The Death of Gentrification Guilt

On the bleeding edge of Center City, young, privileged, and plugged-in New Philadelphians have grown tired of apologizing for their presence.

Le Bok Fin

Opening night patrons at Le Bok Fin. | Photo credit: Michelle Gustafson

A few months ago, developer Lindsey Scannapieco paid $1.75 million for a 340,000-square-foot property in South Philadelphia right around the corner from my apartment. For 75 years, the building had been the Edward W. Bok Technical High School, until officials closed it and 23 other public schools in 2013 amid major financial cutbacks. Scannapieco and her team immediately got to work transforming the rooftop of the eight-story building into a pop-up French restaurant. They installed a kitchen and two open-air bars. They drew up a menu: $6 “Paris” hot dogs, $8 baguettes, $12 charcuterie plates. Where the school’s flag once flew, they raised their own. And exactly one month later, Le Bok Fin was open.

Overnight, Le Bok Fin became the destination of summer for a certain slice of New Philadelphia. On weekends, hundreds of young, taut, mostly white patrons happily waited in line for a rickety old elevator that took them to the rooftop of the old vo-tech school. I was one of them (although my taut days are behind me). The drinks were good, and the view of the city’s skyline was stunning. But I was troubled a bit by an unsettling feeling that my fellow New Philadelphians and I were fiddling while Rome burned. No one else seemed concerned. They were having too much fun. A night at Le Bok Fin was a voyeuristic adventure with unrivaled selfie settings: the dusty lockers, the old gymnasium, the “Do Not Drink From Sinks” signs in the bathrooms. At least one couple staged a back-to-school-themed wedding shoot at the building. Le Bok Fin had gone Philly-viral. Soon, so would the debate over its ephemeral, five-week existence.

It started when local teacher Kayla Conklin wrote a blog post: “Why ‘Le Bok Fin’ Is Misguided and Wrong for the Neighborhood.” She called the project “tone-deaf” and accused Scannapieco of trying to gentrify the working-class, immigrant neighborhood around the former school. Conklin was far from a public figure; in fact, her commentary was the first entry on her personal blog. Bok’s redevelopment, she wrote, “is giving me a lot of feelings.” You get the idea.

But the post struck a nerve, and it, too, went viral. Only not because anti-gentrification zealots were taking to Facebook and Twitter. Instead, it was an incensed band of young, privileged urbanites, including many of my friends and neighbors, that broadcast far and wide the musings of this newly minted amateur blogger. The post sought to shame them, and when it comes to remaking the city in their own image, New Philadelphians will not be shamed.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a development that primarily aims to bring new people into the neighborhood, including people who don’t have the same profile as the people who already live there,” wrote one journalist. Couldn’t the restaurant’s cheerleaders see how it was a little sad that in a place where mostly black students had once learned about carpentry and the culinary arts, mostly white people were now drinking rosé? “Ya, they should have turned Bok into an authentic bodega/taqueria that I could have Columbused,” an IT consultant quipped. But didn’t people deserve a little space in which to mourn the death of a once-great school? “I don’t understand what people are grieving over,” an architect commented. “That happened two years ago.” But what about, um, showing some compassion? “Guys we all just lack empathy,” a marketing pro joked at the suggestion. “Volunteer a little more would ya?”

PRIVILEGED, LEFTY URBANISTS ridiculing gentrification handwringers — instead of doing the hand-wringing themselves — is a relatively new phenomenon. But that’s who Le Bok Fin’s biggest boosters are: young professionals who read CityLab, drink craft beer and ride their bikes to work. They voted for Jim Kenney and Tom Wolf and Barack Obama.

In the past, after reading Conklin’s essay, people like this probably would have retreated to their renovated rowhomes and quietly pondered the unintended side effects of redevelopment. That’s what I did. But instead of feeling bad, or at least conflicted, about the profound impact their presence is having on the landscape and culture of Philadelphia, my peers stand tall. “I don’t feel guilty,” says Jon Geeting, an editor at PlanPhilly and a leading member of this tribe of New Philadelphians. “Cities change. They always change.”

Well, most cities change. Philadelphia famously has not — until very recently. But between 2007 and 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the city’s population of adults aged 20 to 34 grew by 106,000. No other big city in the country grew its millennial population by a larger percentage over that time. If anything, that number — which accounts for young people who’ve left — downplays the churn: Each year, 46,000 people between the ages of 18 and 34 move to Philadelphia, the Census Bureau estimates.

