On Spike Lee’s Gentrification Speech, or Why Won’t They Build a Fancy New Grocery Store in Mantua?

To understand gentrification, you first have to understand the racialized history of real estate.

Photo | shutterstock.com

Photo | shutterstock.com

There has been considerable ink dedicated to chronicling the ongoing battle between culture and capital as Brooklyn becomes the epicenter of hipster chic.  Of all the things that I’ve read, this and this are easily the most demonstrative of the high cost of “neighborhood revitalization.”

Brooklyn native and architect of Brooklyn Boheme Cool, Spike Lee, has been vocal on the issues surrounding neighborhood turnover, especially as it has directly impacted his parents. “We been here!” was his refrain as he spoke honestly, candidly and truthfully about the erasures of peoples and cultures that happens when someone else decides to make an “investment.”

“Here’s the thing: I grew up here in Fort Greene. I grew up here in New York. It’s changed,” he said at Pratt Institute for a lecture in celebration of Black History Month. “And why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the South Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better? The garbage wasn’t picked up every motherf*ckin’ day when I was living in 165 Washington Park. P.S. 20 was not good. P.S. 11. Rothschild 294 […] So, why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better? Why’s there more police protection in Bed Stuy and Harlem now? Why’s the garbage getting picked up more regularly? We been here!”

What’s frustrating is that Lee’s words were characterized as a “rant,” casting his ideas as unintelligible, unfounded or otherwise easily dismissible. What Lee said about Brooklyn can be said of many newfound “business corridors” that see an influx of typically younger, monied folks that cause the displacement of existing, long-term residents.

There are some who call that progress.

To understand gentrification, however, one first has to consider the racialized history of real estate: Understanding redlining, the subprime mortgage crisis, and white flight is crucial when assessing the development of neighborhoods and communities.

The US 2010 Project, a joint study of Brown University and the Russell Sage Foundation about residential segregation, noted ethnic identity is a bigger predictor of where people live than income. According to the study, people of color with higher incomes tend to dwell in the same neighborhoods as those of the same ethnic background, even if some of their neighbors are poor. That is to say that there is little distinction made about blackness and brownness within a neighborhood, confirming gentrification as a racial socioeconomic phenomena, where the capital investment follows the migration of white bodies for the development of goods and services.

Consider, if you will, University City in West Philadelphia. And more specifically, the neighborhood known as Mantua or “The Bottom” but which now bears the brand name “Powelton Village.” The new faces, of course, are college students, who are growing in number with the expansions of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. With them come investment dollars and neighborhood amenities such as grocery stores and banks, all of which could have existed beforehand. But did not.

From my office at 39th and Lancaster Avenue, I have watched contractors across the street unearth a building and start anew. As they bulldozed layers of building, a crisp white wall was exposed with the words “F*CK GENTRIFICATION” spelled out brazenly in a big bright blue. (In the weeks since its unanticipated unveiling, the explicative has been censored. The irony is rich.)

“Like many in University City, the residents of Lancaster Avenue have witnessed the neighborhood transform over the last decade to a mix of students and families to a place with an ever-increasing student population that has no place to go but up,” says The Philadelphia Real Estate Blog.

But what often goes unsaid in such pieces is that, at this pace, everyone else has no place to go but out.

“It’s gonna get really interesting around here,” said a friend who lives in the neighborhood as we talked about the sudden infrastructure change across the street.

Interesting, and a bit more posh. As facilities are built to accommodate newcomers (in this case, the ebb and flow of transient undergraduates), fewer spaces are left for long-term residents, aka the ones whose tenure creates personal investment in the wellness of a community.

A ride to 40th Street evokes the phrase “money talks.” It buys influence, power and satisfies demand. On the Market Street corner, housing projects and check-cashing spots litter the block just like those on Lancaster Avenue, reminding residents that financial security has been positioned as a luxury. Unhealthy food options are plentiful, and there’s a watering hole or two, too.

