Is it revitalization or displacement? Hear true stories of the real impact of gentrification.
Guests: Mo Burroughs, Freya Zork, Ociele Hawkins, Dan Gasiewski, Jim Saksa, Ken Finkel, Nathaniel Popkin
Image: Johanna Austin
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
The debate surrounding gentrification continues in cities across America, including Philadelphia. PlanPhilly reporter Jim Saksa provides context for this debate.
What We’ve Gained & What We’ve Lost
In every Philadelphia neighborhood, the social and architectural history from past generations is still visible. It fills residents with a sense of place and home. But what happens when the old family grocery store is scrapped for a high-rise condominium?
Read the transcript
Mo Burroughs: There are no words to describe the beauty of a complete home, a complete community. How the fullness of everything in its place, and the casual usualness of nothing missing, is holy.
Jamie J Brunson: That’s Mo Burroughs, so eloquently talking about “home” as an anchor in life. There’s this aching joy, longing, and bit of sorrow in the words spoken at the First Person Arts-Commonspace live event called Gentrified. I’m your host Jamie J and today we are all about gentrification. So, what is gentrification? In a Merriam Webster Dictionary nutshell, it’s the process of renewal and rebuilding, accompanying the influx of middle class or affluent people into deteriorated or deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents. Our storytellers Mo Burroughs, Ociele Hawkins and Freya Zork had a lot to tell us about their neighborhoods before gentrification. Again, here’s Mo Burroughs.
Mo Burroughs: How does one describe the feeling under the tattoo of feet on concrete, the staccato of feet that know where they’re going and know where they’ve been. How sure they can sound, how full of the earth’s own pulse, and how different, too, from the stutter step of feet that come upon the suddenly unfamiliar new road; sparkling with imported importance, and not to be trod upon. How does one describe the feeling under the sound of children playing, un-accosted by new strangers’ eyes behind new strangers’ curtains, playing as children should—with great energy and volume and wild imagination?
There is sublime beauty in the neighborhood that remembers its own ghosts.
Jamie J Brunson: Storyteller Ociele Hawkins certainly remembers the ghosts of a Philadelphia childhood.
Ociele Hawkins: I grew up in a neighborhood in South Philly called Point Breeze. It’s the neighborhood that my family has lived in for the past 80 years. There’s a familiarity there that feels inherited. My childhood home is 8 blocks away from Washington Avenue and 7 blocks from Broad Street, but all that really mattered as a kid was 21st Street between Mifflin to Sigel and sometimes McClellan Street. There aren’t any trees on the block where I grew up. So, no matter what it’s always bright -- sunny in the daytime and lit from the streetlights at night. Because its south Philly the street is always sardined with cars after 5 o’clock and gap toothed looking in the morning. It’s fascinating how many memories can fit between Mifflin and McClellan…from my first kiss to the first time I was stopped and frisked.
Jamie J Brunson: To research this show we talked to a lot of people about gentrification. And it seems like it’s a word that’s fluid and can convey completely different meanings depending on who’s talking. So what’s displacement for some is revitalization for others, uprooting or improvement, investment or speculation. I’m here in the studio with Dan Gasiewski from First Person Arts. Dan, you invested in buying a second house a few years ago, right?
Dan Gasiewski: Yeah.
Jamie J Brunson: Where do you stand on this?
Dan Gasiewski: It's complicated. I grew up in Philly in the 80s and the whole city just seemed abandoned. If you think of the art museum, one of our iconic landscapes, the whole area behind that was behind cyclone fencing. You couldn't get back there, the waterworks were crumbling, the whole length of Parkside Avenue was falling down. You could walk around Mantua and all these other neighborhoods in Philly and just-- my friends and I would walk around the city just trying to picture what you could do with all the empty land in Philadelphia and imagine that you would buy that last house standing on the block and plant a whole orchard around it. It sounds silly now, but at the time that's where we were. So from the perspective of somebody who grew up in that city, I love seeing people living in formerly abandoned houses that they've rehabbed and that are now full of life.
