Confessions of a Gentrifier

In a neighborhood where nine out of ten kids gets a free lunch, should we be paying $8 for a pint of ice cream?

A few months ago, toward the end of the summer, I was walking my dog near my house in East Kensington when my neighbor Franky (not his real name) called out to me. Franky, who’s about 10, is a fixture on our block. He lives around the corner with his dad, his grandmother and his sister in a tired-looking house that doubles as a sort of informal command center for the neighborhood youth.

He spends his days with the other kids his age, doing kid things like playing football and lighting stuff on fire (it’s true, I caught him once).

Anyway, Franky loves my dog and when he sees us he usually runs up to give her a pat on the head. This time, as he scratched behind Mara’s ear, he had a question for me:

“Are yuppies rich?”

The query caught me by surprise. I hadn’t heard that term in about 15 years, and probably never coming out of a 10-year-old’s mouth. I wasn’t even sure true 1980s-style yuppies even existed anymore. I thought about it for a minute and offered the best response I could think of:  “I’m not sure,” I said. “I don’t really know any.”

It wasn’t until a few blocks later that I realized he asked me that because someone had convinced him I’d know the answer. Someone, probably his dad, told him that people like me — people who buy up homes in their neighborhood, pull down the aluminum siding and plant a flowering cherry out front — are part of an elite class that distinguishes itself by a taste for microbrews and recreational running (guilty on both counts). For lack of a better term, to Franky’s dad, that made us yuppies. And we were rich.

For the sake of argument, my wife and I are technically urban professionals — though few people would call us young anymore. But we’re hardly rich. We have some money in a couple of IRAs and can afford an occasional dinner out at a nice restaurant. But even with our car paid off, once you add in the school loans, the mortgage and the other random debt, we pretty much live hand-to-mouth.

But wealth is relative, and in our neighborhood we probably rank near the top of the economic strata. While not nearly as bad off as the neighboring communities west of Front Street, East Kensington is plagued by deeply entrenched poverty. More than 90 percent of the students at Hackett Horatio B School — which sits at the top of my street — qualify for free lunch; and according to Measure of America’s “Opportunity Index” Kensington is tied with Southwest Philly for hosting the largest percentage of disconnected youth in the metro area.

The fact that we can buy a new pair of brand-name boots each year and take trips with suitcases probably makes us seem pretty well off, even if our 10-year old VW is being held together by bungee cords (which it is by the way.)

For the record, I’ve never been in denial that my wife and I are part of the wave of gentrification that is sweeping through Fishtown and Kensington, but I’d never been presented with such a stark reminder of our outsider status here. I’ll admit, it made me feel kind of dirty.  “Gentrification” is a loaded term that carries with it a hidden presumption of exploitation.  It’s true, when we bought our home two years ago, we were looking for a different experience than we’d had in the Fairmount neighborhood where we had been renting a two-bedroom apartment. But there was also a matter of cost. Like people just like us in cities all over the world, we were looking for a home we could afford in a neighborhood that offered both authenticity and potential.  We came to this neighborhood seeking opportunity — partly financial, partly cultural — but certainly not to exploit anyone.

And it should be said, “opportunity” goes both ways.  Our first year here, just after Thanksgiving some kids came to the door to sing Christmas carols. They struggled to get through a few unpracticed verses of Jingle Bells. It sounded pretty horrible, but my wife was tickled. A former choir girl she sat on the stoop and coached them on the lyrics. When they were through I went looking for a few dollars to give them for their effort, but could only find a five. They ran off with their money and came back every single day after that looking for more until I told them to scram. The next year they started ringing the bell the week after Halloween.

I can’t blame them for hustling. But I don’t feel any responsibility to pander to it.  I truly believe the best gift my wife and I can offer the disadvantaged kids in our neighborhood is cultural not financial. An investment in social capital, even a meager one, offers the greatest long-term payoff. Residential segregation (racial and socio-economic) stands like the Berlin wall between Philadelphia’s haves and have nots. If breaking that down can help show one kid there is a life beyond the streets of East Kensington, I’d say that’s supremely more valuable than buying ten kids a slice of pizza.

Still sometimes I’m struck by how much we take for granted — how something that seems so natural and class-neutral, like going for a morning run, can seem somehow elitist in a neighborhood where so many people struggle to get by. I imagine how people who’ve lived here all their lives must marvel at the idea that people would pay $8 for a pint of cardamom vanilla ice cream at Little Baby’s when you can get perfectly good pint of vanilla for a quarter of the price at Quick Stop just up the street. My wife and I try our best to keep a balance; we no longer buy $16 organic chickens at Greensgrow Farms (though we love their vegetables).

And from now on I think we’ll stick to Breyers.

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