Coming Soon To A Neighborhood Near You

How six big shifts in population and wealth are going to change your life. Plus: Our local real estate price report, with predictions for 40 places whose names will go up in lights


"IT’S THE HABIT of Americans to celebrate past immigrants and complain about current ones,” says Penn’s Kevin Gillen. But despite the impression you may get from standing and waiting for the Market-Frankford El (at times the platform can appear to be a session of the U.N. General Assembly), Philadelphia actually lags behind most American cities in its ability to attract immigrants. While this may cheer the xenophobes among us, it’s actually bad news in a city with housing stock for 2.1 million working-class people currently occupied by just 1.6 million people, rich, poor and in-between.

The stunning influx of Russian Jews into the Northeast (it’s estimated there are some 33,000) has turned the former Land of the Middle-Class Rowhouse into Moscow on the Boulevard. The problem is that the Russians remain stubbornly sectarian, almost willfully refusing to blend in with the locals — many of whom, predictably, haven’t exactly been thrilled to see their neighborhoods made over into Minsk. Basically, there are two issues here. First, unlike Philly’s previous big waves of immigrants in the early 20th century (when Italians, Germans, Poles and Irish took over entire working-class neighborhoods from North Philly outward), the Russians are coming into Northeast Philly completely alone — there’s no overall culture of assimilation to help them melt into the pot. Second, many are poor, but living off of Bustleton Avenue is living large compared to a dingy apartment for 10 off of Gorky Park. So, perhaps understandably, they’re much more inclined to spend the money they do have to bring over a gaggle of relatives than to paint and upgrade their homes. If you want to experience seething anger, go into a Northeast supermarket and watch the local housewives stew behind a Russian paying with food stamps. That’s not good.

Without the Russians, though, the Northeast might turn out to be the most troubled region in the entire city, stuck with street after street of outdated housing. But unlike the areas primed for a possible boom in the two rings outside of Center City, the Northeast has almost no selling points: It’s not close to downtown, it has lousy restaurants, there’s no art scene, and there are way too many strip malls. Its schools, which only a generation ago were thought to be among the best in Philly, are now just as mediocre as the rest of the city’s. The truth is that the Russian Jews may be the only thing standing between life and death in the Northeast, mitigating the flight of the middle class to the nearby Montco and Bucks ’burbs.

But it likely won’t be enough to halt the deterioration of the Northeast into a haven for dollar stores, fast-food restaurants and check-cashing places. Long gone are the days when the area between Castor Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard boasted shopping like Lit Brothers, Gimbel’s and Wanamaker’s. While it’s possible the Northeast could stage a comeback, it’s going to take a lot of imagination — and probably a lot of years. “If you think about what Manayunk was before it became what it is today, people would go, ‘Manayunk? Are you kidding?’” says Kenneth P. Balin, the chairman of ULI Philadelphia, a nonprofit institute that advocates for responsible real estate development. “It takes some innovative development for people to be able to come in and actually create a ‘place.’” And that could happen — one major investment, like a big arts center, could spark a renewal like the one nobody saw coming in Manayunk. And as other ethnic groups meld into the area (Asians have been on a buying spree in the Lower Northeast), the pattern of intermixing and growth that occurred with the big European immigration a century ago could repeat itself.

But with so many neighborhoods closer to Center City still to be gentrified, there seems little reason to believe the Northeast will attract the attention of either the urban pioneers who flip old neighborhoods into fashionable enclaves or the developers who capitalize on those enclaves once that happens. Fries with that?