Confessions of a Gentrifier

In a neighborhood where nine out of ten kids gets a free lunch, should we be paying $8 for a pint of ice cream?

A few months ago, toward the end of the summer, I was walking my dog near my house in East Kensington when my neighbor Franky (not his real name) called out to me. Franky, who’s about 10, is a fixture on our block. He lives around the corner with his dad, his grandmother and his sister in a tired-looking house that doubles as a sort of informal command center for the neighborhood youth.

He spends his days with the other kids his age, doing kid things like playing football and lighting stuff on fire (it’s true, I caught him once).

Anyway, Franky loves my dog and when he sees us he usually runs up to give her a pat on the head. This time, as he scratched behind Mara’s ear, he had a question for me:

“Are yuppies rich?”

The query caught me by surprise. I hadn’t heard that term in about 15 years, and probably never coming out of a 10-year-old’s mouth. I wasn’t even sure true 1980s-style yuppies even existed anymore. I thought about it for a minute and offered the best response I could think of:  “I’m not sure,” I said. “I don’t really know any.”

It wasn’t until a few blocks later that I realized he asked me that because someone had convinced him I’d know the answer. Someone, probably his dad, told him that people like me — people who buy up homes in their neighborhood, pull down the aluminum siding and plant a flowering cherry out front — are part of an elite class that distinguishes itself by a taste for microbrews and recreational running (guilty on both counts). For lack of a better term, to Franky’s dad, that made us yuppies. And we were rich.

For the sake of argument, my wife and I are technically urban professionals — though few people would call us young anymore. But we’re hardly rich. We have some money in a couple of IRAs and can afford an occasional dinner out at a nice restaurant. But even with our car paid off, once you add in the school loans, the mortgage and the other random debt, we pretty much live hand-to-mouth.

But wealth is relative, and in our neighborhood we probably rank near the top of the economic strata. While not nearly as bad off as the neighboring communities west of Front Street, East Kensington is plagued by deeply entrenched poverty. More than 90 percent of the students at Hackett Horatio B School — which sits at the top of my street — qualify for free lunch; and according to Measure of America’s “Opportunity Index” Kensington is tied with Southwest Philly for hosting the largest percentage of disconnected youth in the metro area.

The fact that we can buy a new pair of brand-name boots each year and take trips with suitcases probably makes us seem pretty well off, even if our 10-year old VW is being held together by bungee cords (which it is by the way.)

For the record, I’ve never been in denial that my wife and I are part of the wave of gentrification that is sweeping through Fishtown and Kensington, but I’d never been presented with such a stark reminder of our outsider status here. I’ll admit, it made me feel kind of dirty.  “Gentrification” is a loaded term that carries with it a hidden presumption of exploitation.  It’s true, when we bought our home two years ago, we were looking for a different experience than we’d had in the Fairmount neighborhood where we had been renting a two-bedroom apartment. But there was also a matter of cost. Like people just like us in cities all over the world, we were looking for a home we could afford in a neighborhood that offered both authenticity and potential.  We came to this neighborhood seeking opportunity — partly financial, partly cultural — but certainly not to exploit anyone.

And it should be said, “opportunity” goes both ways.  Our first year here, just after Thanksgiving some kids came to the door to sing Christmas carols. They struggled to get through a few unpracticed verses of Jingle Bells. It sounded pretty horrible, but my wife was tickled. A former choir girl she sat on the stoop and coached them on the lyrics. When they were through I went looking for a few dollars to give them for their effort, but could only find a five. They ran off with their money and came back every single day after that looking for more until I told them to scram. The next year they started ringing the bell the week after Halloween.

I can’t blame them for hustling. But I don’t feel any responsibility to pander to it.  I truly believe the best gift my wife and I can offer the disadvantaged kids in our neighborhood is cultural not financial. An investment in social capital, even a meager one, offers the greatest long-term payoff. Residential segregation (racial and socio-economic) stands like the Berlin wall between Philadelphia’s haves and have nots. If breaking that down can help show one kid there is a life beyond the streets of East Kensington, I’d say that’s supremely more valuable than buying ten kids a slice of pizza.