Just a few blocks over on the corner of 40th and Chestnut Street, pricey modern housing targeting those seeking life off-campus rests atop a trendy salon and yoga studio. It’s adjacent to a Stephen Starr restaurant and catty-corner to a major bank’s ATM machine and a smattering of eastern food options, with a Fresh Grocer a stone’s throw away on the Walnut Street corner.

“Penn partnered with Fresh Grocer Corporation to develop a new supermarket, and retail anchor along the 40th Street corridor that opened its doors in May 2001,” reads the website for UPenn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships. “The Fresh Grocer fulfills what local residents themselves said was one of University City’s greatest needs — a new, high-quality supermarket. The University acted as the main developer of this project, and spent $35 million to finance it. The Fresh Grocer is a key success story, keeping economic activity in the neighborhood while acting as a meeting place where the community and University come together.”

PR spin aside, the Fresh Grocer project demonstrates why community buy-in is an important part of commercial and real estate development in underserved areas; it’s not that building new facilities is an inherently bad thing, nor that blight should be romanticized, but satisfying the needs of long-term residents should coincide with revitalization efforts. This shifts the dynamics of real estate development from occupation and gets buy-in for all stakeholders, reducing tensions and providing markers for true progress and opportunity.

As for why they won’t drop a Fresh Grocer in Mantua? Consider first the perception of black neighborhoods: “Evidence indicates that it is the presence of blacks, and not just neighborhood conditions often associated with black neighborhoods (e.g., bad schools, high crime), that accounts for white aversion to such areas,” reads a 2007 George Washington University study about the racial makeup of neighborhoods. “In one survey, whites reported that they would be unlikely to purchase a home that met their requirements in terms of price, number of rooms, and other housing characteristics in a neighborhood with good schools and low crime rates if there was a substantial representation of African Americans.”

Next, consider the value of the black dollar: “Research shows that homes in majority black neighborhoods do not appreciate as much as homes in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods,” says a report cited in Forbes. “This appreciation gap begins whenever a neighborhood is more than 10 percent black, and it increases right along with the percentage of black homeowners […] Put simply, the market penalizes integration: The higher the percentage of blacks in the neighborhood, the less the home is worth, even when researchers control for age, social class, household structure, and geography.”

These perceptions and market realities stifle the perception of worthiness for investors, leaving many communities without amenities that are on-par with those in non-black neighborhoods. What drives gentrification is race, explaining why all that lovely expansion hasn’t quite reached the corner of 40th and Market Streets, and won’t, until there are a few more University City banners run up the flagpoles.

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  • PAPlan

    I mostly agree with you on the issue of gentrification. In fact, I wrote my thesis on gentrification in West Philly. That’s why it pains me so much when you run fast and loose with facts. I’ve seen you do it over and over again. Specifically, in this piece you note:

    ‘the neighborhood known as Mantua or “The Bottom” but which now bears the brand name “Powelton Village.”’

    This is so simplistic and borderline dishonest. The Powel name has been attached to the area since the 1600s, before the name “Mantua” ever existed. Today, Powelton Village and Mantua are two separate neighborhoods. Mantua is north of Spring Garden and Powelton is directly to its south. This has been the primary convention since at least the 1950s and has been common since at least the 1930s. But I’m sure you already knew that. Finally, “The Bottom” referred to all of West Philly east of 46th Street, and not just Mantua. The Bottom was used to distinguish the area from the wealthier, middle-class black neighborhoods west of 46th Street.

    Also, you claim that they wouldn’t put a Fresh Grocer in Mantua because it is a black neighborhood. Yet, there is a Fresh Grocer at 56th and Market. That’s an area that is pretty much 100% black. Mantua is diverse by comparison. Also, there is a Shop Rite at 52nd and Lancaster and another at 67th and Haverford.

    The points you are making are valid ones, but your arguments and your “facts” don’t support them. You can do better.