Jamie J Brunson: But there seems to be some bitter sweetness around gentrification. On one side we have people that feel like their home is now being, should I say the word invaded? By new people. The place where they have made all of their memories and had all of their life experiences is now drastically changing in every way? And then you have this group that are coming into new neighborhoods to make new memories. But what we haven't heard is the conversations and the relationships that can be built between the two. How do you come into a new neighborhood?
Dan Gasiewski: Well I came into Point Breeze as both a new resident and a landlord. But I think that the basic rules are the same. You just have to talk to people. You have to introduce yourself to the neighbors. You have to find out people's names. Bring cookies to people at Christmas and just become a part of the life of that neighborhood. Too often I see people who come in and either just isolate themselves, just walk in the door, shut the door, never talk to anybody or when they are out and about, or when they're talking to you about the neighborhood, all they're focused on is the neighborhood that they want it to become in the future and they're not interested in the neighborhood that it has been in the past.
Jamie J Brunson: So it seems like cities have, in order to remain relevant, in order to remain attractive to people, you know, they have had these sweeping projects that have served to reface the city. Rebrand the city. And some of those projects have been sweeping and have been happening historically for many, many, many years. Philadelphia historian Ken Finkel shared with us a great example of gentrification that occurred in Philadelphia, in this very city, a full century ago, that created a sweeping change for the city at a great cost.
Ken Finkel: There were thousands of row houses demolished to create the Parkway. And they weren’t terribly old but this was such a massive civic project at a time when the city was looking to rethink itself. You can imagine that for years, in the nineteen teens, along the Parkway, there would be the sound of demolition and it didn’t begin to look like the Parkway until that sound had gone on for months and months. There were houses were we are standing, there were institutions, there were churches, there were schools, it was the quarter of the city!
Jamie J Brunson: A quarter of the city! A drastic undertaking. So maybe this is it’s a good time to bring on our storyteller Freya Zork, to talk about her beloved New Orleans, where the upheaval brought on by Katrina wasn't gentrification but it was an upheaval. It was unexpected and it was radical.
Dan Gasiewski: It’s not gentrification in the more traditional way that we’ve been talking about it, but as the city was being, and continues to be, rebuilt, urban planners and developers made choices about which neighborhoods they wanted to prioritize.
Jamie J Brunson: And it was an evident source of contention and frustration and protest for the African American homeowners displaced by the hurricane. My grandmother used to have a saying, if “If God is willing and the creek don’t rise”, which is also the name of Spike Lee's HBO documentary about when the levies broke in New Orleans and how community members from the 9th ward, most affected by the storm were just asking for equal treatment.
(Chanting) Stop the demolition!!! Stop the demolition!!!
Sharon Sears Jasper: “I’m not gonna let the system, walk over me, take away my pride, my respect, and my dignity…they’re already trying to take away my home, and my family, but today…I will stay, if I got to lay down and die, I refuse to let the city of New Orleans kick me to the ground and walk on me.
Krystal Muhammad: “It’s 100,000 black people, poor people displaced out of this city. I’m sick of you white liberals acting like you feel our pain. We built this city. For free. For five hundred years. And you cowards are going to wait until our people are scattered across America, and try to tear down the public housing. How cowardly are you to tear down the poor people, women and children!
Jamie J Brunson: Real voices from New Orleans speaking about the impact of displacement on the human spirit. Humiliation and helplessness. Here's Freya Zork fondly remembering her life in the Big Easy before Katrina.
Freya Zork: In 2005 we lived in a small 2 bedroom apartment with my friends Nick and Soo. He was from a small town in central Louisiana and she was Quebecois. Back in those days I was just young and broke, I didn’t have much of a plan. But my roommates had moved to New Orleans with a dream of making it as musicians. We lived in one half of a shotgun double. On the other side of the double was Bruce, a quiet man in his 50s who was studying at Catholic seminary. We shared a laundry room and a stingy landlord with Bruce. Next door was Mr. Burke. He was retired and lived with his daughter and her young son. He’d sit on the front porch all day. He was friendly without talking much. If you said hello, he said “all right.” So many nights, I remember sitting on the front porch drinking beer with my roommates. We’d watch rats that were bigger than squirrels run back and forth across the power lines while termites swarmed above our heads. Sundays the living room was always reserved for band practice. I remember once the guys up the street called the cops for a noise violation at 3:00 in the afternoon. And Catholic seminary Bruce thought this was ridiculous and he said so straight to the cops. We had a crummy stove and were usually a bit behind on the dishes, but it was a cozy place to cook dinner for friends. Being a shotgun, my bedroom was on the way to Nick and Soo’s room, and their room was on my way to the laundry room, so we spent a lot of time in each other’s space. We made it work.