Still sometimes I’m struck by how much we take for granted — how something that seems so natural and class-neutral, like going for a morning run, can seem somehow elitist in a neighborhood where so many people struggle to get by. I imagine how people who’ve lived here all their lives must marvel at the idea that people would pay $8 for a pint of cardamom vanilla ice cream at Little Baby’s when you can get perfectly good pint of vanilla for a quarter of the price at Quick Stop just up the street. My wife and I try our best to keep a balance; we no longer buy $16 organic chickens at Greensgrow Farms (though we love their vegetables).

And from now on I think we’ll stick to Breyers.

Follow @CMoraff on Twitter.

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  • DTurner

    I do wonder what the impact of “yuppies” in poorer communities is when it comes to perceptions of community as a whole. Are “young professionals” viewed as outsiders, with older residents harboring feelings of jealousy towards their wealthy neighbors, are they viewed as role models for neighborhood kids striving for something better, or something in between. We often talk about the economic effects of gentrification, but the social repercussions have kind of been ignored. Thoughts?

    • cmoraff

      That’s such a good question and something I have to ask myself every day. On the one hand, it’s impossible not to feel disruptive when your mere presence is raising tax rates and spawning businesses that most locals can’t afford to patronize. On the other hand, the research is crystal clear: social capital is a leading factor in socio-economic mobility. Indeed social capital is so powerful that it’s often mistaken for a sign of wealth. The things some of us take for granted — like just applying the proper syntax to a spoken sentence — are not givens in large parts of Philadelphia. And research shows our city is among the most residentially segregated in the nation, which means social capital does not flow easily into the most struggling neighborhoods. For better or worse, gentrification (and I really hate that word because it comes from the term “gentry” – which I definitely am not) breaks down those barriers.

      That being said the only way that works is if we become part of our community, not create a separate micro-community within it. So how does that work in practice? I don’t always know. Sometimes you just have to go on gut instinct. I don’t mean to pick on Little Baby’s. They have a phenomenal product (really, you should try it if you haven’t already).. But do I want to be the guy walking past Hackett playground eating a $5 ice cream sandwich? You get the point. In terms of the perceptions of the community you mention, at least past of that is our responsibility.

      • Brian Marsh

        “And research shows our city is among the most residentially segregated in the nation”. Are you sure that is (still) true? It seems just about every neighborhood I can think of is a mix of richer and poorer. Its easy to find exceptions, but compared to so many other cities I’ve been to we seem downright socio-economically integrated.

  • Gary Broderick

    White people are always the protagonists in Philadelphia Magazine. God forbid their be the story from the point of view of a working-class African-American, who might be pushed out. That said, the main danger of this piece, is it hides the systemic and economic issues that make gentrification a process of expanding inequality.

    • JKR

      Phila Mag prefers a Philadelphia with less of a Negro Population.

    • Tlyons6

      What is your basis that gentrification is a process that expands inequality in the area being gentrified? There are no accepted studies that back up your claim yet there are multiple studies that show gentrification actually helps to expand financial equality in the area being gentrified. I suppose you could make an argument that gentrification of a poorer area is detrimental to the neighborhood that the gentry moved away from because it can be a wealth transfer out of that area but for some reason I do not think that is what you are implying with your comment. Are you anti-gentrification because you oppose new opportunities for Philadelphia neighborhoods and are afraid of a decline in the places the residents have left? If not you should reexamine you position on gentrification otherwise you are actively fighting against the welfare of Philadelphia residents that live in neighborhoods like the one in the article.

      I would also appreciate clarification on why your hypothetical working-class African American would be pushed out by gentrification. Lastly, can you clarify how you are using the term working class because it has multiple definitions. Are you referring to people who are employed at lower wage tier jobs and are subordinate in employee status or are you referring to the term as used in Marxist Theory which is someone that expends either mental or physical labor to produce economic value, or wealth in non-academic terms, for those who own means of production. The first definition has income level implications while the second definition does not.