To be sure, the Le Bok Fin combatants are a distinct, rather homogenous subgroup. Taken as a whole, New Philadelphians are an extraordinarily diverse bunch, many of whom couldn’t care less about a rooftop bar. But the chunk of New Philly that does get defensive whenever the G-word is mentioned has had outsized influence in Philadelphia. They’re shaping the debate in the media and changing the demographics of neighborhoods far from the wealthy progressive enclaves of Center City and Chestnut Hill, and their economic might is stoking development and rejuvenating commercial districts from Passyunk to Market East to North Broad.

As a group, New Philadelphians remain relatively politically disengaged — at least on Election Day. But my fellow NPs clearly have strong political opinions about local matters, particularly matters that have a direct link to life in the city as they experience it. More generally, many seem to think Old Philadelphians are a parochial bunch, altogether too tolerant of corruption and mediocrity. “Philadelphia has made tremendous progress in the decade I’ve lived here,” 33-year-old Geoff Kees Thompson wrote this winter as he introduced a new political action committee called 5th Square, which backs urbanist-friendly politicians. “What it needs now more than ever are better leaders who think progressively about our city, not retrograde candidates stuck to our decline-filled past.”

In a city that moves very, very slowly, the New Philadelphians are an impatient lot. They flood 311 with complaints about trash-strewn blocks, obstructed sidewalks and fading bike lanes. Last spring, after seeing other cities pull off 24-hour subway service on the weekends, they demanded that SEPTA do it here — and won. When four old-school state lawmakers complained about pop-up beer gardens, writing in a letter that the establishments were a “grave concern,” newcomers blew up their phone lines and convinced them to back off. One of those legislators, who had been in office for 29 years, told me he’d never gotten more calls about a single issue in his career. Not even schools.

In addition to beer gardens, we newbies tend to favor dense development, investment in transit, and policies that discourage car ownership. We’re urbanists, through and through. But too much of the time, my comrades appear certain that their view on any number of controversial big-city questions is the objectively correct one. On Le Bok Fin, they’re right on several points, most obviously that it’s far better for a hulking building to be put to use, any use, than to sit vacant.

But their certitude goes much further than it should, into murkier, more complex matters. Take the issue of gentrification. Many NPs argue that it doesn’t exist, not as it’s commonly understood. They cite academic studies that show impoverished residents actually move out of gentrifying neighborhoods at lower rates than they move out of neighborhoods that aren’t changing. They point to University of Colorado-Boulder economist Terra McKinnish’s findings that the incomes of black high-school graduates went up when their neighborhoods gentrified. In other words, plugged-in New Philadelphians argue, gentrification isn’t the problem — it’s the solution. I wish it were that simple.

BACK IN 2007, I MOVED from rural Pennsylvania to Fishtown. My roommates and I quickly developed a crush on Philly, but we were irked by much of what we saw: the city’s anti-bike attitude, its trash-strewn streets, the fact that then-Mayor John Street was waiting in line for nearly 15 hours to buy an iPhone. We were the only New Philadelphians on our block, though, and that made us a little reluctant to loudly demand solutions like extra bike lanes or citywide street cleaning. Today, neighborhoods like Fishtown are bursting at the seams with people like us.

New Philadelphians have reached a critical mass, and that’s emboldened some of them. Then there’s the self-esteem factor. After hearing for years that white flight decimated cities, some NPs find it deflating — embittering, even — to be resented as gentrifiers when they move to certain Philly neighborhoods. I think they should buck up and try to understand where Old Philadelphians are coming from. My peers, not so much. “Where do we want the upper middle class people to live?” asks Geeting. “Anywhere?”

Timing seems to play a key role as well. Take Thompson. The Maryland native moved to Philly in 2005, and in his first decade here, he watched the city’s homicide rate drop precipitously, its debt rating rise to an A-plus, and its population increase for the first time in 60 years. Compare that to what Jeff Hornstein saw when he settled in Philadelphia in 1990: Crime was rampant, City Hall was on the brink of bankruptcy, and affluent people were moving out. To Hornstein, there were — and still are — two Philadelphias: “There’s Bostonadelphia, which is where we live,” he says, “and then there’s Detroitadelphia, which … is much bigger.”