Jamie J Brunson: As Mo Burroughs tells it, a neighborhood and its homeowners have many ways of making it work.
Mo Burroughs: The neighborhood where I grew up, my Granny’s neighborhood, looked like old brick row homes, some a little run down but all tidy. A bakery across the street, then, after the fire, an empty lot where the bakery used to be. A red brick warehouse, painted red for extra redness sits empty on the corner. Skinny South Philly streets. There’s an ancient beer distributor around the corner. Trash litters the streets most days. Neighbors talk, standing on stoops or in the middle of the sidewalk. Most say “Hello!” when passing. The empty lot in front of my house is huge and grassy—a level kind of pit surrounded by chain link fence. The streets are quiet, and un-crowded most days.
But back in the day this was the spot for family dinners every Friday night. We’d cram ourselves into the tiny house, 20 of us on average, and triple that on holidays. We’d press ourselves onto the benches beside the dining table, or cram ourselves on the steps leading upstairs, or jam ourselves into the armchairs in the living room, excited for Gran’s food.
“Get out of the kitchen!” was heard often, whenever Granny or one of the aunts got tired of stepping on children. But after dinner those children would rush out into the street. We’d race up and down the street, Olympic heroes, athletes, until a watchful uncle or older cousin said “Car!” we’d jump out of the street and run onto the sidewalk and wait, vibrating, for the intrusion to pass so we could run again.
Ociele Hawkins: Jan 4th, 1980, ten years before I was born, my then 27-year-old mom moved into the house she would call home for the next 37 years. After 3 decades of mortgage payments, my mom became the 1st person in our family to own a home since the end of slavery. Um-hm. Fulfilling something that I think that my great-great grandmother, who moved from Jim Crow Virginia in the 1930s wished she could've done. Since the 30s my family has lived in Point Breeze for four generations. In the context of today, surrounded by constant transience, I think that’s kind of remarkable.
Jamie J Brunson: It was remarkable! But people in search for new places to live also noticed and looked at well-kept properties in inexpensive neighborhoods. Realtors and developers were attuned to the changing demographics in Philadelphia. Developers like John Longacre renamed a part of Point Breeze in 2003, calling it Newbold.
Dan Gasiewski: Yeah, changing the name of neighborhood is part of the real estate game. The old name carries baggage and history so the developers change the name so they can change the identity. Sometimes it's innocent, but sometimes it's hard not to see it as a deliberate attempt to erase the history of the people who are living there. That's how the Dock Ward became the Fifth Ward and then in the sixties, Society Hill. That's how The Neck became The Stadium District. Just recently, the Gayborhood, being rebranded as Midtown Village.
Jamie J Brunson: How about Kensington?
Dan Gasiewski: Kensington seems to be one of those where everybody's actually racing to re-brand their neighborhood as Kensington. Since it used to be The Badlands, now everybody wants to be Kensington. So there's North Kensington, East Kensington, West Kensington, Old Kensington, New Kensington, and I think that of all of those the newest of those names is actually Old Kensington.
Jamie J Brunson: And you know just to be clear I'm not saying that we want to continue suffering but I just think that there is something painful about the erasure of a history. All right, let’s continue with our virtual realtor. She's a composite of several realtors who work in the area created for the purpose of this performance.
Realtor: John started with a vision to redevelop this part of South Philadelphia. And so far he is doing a great job. Home prices have significantly risen over the past 4 years. Ultimo Cafe was just voted the Best Cup of Coffee in USA and John recently broke ground on 16th & Moore Street with plans to build 16 new row homes, 2 new condos and more retail space. And it’s all green development. This is something that the younger generation has been asking for in South Philadelphia since Passyunk Square started picking up major traction.