  • Pee Bee

    I earn $32K a year. Purchased a rehabbed brownstone in Point Breeze 4 years ago. People like me are the invisible ones who aren’t rich and aren’t poverty-stricken. We’re working class people who couldn’t or wouldn’t continue to pay every-increasing rents in the center city area and prefer living & working in the city. I clean my street, planted a tree…everything the ‘gentrifiers’ do on a certain level. Cleaning up a ghetto shouldn’t make annyone feel guilty. Just sayin’.

    • Christopher Sawyer

      There’s a point (I’m talking about anti-development/anti-gentrification boosters) where arguments eventually reach: “You can only live here if you’re poor/jobless/your family’s been here for a thousand years”. It’s not actually said exactly this way, but listening to their whining you can reduce the boil down to that nugget. It’s classist (and by extension, racist) to want to live in a poor neighborhood, fix up an old home or move into an in-fill new home that was recently built. But these same folks have zero solutions for fixing up declined neighborhoods other than “get some government money” to build “affordable” housing–which doesn’t do anything for existing residents.

      Now that the Gentrification Protection Plan Program is in full-effect; you should apply for it now if you’re eligible because it will make you immune from house prices going up for the next 10 years. That tosses a significant amount of water on a tired argument. For a neighborhood that’s escalating in housing price, this is an excellent fix for the problem and protects the residents who deserve the protection the most without ferrying away too much tax revenue which our City is so starved of.

      There are splotches of nice in most of Philly’s poor neighborhoods; and that’s mostly by owner-occupying homeowners who aren’t transient renters and they remain fully vested (and invested) in their real estate and care deeply about their surrounding community. It’s rather sad though that these particular folks are also the most exploited by our establishment because with only a few exceptions they’ve mostly been given scant resources to attack blighted nuisance property that’s the core source of where the decline is hurting them to begin with.

      Real estate tax collection is one of the easiest avenues to crowbar bad property owners off their land and free it up on the chance that a more worthwhile property owner will take the deed and vest themselves fully in the community.

      Look at the neighborhood which has the highest tax delinquency rate in all of Philadelphia: Brewerytown. Anti-gentrification supporters will argue that letting these tax deadbeats slide is what’s needed to protect the community. But at what cost? Is having zero school options worth it? Shells that catch fire and cause tragedy–is that worth it? Is it worth it to calcify depressed neighborhoods in stone and resist all change all because rents may go up if the neighborhood gets better? Ridiculous.

      It’s very unlikely that any Philadelphia or PA politician for that matter has enough clout and power to put a complete freeze on the entire real estate market. What’s even better is that we are presently lorded over by politicians whose only experience is managing decline, so they are the least qualified people to know what to do when the market turns and decline is reversed.

      No one has yet to make a good argument to me as to why blight should be preserved. Just as more affluent renters are choosing to migrate and buy housing in cheaper areas that are more dense, those who can’t deal with rising rents on the low end of the scale will uproot and migrate to other real estate markets where rents are compatible. The suburbs have taken in a few thousand ex-Philadelphians who were previously in the low-end market rent market. Real estate prices change. That’s been going on in Philly for a few centuries; doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon.

      Look on the bright side: the higher real estate prices go, the higher tax revenue can be generated, which can certainly be put to use furthering the safety-net support for those poor who remain.

      I dunno about the Breyer’s ice cream. I prefer spending money locally in Philadelphia-based businesses.

