once she joined the church, her life changed for the better.

It's time for prayer, and Saunders walks over to congregant Linda Wilson, who's stepping and crying, grabbing at the air like she's pulling weeds. Saunders puts her hand on Wilson's forehead. Any day now Wilson expects to be evicted from the $500-a-month two-bedroom apartment she shares nearby with her seven children.

Wilson says her landlord recently informed her that the building had been sold and that she should put her rent money into an escrow account. Although the apartment has no heat and needs repairs, Wilson doesn't want to move.

"It's not like we have somewhere to go," says Wilson, who's lived in the neighborhood all of her 37 years. Her temporary job at a meat factory ended in August. She receives about $1,800 a month in public assistance and has no savings. She uses her assistance money to catch up on overdue bills.

Back at the pulpit, Saunders urges the congregation not to worry. God will make a way. He always does.

"You're not going to have to worry," Saunders says. "God's already got a hand in it. Stop worrying. The Lord has already taken care of it."

On a frigid Monday afternoon Kristie Thomas and Nick Madsen head to the Latte Lounge, a tiny coffee shop near their Northern Liberties apartment five blocks south of Saunders' church.

Thomas, a pretty, petite strawberry blond, and Madsen, a Seattle transplant with a dark, fin-like hairstyle, have lived in the neighborhood a little more than a year. They say they were drawn to the cheap rents and eclectic vibe.

A Northeast Philly native, Thomas remembers hearing horrific tales of crime in North Philadelphia. When she told family members she lived at Fourth and Poplar, some wondered whether she'd lost her mind. Thomas and Madsen are what some would term classic gentrifiers--white people moving into a once severely blighted neighborhood populated mostly by blacks and Latinos.

"We're definitely a part of the changing face," says Madsen, 26. "We're young, and not from here."

Thomas is a Penn grad student. She's getting her master's and Ph.D. in social work, and waiting tables at a Main Line restaurant part-time. Madsen, a recent Bryn Mawr College grad, is working as a case manager for an AIDS organization in Center City.

They say they like the neighborhood for its strong sense of community. People live and work in the neighborhood. They see familiar faces at the coffee shop, the corner market, the bar and the restaurant. The businesses are unique and independent, devoid of the prepackaged Starbucks feel.

"Thank God it's not Old City," says Thomas, 26. "If it becomes Old City, I'm outta here."

At the Latte Lounge Thomas orders a double latte from the dreadlocked woman behind the counter. Madsen has a hot chocolate with whipped cream.

The Latte Lounge, which has been at Fourth and Brown for six years, offers a respectable variety of coffees and teas. The counter showcases mini towers of pastries and cakes. In the seating area, filled with cozy chairs and round cafe tables, a red-haired man reads The New York Times while his friend hovers over her textbook. A young girl lightly taps her laptop keys while sipping a mocha chai.

Thomas and Madsen leave the shop and head back to their apartment, a split-level two-bedroom they rent for $1,100 a month. Their block is a stretch of well-kept red-brick houses. A large statue of the Virgin Mary stands in front of one, and on a nearby door hangs a teddy bear wreath and a string of colorful leaves. A Latino family lives a few doors down, and a lesbian couple lives across the street next to a white family with two small children.

Walking to their apartment, the two pass a trash-sewn lot filled with weeds. The sign on the chain-link fence reads: "Two Lots Ripe for Development." The pair fear that high-end housing, condos and townhouses will turn their neighborhood into a Stepfordtown they won't be able to afford.

The rent for their apartment has increased 13 percent in two years. Madsen recently heard about a small two-bedroom house a few blocks away selling for $240,000. Still, they consider their place a bargain.

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