Though both Hornstein and Thompson began as educated, well-to-do, politically active transplants, they took very different paths. Hornstein made it his mission to fight for Detroitadelphia. He became an organizer for a janitors union and ran for City Council on a jobs platform. When he lost, he told himself, “Let’s start a little bit smaller.” He then campaigned to become president of the Queen Village Neighbors Association, and won by promising to build a bridge between the area’s poor and wealthy residents. That’s the old model of privileged urban liberalism.

Thompson represents a new model. His PAC advocates for more parks funding, more open data, and safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists. These issues are more pressing than they might sound: In the past year and a half, there have been more than 22,000 hit-and-runs in the city, and the dead and injured are hardly limited to new arrivals. Still, there’s no denying that these are also topics near and dear to Bostonadelphians’ hearts.

And while Hornstein is slow, steady, and willing to work with his enemies, Thompson readily acknowledges he’d rather defeat his. During this year’s primary election, the 5th Square PAC bought up several longtime city politicians’ domain names — the modern-day equivalent of planting your campaign lawn signs directly in front of your opponent’s.

THAT APPROACH DOESN’T SIT WELL with a lot of people, including some members of the same tribe.

Matt Ruben is one of the original New Philadelphians. The 46-year-old head of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association moved to the city in 1992. He’s long fought the good fight for zoning reform and smarter waterfront development. In fact, Geeting credits Ruben and others like him with elevating the urbanist cause. “They did a lot of that work, which developed it into a political issue,” says Geeting, “and it’s taken on more of the language of politics.”

And the tone as well. In the Bok debate, some of my fellow New Philadelphians treated the suggestion that they should work on their empathy as a punch line. Ruben was disgusted: “When people say ‘This photograph of people doing yoga on the roof and posing next to ‘Water Not Safe to Drink’ signs [at Le Bok Fin] is appalling and symbolizes the problems we have in our city,’ I do not understand what kind of mentality can listen to that and say, ‘You’re vindictive, you’re stupid, you’re ignorant, you have your facts wrong.’”

But does that antagonistic approach work? Ruben thinks not. “They are excellent at being strong advocates,” he says of the NPs. “They’re not as good at educating people who don’t already agree with them.” The newcomers would argue that since Old Philadelphia still has a near-stranglehold on the big levers of power — the Democratic Party, Council, the unions and so on — they have to scream and shout to get anyone’s attention. They’re like a cat whose fur stands on end so she can look bigger than she is.

I understand why they’re doing it, but Ruben’s right. Hell, I’m a 29-year-old New Philadelphian, and these New Philadelphians are alienating me.

Tone isn’t the only problem, or even the biggest one. I’m genuinely worried about what will be lost if yoga studios sweep the landscape. It’s one thing for D.C. or San Francisco to be sterilized. But Philly is different. Philly is old, Philly is weird, Philly is special. I’m not a glorifier of grit. Far from it. But there’s a real problem with people who act like much of the city is garbage that needs a thorough New Philadelphia cleaning.

And I’d hoped for more out of my peers than bike lanes and beer gardens. Don’t get me wrong; that stuff is great. But Philadelphia has massive problems. It’s the poorest big city in the nation. There are roughly 395,000 residents living in poverty here, 126,000 of them children. Our school system is terminally underfunded. The city could use New Philly’s help.

Many of my peers moved here precisely because they wanted to save the city. They were idealists. But sometime between the 2007 election of Mayor Michael Nutter and the day U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah was charged with using taxpayer money and charitable donations to pay back an illegal $1 million campaign loan, they changed. Thompson says they’re “pragmatic,” but “cynical” may be the more accurate word. They’ve started believing they can only change the small stuff — or, worse, they’ve started thinking that what’s most important is fixing what most bothers them.

When Thompson talks about education funding, he gets as fired up as I’ve ever seen him. “If I could tell you one piece of American public policy that I think is the most anti-Democratic thing,” he declares, “it’s the way that we fund our school system through property taxes!” But, he tells me, that’s not the right fight for him. For one thing, there are plenty of education-focused nonprofits already. Plus, he says, “Politically, it’s not possible.”

I get it. The city’s problems are enormous and systemic. Some days they seem intractable. But New Philadelphians owe it to the city — and themselves — to try to solve them, to shoot higher, and to fight for much more than a rooftop bar.