      • cmoraff

        Very well stated, although your commentary is much more focused on the economic ramifications of residential investment (a subject that warrants investigation) rather than the more intangible aspects I mention above. I feel I owe a point of clarification since it’s come up in a couple comments now: Of course I value local businesses and patronize them regularly. I can’t remember the last time I had dinner outside the 2 square miles from where I live. Most of the waiters/bartenders around here now know us by name. And yes, sadly, Breyer’s is no longer a Philly company. The truth of the matter is, I probably eat ice cream twice a year tops. The point I was making, I think, is that it concerns me that some *real* locals are shut out of “local” businesses because they intentionally cater to a hipster/yuppie crowd by featuring products with exceptionally high prices (sometimes warranted, sometimes not so much). You can pay 22 bucks for a large pizza in this neighborhood or 12 bucks — both from local Philly businesses (and both made with flour and cheese and sauce). Go from one place to the other and it looks like you’re traveling in two completely separate neighborhoods. It’s a reality of “gentrification”, I get that. But it also contributes to a persistent sense of otherness. You can either contribute to that otherness or try to break through it somehow. I not exactly sure how that works, but it sounds like the community farm mentioned by “guest” is getting something right. – CM

  • Pee Bee

    Also, only renters lose when a ghetto becomes popular and more expensive to live in. The longtime owners won the lottery. They can now sell their cheap home for 2-4 times as much as it was worth and get out of the ghetto. I don’t understand the problem. Of course if it’s an elderly person who has no family, there should be something in place to protect them.

    • Deb

      Except that it’s not the ghetto anymore.

    • Pee Cee

      While the home owners do benefit from being able to sell their homes for higher prices, the more important issue is that gentrification causes property taxes and the overall cost of living to increase, such that many homeowners are no longer able to afford the property taxes that are assessed on their properties. This issue has become even more important as a result of the AVI implementation. Mantua is the perfect example of this.

      • Pee Bee

        places like Point Breeze need more taxes and people with money to spend to make the community civilized, clean and more peaceful. no other way around it. if there is, show me any poor ‘hood that is quiet, clean and civil.

  • Deb

    Really? That is one of the most elitist, self serving things I have ever read. You assume the families are uneducated and jealous. I am positive that child knows there is a life beyond the streets of Kensington. They have already shown their entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic by imitating the commercial example set by retailers and expediting their Holiday services. These families will be just fine without anyone coming into their neighborhood to give them a “cultural gift.” Speaking as someone who grew up In Southwest Philadelphia and now lives in Queen Village (and someone who can apply proper syntax in a spoken sentence), I have no issue with people looking to move into a neighborhood that is affordable or even trendy and hip. Just don’t pretend you are doing them some kind of service. You will always be an outsider while you look down on those who have less and have the attitude that your life is somehow richer because you are better off financially and because of that you are making their lives better. You will also miss out on some great things about these neighborhoods. What you saw as hustling is actually work ethic. As kids, we worked for what we wanted. We didn’t ask our parents for money because we knew they didn’t have it. We shoveled, swept, raked and yes, sang. People aren’t jealous you have a $5 ice cream sandwich, they are incredulous. It seems wasteful and a bit silly to them, frankly. You can become part of your neighborhood, you just have to get down off of your high horse first.

    • cmoraff

      Several points: To the commenters above, regardless how you feel about Philly mag, this particular issue has nothing to do with race (at least not how I express it above). East Kensington is predominantly working-class white has been for most if not all of its existence. In fact one of the “gentrifiers” on my street is a middle-class Black family. So don’t use your preconceptions about this publication to turn a piece on socio-economics into one on race. If you want to read about structural racism in Philly, I invite you to read one of the dozens of articles I’ve written on the subject for The Philadelphia Tribune. To Deb, I never used the term jealous and I never suggested that this is the reason we should eschew blatant examples of conspicuous consumption. That would be about self image and not community building. My point was about presenting oneself as part of a community and not somehow separate from it. Being seen as “just silly” exemplifies this separateness. As for the term “hustling” if you drew from that a derogatory meaning, that says more about you than me. I certainly didn’t use it that way. I grew up doing the same things you mention (minus the singing) and when someone told us we had “hustle” we took that as a compliment. But it also exemplifies my point that opportunity goes both ways in these situations. That’s all I was saying there. I do however take issue with your willingness to brush off the depth and persistence of residential segregation in Philly and its impact on social mobility. Your ambivalence to the importance of social capital not only denies the facts (which have been repeatedly demonstrated in the research) but ignores the plight facing thousands of disadvantaged kids who lack in it. To say these kids will be “just fine” if everyone just leaves them alone discredits every organization in Philly that’s working for their betterment. When’s the last time you stepped foot out of Queen’s Village? I don’t pretend to be a savior (God forbid, I can barely manage my own affairs). But to deny that showing a kid by example that it’s possible to go more than five minutes in a conversation without cursing may have some tiny benefit in terms of building cultural capital sounds purposefully argumentative. As to the charge that to say so sounds “elitist,” I’ll defer to author Joseph Epstein, who said: “I have no problem being called elitist as long as that door is open to everyone.” – CM

