Gentrification is goal of city plan

Posted: August 15, 2011

By Akili Nkrumah, Carla Harris, and Philé Chionesu

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission's recently completed comprehensive plan, designed to shape the city's land-use and other priorities for the next 25 years, is unfortunately a blueprint for the gentrification of African American, Latino, and poor white neighborhoods, as well as a chronicle of the utter neglect of their interests. It represents a breathtaking capitulation by the city's African American, Latino, and supposedly progressive leadership.

The plan was created largely by elected and appointed city officials, bureaucrats beholden to the mayor, developers, and pro-gentrification academics. Citizen input was accepted at scripted, unwieldy, methodologically unsound meetings where invitees responded to leading questions. What was missing were open-ended questions about tenor, direction, and policy priorities.

We provided dozens of pages of suggested modifications, but this and other feedback was never taken seriously. The result is a "good news" work of fiction that unapologetically ignores serious issues facing the city. Nowhere in the document, for instance, is there evidence that 40 percent of the city's renters spend at least a third of their income on rent, while the median rent increased by 31 percent over the last decade.

Increasing the quantity and quality of affordable housing might be the city's most pressing need. But you would never know it from the comprehensive plan. There are only a few brief acknowledgments of the need in the 232-page document.

The plan's energy goes chiefly into looking out for developers, upper-income suburbanites, and the new college graduates the city hopes to attract. It spends as much time on "farmers' markets" and "urban agriculture" as it does on the need for new supermarkets, and it hopes to convert "obsolete" industrial buildings into lofts for young artists instead of investing in the city's current residents and small businesses.

The heart of the plan is to cannibalize neighborhoods in North, South, and West Philadelphia so that Center City can expand dramatically, joining University City to form a two-headed beast that it calls the "Metropolitan Center." Stretching from the Delaware River to 40th Street, and from Girard Avenue to Washington Avenue, the Metropolitan Center would annex gentrification battlefields where African American and Latino populations are already being forced out.

The Center City and University City expansions will accelerate and consolidate these demographic trends. The new center and its environs will become upper-income, white enclaves, with little evidence of the people of color or poorer residents who called those areas home for more than 60 years. The plan's incessant verbiage about increased diversity is a deliberate misdirection and the foundational hypocrisy of the document.

Moreover, struggling small businesses in the newly stolen neighborhoods will inevitably have to pay fees assessed by the heavy-handed Center City District. Shouldn't these businesses have been consulted first?

This plan should be withdrawn and a new one created from the ground up. Civic organizations, owners of small businesses and commercial properties, and residents should be asked about their infrastructure, housing, health and welfare, and other priorities. A truly democratic comprehensive plan would emphasize improving the lives of the city's current residents and helping existing neighborhoods grow. City Council and the Planning Commission must allow the people to shape the future of the city.

Akili Nkrumah is first assistant president general of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The Rev. Carla Harris is the founder of the African Redemption Church. Philé Chionesu is director of the Million Woman March Black Community Preservation and Development Group. They

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