American Sardine Bar’s John Longacre: It’s Not About Race and Class

If there are folks in Point Breeze who feel slighted by the newcomers to the area, don’t blame John Longacre for the insult. All he was trying to do was shore up the West Passyunk Avenue area the way the folks over on the other side of Broad Street were turning around East Passyunk Avenue.

And if there is anything problematic about what he and other high-profile types, like real estate agent-developer Ori Feibush, are doing in Point Breeze, it has little to do with the usual suspects of race and class. Rather, Longacre says, it boils down to this: Some people out there – a small minority – simply don’t want anything to change.

“What I found,” he said about his development work in Point Breeze, “is that Point Breeze does not oppose new businesses coming in. In fact, most of the people who have been raising families in Point Breeze love the change. They embrace the change. What I found is that a small vocal minority is responsible for 90 percent of the shit you read about.”

Like the five people who dragged out the development of his American Sardine Bar in Point Breeze, or the one person who long stymied his efforts to open Brew and Ultimo Coffee just down the block from his South Philly Tap Room in Newbold. (Longacre is particularly proud of Brew and Ultimo, whose eponymous owner decided to move to Philly from New York after Longacre invited him up for a look around; the Daily Meal website named it best coffee shop in the country this year.)

And speaking of the Tap Room: What’s a Newbold? people ask. The answer can be found on the Tap Room building. It’s the street now known as South Hicks. When Longacre got started with redevelopment efforts in the area that now bears that name, there were no organizations devoted to its welfare. The groups that handle redevelopment and zoning in Point Breeze extended no further east than 18th Street. Longacre defined the boundaries of his Newbold Community Development Corporation so they did not overlap with any existing Point Breeze development group. “We literally created a neighborhood out of nothing,” he said.

“I have a great working relationship with the established organizations in Point Breeze – South Philly HOMES, the Performing Arts Center, the Community Development Coalition. A, Point Breeze is a great name. B, it’s an established area, and C, why would you want to change something that’s working?”

Longacre’s development firm, Longacre Property Management Group, is as active as any other developer in Point Breeze – and, he points out, displacement isn’t his game. “What we do is infill development. You’ve never seen us tear down a house and kick out residents. You’ve never seen us buy a building and kick the residents out.”

As in Newbold, where he lives, what Longacre does in Point Breeze is redevelop vacant land and empty houses. The neighborhood he “created out of nothing” was the product of his selling local real estate agents on the value of steering younger, first-time homebuyers to his rehabbed homes. (Full disclosure: I know a gay couple who bought one of those homes as their first. They’re not what I’d consider filthy rich.)

The opposition puzzles him, to be frank. “I can’t imagine anyone wanting to live in a neighborhood with no businesses, no services – just strewn with trash, abandoned lots, and full of crime.”

His activity, he said, brings other new businesses to the area, benefiting everybody – and that everybody can get along. “I think that race and class relations have gotten better,” he said. “You need a mix of races, a mix of incomes. Those are the best neighborhoods to live in.”

So will Point Breeze become the next Mt. Airy? It’s got quite a ways to go before it gets there, but it won’t be for lack of effort on Longacre’s part. Will the neighborhood go along? To hear him tell it, most of it will – but it will have to get past the obstructionists first.

And those obstructionists have often had the ear of the area’s district Council members. One of the more prominent ones, Tiffany Green, the force behind the Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze, lobbied former Councilwoman Anna Verna for a development moratorium in the neighborhood in 2011, which Verna agreed to introduce in Council. (It went nowhere.) He worries that these same people might have too much influence on the thinking of current Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who succeded Verna, as well.

So does he intend to do something about it by running himself? “That all depends,” said the dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. “I’m not the type of person who would run for political office to enhance my resume. But if I felt there was an area that was underserved, that didn’t have a fully engaged leader who was working every minute of every day for positive change, then yes, I would run.”

Until that day, should it come, he has a couple of neighborhoods to nurture. And he embraces them both: while the Tap Room may be the heart of Newbold, the American Sardine Bar is very much in – and, he hopes, of – Point Breeze.