      • Danielle

        As a fourth grade teacher in North Philly, I agree that children need to be shown there is a world outside of their neighborhood. Most of my students do not see outside of their neighborhood walls that consist of drug dealers and gun shots. Most do not see professional workers who are college graduates. More than once, when teaching the morals of good character and how those values will be used on a job in the future, I was told “I don’t need a job, I’ll get a man.” or “That’s what food stamps are for.” There, of course, are exceptions. Students who know there is a life outside of their neighborhood walls and strive to achieve goals that go beyond a high school education, but those are becoming too few and far between. Our school has been making an effort to get local entrepreneurs in, who have grown up in the neighborhoods, come in and talk to the students… I’ve had students conduct research on success stories…. but more needs to be done. The cycle needs to be broken somewhere and concrete examples of what to strive for need to be seen on a daily basis.

      • Deb

        First, I’d like to separate myself from the comments about race. I didn’t mention it, it never even crossed my mind. That said, my parents lived in Southwest until they passed 2 years ago and my sister still lives there. I step out of Queen Village just about every day, mostly on foot or on Septa because I choose not to own a car. I didn’t say these kids will be fine if everyone leaves them alone. I don’t think anyone believes that. I said the families will. I just feel your piece neglects the role models they already have living in their neighborhood and in their homes. It came across as the “gentrifiers,” for lack of a better term, are the only thing saving these kids from a life of poverty. I disagree. I think the only thing that will end that for them is a solid home foundation. My neighbors didn’t influence my career or education, my parents did. I know all about neighborhood segregation in Philadelphia. I grew up during the white flight to the suburbs. I don’t deny there is benefit is setting an example, I just don’t buy into gentrification being the catalyst for breaking socio-economic barriers in Philadelphia.

    • Tank girl

      First of all you have never lived here. I grew up in this neighborhood and it was nice when I was little. There was a true spirit of community. Then these people moved in and ruined it with welfare and section 8 housing. These people talk about people who have a little extra to spend all the time so what am I to assume other then the fact that they are jealous! I’m not on a high horse, I’m a hard worker and when it’s the people that are on welfare and ssi that are saying these things I get mad. You just said that they know things beyond there neighborhood right? So they should know that there are opportunities out that can help get to a better place in life; however they don’t take advantage of these opportunities because they are lazy! If they wanted it they can get it just like anyone else. They are just not willing to work for it.

  • K

    I think kids know there is life beyond Kensington…they just need to eat…I actually think the pizza may be more valuable to them.

    • cmoraff

      Hmm. Not really, K. This is Kensington, not Mogadishu. Yes there is severe poverty; but no one is starving in the streets here, despite what you may have heard. A lot of these kids probably aren’t eating *properly* in a nutritional sense, but they are eating. What they *are* starved for is more intangible, and they can and do get it from the people around them. As Deb points out, ideally this should come from family, but unfortunately family cohesion is not exactly the strongest it’s ever been around here. Some kids are graced with it, a lot are not. Contrary to what some commenters have said, it’s not a matter of laziness or working hard. No matter how fast you make your legs move, it’s going to be hard to finish a race you were never properly trained to run.

  • ErShava

    This article is so ridiculous, it;s hard to believe is not satire. You gave the poor kid five bucks and you felt like you were giving back to the community? lol sounds straight out of the Onion.

