"Promise Zone" designation brings hope in West Phila.

Kira Strong, of the People's Emergency Center in Mantua, stands before a building the group wants to refurbish if it can get funding through the area's designation as a federal "Promise Zone."
Kira Strong, of the People's Emergency Center in Mantua, stands before a building the group wants to refurbish if it can get funding through the area's designation as a federal "Promise Zone." (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 14, 2014

It's a part of West Philadelphia known mostly for hardship and hard tries.

The infamous Lex Street massacre occurred there, when gunmen lined up 10 people in the dining room of a crack house and opened fire, killing seven in 2000. It also was the home turf of the late, fearless antidrug activist Herman Wrice, whom President George H.W. Bush called "the John Wayne of Philadelphia."

Now, government officials and community activists say this stricken stretch of the city has a chance to become known for something else: revival.

Last week, the White House announced the area had been designated one of five "Promise Zones" nationwide, chosen to receive more federal attention and benefits in a collaborative effort to end decades of decline.

"This initiative right here, it's going to be an improvement and a blessing," said DeWayne Drummond, 33, a lifelong Mantua resident and president of its new civic association. "A whole lot of community organizations are coming together and unifying and standing as one."

That's no mere boast. Mantua agencies recently won two big, competitive federal grants, getting $250,000 from the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative and nearly $600,000 in Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation funds, which set up the pitch to become a Promise Zone.

The immediate, concrete impact of the new zone will be minimal - the Obama administration is not cutting a big check. It's not paying to hire more police, build houses, or add teachers to schools.

Instead, it promises to award bonus points in scored competitions for aid from 25 federal programs, giving the area a better chance to claim government money. The area will get five AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers, consideration for waivers from certain regulations, and unspecified technical assistance.

The administration says it needs Congress to act to offer tax credits to businesses that create jobs if Promise Zones are to flourish.

Mostly, what Obama administration officials promised in a conference call with journalists was a new way of doing business. Instead of approaching issues of crime, housing, and unemployment as separate ills, the federal and city governments will join with neighborhood groups to work toward transformation.

"It allows the community of Mantua to get the attention it so desperately needs," said Michael Thorpe, chairman of the Mount Vernon Apartments, which recently renovated 75 units of affordable housing.

The White House made the announcement on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson's declaration of the "War on Poverty," also naming communities in San Antonio, Los Angeles, southeast Kentucky, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

The West Philadelphia zone has 35,315 residents, covering all of Mantua and all or part of Powelton, West Powelton, and Belmont. It is bounded by the Schuylkill to the east, Girard Avenue to the north, 48th Street to the west, and Sansom Street to the south.

City officials and neighborhood leaders say the area is poor and crime-ridden - and a great place to make a bet, to invest on the chance that extra attention can make a big difference in a community trying to right itself.

"This is about planning and working smart," said Lucy Kerman, who oversees Drexel University's Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships. "Drexel invests, Mount Vernon invests, the city invests - the whole is more than the sum of the parts."

'Unattainable' jobs

The boundaries of the Promise Zone contain a world of misery - and potential.

The poverty rate is 51 percent, in parts surging to 80 percent. Unemployment is 14 percent. Nearly 15 percent of the houses are vacant, double the city average.

In places, one out of three residents has no high school diploma, fewer than two in 10 graduated from college, and more than 40 percent of children are not enrolled in early-education programs.

People live within an easy walk or ride of some of the city's biggest and most prominent employers, but "these jobs and opportunities are largely unattainable," the city's federal application stated.

Crime threatens everyone. The 2012 homicide rate was slightly higher than the city average, the rate of aggravated assaults and robberies much higher, the rate of rapes double.

The one crime category where the area did well? Car thefts. Because there are few cars to steal.

At the same time, the zone has advantages any community would envy. It is home to multiple energetic neighborhood groups, including the Mantua Collaborative and Mantua Civic Association.

It abuts Center City, includes 30th Street Station, and is close to the Philadelphia Zoo, Please Touch Museum, and Mann Music Center.

"It's not an island of deficit surrounded by deficit. There are opportunities," said Eva Gladstein, executive director of the city Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity.

The zone is within walking distance of Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania, two major, monied institutions. Drexel's Dornsife Center serves as a resource for job training, legal help, and health counseling.

The zone contains commercial corridors on Market Street, Lancaster Avenue, and Girard Avenue, two community centers, four playgrounds, eight schools, 26 churches, and a public library. Perhaps most crucially, advocates say, it has people who care about improving the place.

"We're poised," said Kira Strong, a vice president at the People's Emergency Center, which helps homeless women and their children. "There really is potential in these neighborhoods."

'Mantua pride'

The goals of the Promise Zone are as big as the challenges:

Attract new business and investment, increase employment, improve housing, and raise educational opportunities at all levels.

No one has attached specific numbers or measures to those aims. But federal officials are intent on quantifiable results.

The chances of achieving success?

It depends, said Villanova University political-science professor Craig Wheeland, who has closely followed the news about Promise Zones.

"The key to a sustained reduction in poverty depends on accelerating the local economy's recovery from the Great Recession," he said. And that will require new investment by businesses.

Drummond, who helped found the Mantua Civic Association in 2012, says the choice for the area is simple: Plan, or be planned for. Being a Promise Zone will help the area move forward in ways that benefit the people who live there, ensuring that their views drive decisions about the future.

"One thing that has always continued in Mantua is Mantua pride. I see it consistently, a sense of, 'This is my community,' " he said. "The people are coming out and have a voice, a strong voice."


MANTUA BY THE NUMBERS

51%

Poverty rate.

15%

Housing vacancy rate.

14%

Unemployment rate.


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906

@JeffGammage

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