Ociele Hawkins: Oh, really ?
Realtor: YES! Which is why this lovely town home was tastefully restored with a real nod to modern design aesthetics and function, while still maintaining historic charm.
Freya Zork: Tastefully restored. That means it got the ten year tax abatement. So much for funding city public schools.
Jamie J Brunson: So, we're welcoming to the studio Jim Saksa, he is a reporter for WHYY and PlanPhilly. I'm asking Jim to comment on the tax abatement situation surrounding gentrification. Jim, what role do taxes play in the gentrification process?
Jim Saksa: I think they play a tremendous role in many regards. One is, the city was shrinking for 50 years until 2006. Only since then has the city been growing with more people coming in than leaving, right? Because of that, the city has been encouraging people to move here in large part through the ten-year tax abatement which is an abatement on the part of the property that's been built. The abatement does not effect the land value. There are two things that you tax when you talk about taxing the home. The land itself and the building, right? So that's led a lot of people coming in, fixing up old homes, building new homes on vacant lots and getting these large ten year abatements off the bill, essentially making the homes cheaper, helping to support the influx of people. That being said, one of the key issues that when we talk about gentrification and the concern about displacement is the increase in local land taxes in the area. As more people move into the area, the land itself gets more valuable so the assessed value of that land goes up and based off the assessed value, your real estate taxes go up, especially if you haven't renovated recently or you didn't rebuild recently. So if you've been living there for thirty years and all of a sudden all of these people start moving in, all of a sudden the value of your land doubles and you cannot afford to live there anymore. That is the major concern about displacement there. That being said, there have been studies in New York and Philadelphia by a Columbia professor in New York and here at the Philadelphia Fed that have suggested that displacement doesn't really happen in the numbers that people might think, that in fact gentrifying neighborhoods may actually have fewer people moving out of them than otherwise you'd expect. That actually more people stay than would usually go. So that's a concern but you can pinpoint to certain neighborhoods where it's almost impossible to deny that there hasn't been a displacement effect. The most prominent example around here is the area right around the Penn Alexander School. Penn built an elementary school right west of its campus. When they built that in 2001 it was a predominantly lower income African American neighborhood. Since then, the median income levels in that neighborhood have doubled, and the number of, the percentage of African Americans has gone down by half. So something's happening there but that's a dramatic example and because of those dramatic examples it's tough to argue that there isn't some sort of displacement effect despite the mix of data that suggests that it isn't as pronounced usually than what people might think.
Jamie J Brunson: Thank you so much, Jim Saksa, for joining us today at Commonspace as we explore this idea of gentrification.
Jim Saksa: Thanks for having me.
Jamie J Brunson: You're listening to Commonspace, a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY. And it's been supported by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. I'm your host, Jamie J in the studio with Dan Gasiewski. At one point or another the issue of safety comes up in conversations about buying property in a developing neighborhood. Going into a new neighborhood is like going into a foreign land, and there are a lot of things that you would take into consideration before going into a neighborhood. Like, safety. Like, accessibility, inclusion, attitude, culture. These are the things that when I went to purchase my home I really wanted to make sure I was in a neighborhood that was honoring of people from all ethnicities with all orientations and that it was a safe neighborhood. And, in fact, I remember asking my realtor: is this neighborhood safe?
Realtor: Sorry, what was that? How’s the neighborhood, is it safe? Funny you should ask. Because I’m not legally allowed to answer that question. If I did, it would be considered steering, which, according to the Fair Housing Act is the illegal funneling of homebuyers to a particular neighborhood based on the intention to change that neighborhood or keep it the same. But what I can tell you is take some time to get to know the neighborhood. Walk around it during the day, and night, and see how you feel. See if you feel safe.