    • cmoraff

      If that’s the message you got, you completely missed the point. Maybe you should stick to the Onion.

  • NoLongerAStreetRat

    I grew up in Kensington (Born and raised1980-2000) I find it humorous that so many Yuppies are moving into that area.
    It’s certainly not a safe place to raise a family,It never will be. God forbid your child ever make a wrong turn down the wrong side alleyway.

  • Tankgirl

    I grew up in Kensington and lived here till about 3 years ago and if u notice most of the people are on welfare or have there kids on ssi. The people I see sit at home and do nothing all day. Some have nicer things in there house then I did and I worked. If they wanted to run they could but they are lazy. I grew up the same way they did in the same neighborhood and have no sympathy for the people who get mad at others who have a little money to buy something extra like expensive ice cream. I worked hard for what I have and expect others to do the same. Most of the people here in Kensington do not. If I want to treat myself to an expensive ice cream because I have a little extra money, that doesn’t make me a yuppie; it makes me a hard worker. What about the women that sit on welfare but get their nails done every week. Are they yuppies? This is a community that has to get their priorities straight. If you want something then work for it like everyone else instead of complaining about others.

  • Nicole

    How does you not buying an organic chicken or locally produced ice cream help your neighborhood? Paying more to buy products that help the producers have better standards of living is part of solution, if you can afford it– supporting larger corporations and factory farms just perpetuates poverty by undercutting their own workers and suppliers to keep prices low.

  • Guest

    As someone who lives in East Kensington, I’ve seen how things that are traditional markers of gentrification (which I don’t consider to be a dirty word) have helped neighborhood kids. A couple runs an urban farm down the street, which they built on vacant lots in the middle of a tough block. Across the street, neighbors tend to a small community park and regularly pick up trash and green it. Neighborhood kids (both progeny of long term and new residents) happily swing from the trees and run around at community parties thrown by neighbors, most of whom are newcomers, and the park is open to them to throw parties and just be kids. At the farm, with little financial assistance other than some neighbors making small donations, they teach the kids about farming, vegetables, cooking, and how things grow. I’ll never forget the delighted squeals of the kids as they plucked fat caterpillars off the green bean plants to feed to the chickens next door. Would the neighborhood kids have had that experience without these so-called “yuppies” moving in next door and turning needle and trash strewn lots into a farm and a park where they could teach the kids about how things grow and caring for the earth? Probably not. Are the kids being “saved” by the volunteers of the farm and the park? No, and the people who give their time to it would probably be uncomfortable with that idea. However, they provide a safe oasis for the kids to grown and learn in the middle of some otherwise tough blocks, and I see NOTHING wrong with that.

    • DTurner

      Exactly, I doubt that there are many “yuppies” who view themselves as “saviors” of neighborhood kids, they’re simply giving the kids another perspective on life. It’s up to the kids to decide if they want to improve themselves.

  • Bucky Antlers

    Don’t buy Breyers – they barely make ice cream anymore due to fillers. Turkey Hill makes a natural line that is a thousand times better than it and Little Baby’s, which isn’t even good ice-cream, just schtick. Although I give them props for catering to the vegan community.

  • Bucky Antlers

    Gentrification is moving into a neighborhood and destroying what exists to remake into something new for only the new residents or those who can afford. Gentrification brings with it division and exclusion. On the other hand, you can move into a neighborhood with a different culture or socioeconomic makeup and become a new piece of it. Help raise it up.

    But, Little Baby’s is gentrification. Those 350-400k houses they are building between Front and Frankford is gentrification. Young couples moving into the neighborhood to have an affordable housing situation, who have the capacity to take care of their property and make an effort to participate in the community is not.

    I hope everyone realizes the difference between these two situations.

    The prices for a normal row home in these neighborhoods hasn’t shot up in value all that much to indicate gentrification is occuring. It seems to be a parallel activity – the new construction – taking advantage of the poverty situation to make money, which I think a lot of new residents have an issue with as well.

    I’m sure this came out terribly but I tried.