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 small living room is crammed with furniture and a big TV. The adjacent dining room has a Mexican theme, with prints of paintings by Frida Kahlo, Thomas' favorite artist. Upstairs, Madsen jokes that his large bedroom with piles of clothes on the floor is an extension of his closet. Thomas is redecorating her smaller room to make it more comfortable for lounging and studying.

There are complaints: The landlord controls the heat; there's one thermostat for the entire four-apartment building; there are broken tiles in the downstairs bathroom; the upstairs bathroom is tiny; and there are only two electrical outlets upstairs, one in each bedroom. At night, with the exception of a few bars, everything shuts down.

"I love my neighborhood," says Thomas, sitting in the living room. "But I don't feel it's aesthetically pleasing.

Thomas expects more for her buck, like a place to jog or hassle-free parking. "Again, what are you paying for?" asks Thomas.

"Proximity," Madsen deadpans.

When marketing North Philadel-phia, real estate agents point to Center City's restaurants, outdoor cafes and live music venues.

"The line between Center City and North Philadelphia continues to move north," says Carlos Peraza, a realtor at Prudential Fox and Roach. "Fifteen years ago that line was Spring Garden. Now people think of it as Girard."

"Any neighborhood that's contiguous with Center City is booming," says realtor Bob Murphy, "especially neighborhoods north of Girard, from Front to Sixth Street."

Two years ago Murphy says houses in Old Kensington sold for $15,000. Now they sell easily for $150,000.

"When you're closer to the heart of things," says Murphy, "it's a lot easier to find investors to buy property."

For years Councilman Darrell Clarke begged developers to invest in North Philadelphia, once dubbed "North Filthy" for its reputation as the city's poorest, dirtiest, most blighted and crime-ridden area. Investors would take one look at the numbers, the population, the per capita income, and tell Clarke, "not a chance."

Now Clarke has trouble keeping developers at bay.

The transformation of North Philadelphia started when the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) demolished many of its notorious high-rise buildings and mazes of matchbox row homes. Now the city's public housing developments are virtually unrecognizable, having been transformed into modernized suburban-style communities with plenty of green.

The city used government investment--transforming public housing and granting tax credits--to attract millions of dollars in private development. In August the Daily News reported that developers have invested more than $500 million in building projects throughout North Philadelphia.

Examples of investment abound. The Kardon Building, once a textile factory, is now an eight-story upscale apartment complex near Temple. There's the Liberties Walk & Piazza in Northern Liberties, which includes apartments, townhouses, and retail and commercial space. And the Iditarod, near Broad and Spring Garden, an abandoned 12-story pharmaceutical plant, is being transformed into 255 luxury apartments.

There's Brewery Park, at 31st and Oxford, 198 loft-style apartments with first-floor parking. And the Jump Street Project, a proposed 800-bed student apartment complex at Broad and Cecil B. Moore, will include six movie screens, a restaurant and retail stores.

Private developers are also cherry-picking single homes and city blocks in run-down North Philadelphia neighborhoods for resale and rental.

Many are awestruck at the revitalization sweeping through North Philadelphia, but some residents, like Rev. Saunders, are worried.

Clarke, who's worked in city government for nearly 20 years, says he recently attended a meeting in Brewerytown, where residents raised the specter of gentrification. He assuaged their concerns.

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