Mo Burroughs: It’s June, 2003. I feel safe. I feel part of a community that knows and loves all of me, for the first time in my life. I came to be here quickly, after a while of meandering. I get a call from a friend in Chicago, she’s like, “Blood. Janet killed herself. I need you to come home.” Home. I had never considered that Chicago had become that, but that is where I chose my peeps and where they chose me and we were blood. So I go. And I feel safe. Three enormous apartment buildings, full of people I knew or would know and love. While helping to plan the funeral I get roommates and a place to live in these buildings. It needs a little work, but it’s beautiful. The first beautiful apartment I ever lived in. My best friend’s is a three floor walk-up away. My close friends are equally accessible. My new downstairs neighbors, they have a parrot. It imitates a garbage truck…and I love it. Life goes on like this. We live, we love, we work. We go to war for each other. We interfere with police for each other. We cook, we clean, we babysit and we house-sit for each other. We spread Janet’s ashes on our little patch of grass, and we laugh as the wind throws it in our faces. When the weather is good, we have cookouts on our porch decks, and everyone is invited. If you live here, you know somebody. You are kin or kin of kin and so you are invited.
Jamie J Brunson: Feeling safe can be a relative term. Even a new establishment in an old neighborhood can cause confusion.
Ociele Hawkins: Getting to the subway is pretty much a straight shot from my childhood home. That day, I could hear dirt bikes in the distance and because it was summer everybody was outside. I’m talking water ice and a pretzel type weather. Before I got to the sub I stopped at 15th street. Something was different. Like, the structure of this building looked the same, except for this huge window cut out on the first floor and these two young white yuppies, with these two coffee cups in their hands. I walk up and I asked, “What’s this place?”
Yuppies: “It’s a coffee shop. We’re watching this place for a friend. You should totally have some coffee sometime. It’s really good!”
Ociele Hawkins: And they went back to sipping their coffee from their little white coffee cups, and I kept walking, feeling caught off guard and confused.
Jamie J Brunson: What Ociele starts to talk about is being caught off guard and confused by people that were in the neighborhood that kind of had made it their own and it was almost a sense of, you don't own this place you just walked in here two days ago and put up a coffee shop and you act like you own the place. And maybe that is the person like Dan who is trying to get to know and be a part of the neighborhood but it could be perceived as being aggressive.
Dan Gasiewski:Absolutely. In fact, one of the most meaningful interactions with one of my new neighbors was, we're talking about the spate of new development on these two tiny little streets right off of our block and in the course of three years, I'm not exaggerating, they built thirty new houses.
Jamie J Brunson: Wow.
Dan Gasiewski: That all sell in the multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars on these two tiny streets. And again, I'm coming at it from a place where I think it's exciting to see new development happening. I'm nervous about certain aspects of it but I'm generally supportive. And my neighbor looked at me and he said, "Well, not everybody in the neighborhood was for them before they came up." And he said, "But we lost. You understand me? We lost." And I thought it was gut wrenching to hear him kind of mourn the loss of his old neighborhood but I also thought it was interesting we had the trust that he could talk to me about it. And even now there's almost sort of us against certain new, new neighbors who are not interested in the old neighborhood.
Jamie J Brunson: And I feel really torn over this whole topic of gentrification because I do empathize with folks that feel displaced and no longer at home in the places that they made their lives. But I also can see the joy and promise of moving into a new home, making the largest investment of your entire life and wanting to be part of a community. So I can kind of see it from both sides even though I can imagine everybody isn't like you, Dan. They don't come into a neighborhood and knock on doors or bring cookies at Christmas. But I kind of feel like I can see both sides and I don't see either side as a villain.
Dan Gasiewski: No, and there are a lot of us who grew up in Philly and by definition the people who are going through this are old school Philadelphians who grew up in a time when nobody came to Philadelphia. When you met somebody on the street in Philly you asked them where they were from, you were gonna get a neighborhood. You weren't gonna hear someone say they were from Montana, you weren't gonna hear someone say they moved here from another country. So to me, it's a momentous thing that I've moved to a different neighborhood in Philadelphia but that's a Philadelphia that is fading and it's probably for the best for us as a city because we have to grow our population, we need people to move in from outside of the city but it's gonna cause some growing pains.
Realtor: We are always surprised to see the way that blocks can change, and this example is consistent with the other examples we've seen in this neighborhood.
Mo Burroughs: Maintenance requests stop being answered. Then a building gets renovated across the little alley.
Realtor: At the moment, this block is a mess of construction.
