“There Are No Urban Pioneers, Just Checkbooks With a Christopher Columbus Complex.”
As the city strives for Shared Prosperity, it should remember that a war on poverty is not a war on the poor.
A year ago, my best friend came into town for a conference and met me at my job for lunch. At the time, I was working at a non-profit in eastern North Philadelphia. She arrived at the corner of Third and Somerset Streets to pick me up, and as the blight of Fairhill yielded to the sprawl of Kensington, she started asking questions.
“OK. Um, whats going on, Philly?” she asked as she noticed broken sidewalks and vacant lots garnished with weeds. “Where are the grocery stores? Where are the schools? Who is allowing it to look like this?” Having visited me before, she referenced the disparities she’d noticed as a casual observer. “Where are the white folks? Everybody I’ve seen up here is black and brown.”
We continued down American Street and crossed Girard.
“This is ‘Northern Liberties,’ I said,” with cynical air quotes. “This is actually North Philly, too. But it’s been rebranded for the developers and hipsters.”
“And the white folks. Yeah, I see now.”
I thought about this conversation as I learned about Mayor Nutter’s “Shared Prosperity” plan, which notes that “at a staggering 28 percent, Philadelphia’s poverty rate is the highest among the nation’s 10 largest cities. Over 430,000 of our 1,547,600 citizens live below the federal poverty line. … Black Philadelphians and Latinos are twice as likely to be poor as whites.”
The plan coming out of City Hall is obvious, if not overdue. Government, public policy and social service organizations have trouble staying on one accord to accomplish any of the things they’re actually designed to do for individuals and communities in need of services.
Efforts to “revitalize” areas affected by poverty often result in the unfair and uncomfortable displacement of long-term residents. Gentrification often results in increased rents, property taxes and real estate. Development coincides with affluence — or perhaps more accurately, the perception of affluence, as commercial development seldom follows people of color — as seen in kitschy new neighborhoods like Newbold within Point Breeze or the ever-expanding “University City.”
The cultural impact of this is burdensome, leaving the identities of city neighborhoods neutralized, if not outright destroyed as communities are renamed and each corner becomes littered with cliche.
Rehabbed lofts, yoga studios, brick-oven pizzerias, specialty organic grocers.
The deaths of communities are marked by the presence of Starbucks.
Part of the reason people move to cities is because they aren’t cookie-cutter suburbs. There is an integrity and specificity to each neighborhood that reflects the residents of its streets.
There is a voice.
Those working in a capacity to fight poverty should take care not to make the poor their enemy. When taking steps to revitalize a neighborhood, reaffirmation should be part of the plan, not redesign. There are no “urban pioneers,” just checkbooks with a Christopher Columbus complex.
“Shared prosperity” requires that all Philadelphians have a place to call their own, a place that gets to keep its name. And its voice.