Graduate Hospital Isn’t Boring; It’s Newly Vibrant

Inga Saffron says gentrification has made an old neighborhood monotonous. That’s not quite right. So what’s the problem?

By the time you read this, it is my sincere hope that I will be eating—or digesting—breakfast from the new Honey’s Sit n’ Eat at 21st and South streets. It’s the latest tenant in a building, on the edge of the Graduate Hospital neighborhood, that two years ago sat dark and empty. Today, that structure also contains a neighborhood gym, as well as one of those Doggie Style pet stores that seems to be ubiquitous in Philadelphia’s yuppie neighborhoods.

Across the street, there’s a brand-new CVS. Down a block or two, next to Grace Tavern, an ice cream place is slated to open soon. A couple of blocks south of that, on 22nd Street, there’s a new Ultimo coffee house. And existing businesses seem to have found renewed purpose, too: Two cafés that once catered only to daytime crowds have experimented with evening dinner menus.

Bottom line: The neighborhood is a measurably more vibrant place than it was five years ago, when my wife and I moved in nearby. It’s more fun, and certainly a more welcoming place to take an evening stroll.

So I was a little surprised last week to read Inga Saffron in The New Republic, using the same neighborhood as Exhibit A in support of her thesis: Gentrification is boring.

“Diversity, in all its forms, is the urban advantage; it’s what lured a suburb-raised generation to 19th century rowhouses in the first place,” she writes. “After all these years of trying to revive their old neighborhoods, what a shame if it turns out that American cities have birthed a new kind of monotony.”

Now, I’m a big fan of Inga Saffron. As a relative newcomer to the city, I’ve found her architecture column in the Philadelphia Inquirer an invaluable resource in understanding where this city has been, how it got here, and where it’s trying to go. That’s even been true when she writes about out-of-town development like the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn or the High Line park in Manhattan.

In this case, though, Saffron’s observations diverge from what I’ve experienced. That the west end of Graduate Hospital is somehow becoming monotonous seems to be really low on the list of likely complaints about the changes there.

That’s not to say that nothing’s been lost. “Up until the 1960s, the area was a thriving African-American center of culture that was home to black icons like the opera singer Marian Anderson and architect Julian Abele, a designer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” Saffron writes.

But the neighborhood hadn’t been that neighborhood for quite some time, as Saffron also acknowledges: “It was the usual story: Houses were abandoned as elders died off and their successful children chose other places to live. Vacant lots and drug houses began to appear.”

The result? “In 1990, Graduate Hospital was 78.5 percent African American; today it is barely 32 percent.”

Now that’s a discomfiting truth that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored—and I’m well aware of the dangers of being a white dude writing about my favorite new gourmet coffee shop where African American families used to live.

But Saffron doesn’t make the case that anybody has been chased out: Indeed, she offers research showing that a neighborhood’s existing population tends to stick around through gentrification—enjoying the lower crime rates and better restaurants that come with it. The changes come when that population dies off; instead of being replaced by their children, they’re replaced by the yuppie newcomers.

So what exactly is the problem then? In Saffron’s telling, it seems to be that the neighborhood falls short of the vision of Jane Jacobs, the pioneering urbanist. These days, Saffron says, Graduate Hospital is full of young faces; a healthy neighborhood is much more mixed.

“Jacobs’s ideal was a bit like a children’s storybook version of a city, populated by archetypes,” Saffron writes. “There was the early shift-worker hurrying to the subway before dawn, the retiree watching from the stop at midday, the kids strolling home from school in the afternoon. That mix is hard to find in our gentrifying areas.”

Well, wait a few years. The new Graduate Hospital neighborhood is at the beginning of its life cycle. Like any new neighborhood—and, probably, like many renewed neighborhoods—it’s bound to be full of fresh faces: Those 19th-century rowhouses weren’t originally populated by retirees. But children will be born. Gray hairs will appear. And what looks homogeneous now will take on the texture of a real community spanning generations and, yes, even races.

What the neighborhood is now isn’t what it’ll be five years from now. All we see at this moment is a snapshot in a dynamic, never-ending process. It’s different than it was, yes. But it’s certainly not boring.

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