A wary Point Breeze confronts its demographic shifts

Posted: March 24, 2011

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IT MAY NOT SEEM like an emotionally charged issue: City Council yesterday held a public hearing on a bill that would limit construction in Point Breeze for one year.

But Council Bill 110134 speaks to larger tensions involving gentrification and even race in this evolving neighborhood. It has exposed a rift between the neighborhood's historically African-American population and the mostly white newcomers who can buy homes there for thousands less than what they would just a few blocks to the north.

"It really is a fear of change, but if someone just moved in and wandered around, they'd wonder exactly what are they trying to keep the same?" said Andrew Marx, vice president of the Newbold Neighbors Association, which falls within Point Breeze. "The vacant lots filled with trash? The crumbling housing infrastructure? What are they so attached to?"

The bill calls for a one-year ban on construction of three-story dwellings and on any third-story additions or roof decks. Its stated purpose is "to give Council the opportunity to explore ways to preserve the uniformity of the streetscape and the current scale and density of the area." Many older homes in Point Breeze are two stories.

Supporting the ban is a group called the Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze, some of whom held "Save Point Breeze" signs during a hearing in the City Hall gallery yesterday. The bill was introduced at the request of Concerned Citizens' president, Betty Beaufort, who said that the ongoing development in the neighborhood "is profit over people."

"This is causing gentrification, and people are beginning to stress and worry if they will be able to live in the community where they have lived all their lives," Beaufort said. "Before we know it, they won't be able to afford to live in Point Breeze because they will be taxed out."

Opposing the bill are the Nutter administration, the City Planning Commission, residents like Marx and developers like John Longacre, who owns one restaurant and is trying to open another in the neighborhood. He said that the tax issue is moot.

"If somebody comes into your neighborhood and builds a brand- new house next to yours, the city can't come by and reassess your house," he said. "It's just a fear mechanism."

Then, what's the real reason certain citizens are fighting development, according to Longacre and others?

"They don't want white people," he said. "It's really that simple."

Point Breeze, just south of Center City, is roughly bordered by Washington Avenue and Broad, Moore and 25th streets. Its main commercial thoroughfare, Point Breeze Avenue, is pockmarked with vacant buildings. The community, too, is marred by empty homes and trash-strewn lots. Crime has long been a problem, and the neighborhood has repeatedly been ranked among the city's most dangerous.

Last year, Concerned Citizens caused a stir in the area with a flyer that warned against the influx of "yuppies."

It featured two photos: One of a $300,000 home on 19th Street and another of a cluster of white patrons sitting at sidewalk tables outside the Sidecar Bar, at 22nd and Christian streets.

"This will begin removing the poor, seniors, fix and low income, working class families and minorities," the flyer said. (Emphasis is Concerned Citizens'.)

The group's suggestion of a racial change has some basis. The neighborhood has seen its population shift in recent years. According to 2010 census data, while Point Breeze's total population - 23,585 - fell 8.5 percent from 2000, its white population - 2,723 - increased by 38 percent. Conversely, the African-American population - 16,034 - dropped 20 percent.

On the north side of Washington Avenue, in an area that goes by "Graduate Hospital" and other names, the redevelopment boom began before Point Breeze's and has produced even more extreme changes.

In the larger census tract known as Southwest Center City, the black population is less than half what it was in 2000. Meanwhile, the white population of that area - now 6,424 - doubled.

Still, members of Concerned Citizens denied that race factored into their support for the bill, saying that their primary concern is the appearance of the neighborhood. Three-story homes plopped down in the middle of blocks composed of largely two-story homes "look like dominoes," Beaufort said. They also block the skyline views that residents once enjoyed, she said.

Another Concerned Citizens member, Tiffany Green, speculated during the hearing yesterday that Martin Luther King Jr. would have come down on their side.

"I was thinking about what Martin Luther King would say about three-story luxury homes being built in low-income, minority communities," she said. "Many of you celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday and pay tribute to him, but I believe if Martin Luther King was alive today that he would be advocating on behalf of low-income minorities."

She passed out photos of three-story houses in two-story neighborhoods, then added, "We're not saying we're against new development, we're saying respect our communities."

Point Breeze's new residents say that they're not trying to disrespect the older ones.

Jonathan King, 31, purchased his two-story rowhouse with his wife in 2008. They were attracted by the affordable home prices, the proximity to Center City and the knowledge that they could add on to the top of their home when they were ready to have children.

"We're not real-estate speculators trying to make a quick buck," King said. "We're two people trying to start a family and stay in our house."

The Point Breeze Pioneers, a community-improvement organization, came together about three years ago. One of its early goals was to clean up a community garden near founder Antoinette Johnson's home.

Not everyone was happy with that. At one point, one resident told Johnson that "she'd rather see a vacant lot with a drug dealer in it than white people gardening," Johnson recalled.

"It comes down to a fear of change and a racial divide, to some extent," she said.

But some of those who initially differed with the Pioneers are finding themselves on the same side.

Claudia Sherrod, director of South Philadelphia HOMES, was quoted in 2009 in the Philadelphia City Paper as saying that the Pioneers were "too aggressive" and spoke "with a forked tongue."

Now she and Johnson both oppose the development moratorium.

Sherrod's organization is overseeing the development of two affordable housing developments in the neighborhood. Both include three-story homes.

A Point Breeze resident for more than 50 years, Sherrod noted that the alleged reason for taking up the bill - "to preserve the uniformity of the streetscape" - was out of place.

"Prior to my birth, there were two-story and three-story houses all over," she said. "They looked crazy then and they look crazy now and they'll be here long after I'm gone."

City Council President Anna Verna, who introduced the bill, said yesterday that "never in my wildest dreams did I think there would be so much opposition." She asked that the bill be tabled so the community groups could possibly find a compromise.

At the very least, some of them are talking.

"It's been kind of a blessing in disguise," Johnson said of the controversial legislation. "The newer groups and the older groups are coming together on the same page on this issue."

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