    • DTurner

      Kind of reminds me of Molly Webb’s article on Curbed Philly a few months back on “Pentrification”, while there are clearly issues associated with gentrification in West Philly, playing fast and loose with the facts to make a more compelling argument is not a great idea if you want your arguments to hold up to basic scrutiny.

    • Hole Foods

      Cut her some slack, she’s the victim of 300 years of oppression, okay?

  • J.Oz

    Is it too simplistic to assert that if a grocer could invest by opening and then running a store in a location with need, AND make a profit by doing so, then they would do so more often?

    • PAPlan

      Bingo. Fresh Grocer hasn’t avoided Mantua because of they’re uncomfortable with black people. They have avoided it because they can’t make a profit there. Now, the race of the populous and they’re economic status are intertwined–but that’s a different discussion.

      • DTurner

        Agreed, Parkwest Town Center and the new Bottom Dollar stores across the city, among other developments, suggests that grocery stores will locate in the city if they believe that they can be sustainable. Even then, it’s important to remember that they were compelled to move in with pretty significant tax breaks.

        Give businesses some credit, they will follow the money.

  • matthew brandley

    wow . Its real simple folks. When you have people living on welfare that pay no tax $ into the city coffers for services what do you expect? Its realy not that complicated now is it? just take a few minutes and let that sink in. Sad part is the trash goes up to the northeast and trashes that part of a once great neighborhood.

    • PAPlan

      Well, it’s not really that simple is it? One of the city’s biggest problems with taxes is that wealthier individuals that don’t live in the city but own investment properties in the city fail to pay their property taxes. They hold on to properties for years without improving them or paying property tax.

      And this idea that people on welfare don’t pay taxes is ludicrous. Most households that receive benefits also have at least one person working. That means city wage taxes are being paid. Also, those people spend a large proportion of their pay, meaning the city gets it’s portion of the sales tax from them as well.

  • Max Power

    Fresh Grocer was probably the wrong example to base your conclusion on considering that there are locations at both 56th & Chestnut and 54th & Chester. Would you care to analyze the demographic make-up of those neighborhoods?

    Also, I might be splitting hairs but Distrito is a Jose Garces restaurant, and Powelton Village and Mantua are two distinct neighborhoods, which border each other.

    I completely agree that “satisfying the needs of long-term residents should coincide with revitalization efforts.” However, fact checking is also a nice touch.

    • PAPlan

      You’re right about Distrito, I didn’t even catch that at first. She really should write a follow-up and address the fact that there ARE Fresh Grocers, Shop-Rites, Pathmarks, etc. in black neighborhoods all over the city.

  • justthetruth

    Interesting. And how about the suburbs: The borough of Doylestown in Bucks County has almost ridiculously priced homes, even modest ones – it IS a nice town, but a lot of its residential architecture really is not that special. (even its Victorian houses are not at all as grand as those in Chestnut Hill and Mount Airy). But not only does it have very few African American residents it is probably perceived as being far enough away from Philadelphia that it is not likely to ever have very many, at least in the forseeable future. And affluent white people – however much they give lip-service to diversity and equality – really LOVE that!

    • J.Oz

      Hmmm…yes…racism comes in ALL colors. To date, for us humans, it always has and will likely stay that way for awhile…

    • J.Oz

      BTW…what’s your point? It’s not clear at all. There’s too much space between the lines. Why not just make a clear, direct, unambiguous comment?

  • DUH

    Yeah, it’s terrible that white people are offering blacks what probably amounts to the only leg up in life, their one chance to hit the lottery by overpaying for their houses.
    Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth!

    Hey black people in the ghetto-when someone is offering you a chance for a better life, take a page from white folks 50 years ago-TAKE IT!

  • Guest

    Not that I blame you for ignoring Gene Marks but the eminent domain issue for the Mantua grocery store HAS been all over the Philly news for months. How did your editor ever let you post this? You should be so embarrassed right now.