Mo Burroughs: No observing construction laws. It’s a rush job. It smells. It crowds us. Then: a rent hike. Is it legal? I don’t know. I thought to stay and fight it. But not all of us could. Not most, or even a lot could.
Realtor: But in about a year, it will be radically transformed, with only a few vacant lots remaining. We contend that this construction will have major improvements to the neighborhood, although we don't necessarily know if the long term residents would agree.
Ociele Hawkins: Feeling powerless has to be one of the worst feelings in the world. That day Mom came into my room with a letter in her hand. I could tell something was wrong by the way she was moving. Motionless but forward. She handed me the letter and just sat down. Before I could even ask, she began to speak. "This is a letter from the city,” she said. "They tryna take my house," she said. My heart dropped. "What do you mean??" She went on to explain that the city wanted to raise taxes on her home. Her property tax. My mom and I just sat in my room.
Jamie J Brunson: There seem to be two groups coming into these neighborhoods. One is the homeowners, the person who actually buys and lives there…and the other is the developer. Regardless of the internal conflicts of neighborhood homeowners, caused by changes in living conditions, realtors are in the business of selling the new properties, and they do that by praising the convenience of the place.
Realtor: Less than 15 minutes away from South Philadelphia, Siena Place is a perfect balance between hectic city life and the tranquility of the suburbs. You can either stay in your community and enjoy your cozy home, or venture into the city and explore all that it has to offer.
Ociele Hawkins: It took my mother 30 years to pay for her house. You know the kind of pride that comes with that? So how dare they try to snatch that away!
Jamie J Brunson: Or as in Freya’s case, how dare they make her return to New Orleans, more painful that it already was?
Freya Zork: It was my first day back in town. Up until about a week ago, residents had been prohibited from re-entering New Orleans because so much of the city was still under water. My neighborhood didn’t flood so badly, but when I returned to my block I found that all of our belongings had been thrown outside into a trash pile on the curb. Furniture, electronics, kitchenware, photographs. All destroyed. Then my neighbor Mr. Burke came outside to shed some light on the situation. Rental prices in the city were rising, so my landlord Oscar was eager to start a new lease more in line with the new market. He’d been showing the apartment to another tenant earlier in the week, and then, Mr. Burke told me, a crew had been there the next day to clear out our things. When I found out that we had been evicted, I assumed it was a mistake. So I called Oscar and he answered right away. I asked him if he knew that all of my things were on the curb. He did. And I him asked if he knew they were all destroyed. He knew that too. I took a deep breath and tried to stay calm.
Realtor: Perez is offering a beautiful, multi-phased, family and residential and commercial development in New Orleans. You can actually get beautiful views of the Mississippi River.
Mo Burroughs: In two months these buildings are half empty. Half of my community now lives nearby-ish. What used to be a short walk in pajamas to family is now a short walk through fumes to the train, and then the el, and then maybe another train or a bus. My anxiety, my depression, my agoraphobia, did not allow for these trips to happen often. Isolation set in.
Jamie J Brunson: We all know that a neighborhood street is not just a set of houses; it’s also the stories of the families that live there, the sounds, the smells, the pride and also the tragedies. The very history.
Realtor: Because in Philadelphia, you buy into a community, a history, and a set of amenities that vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, and sometimes even from block to block. At Sienna place you can enjoy 3 to 4 bedrooms, 2 to 3 baths, 1 to 2 powder rooms, and your own private driveway with your own garage. Along with 9-foot ceilings these town-homes in the upper $400's are sure to impress.
Ociele Hawkins: Her and the city both knew that she couldn't afford higher taxes on the house. So how does taxes go up in a neighborhood with a median annual income of under $35,000 a year? There's money to be made off the inconvenience of poor black folks
Mo Burroughs: Then, finally - finally - a letter to the tenants: the properties have been sold; existing leases will not be honored. You have 30 days. I stay.
Realtor: At Sienna place, your home is your sanctuary.
Jamie J Brunson: You’re listening to Commonspace, a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY, and it’s been supported by the Pew Center For Arts and Heritage – I’m your host Jamie J. in the studio with Dan Gasiewski. What happens when your neighborhood is gentrified, and you can’t afford the new taxes or the rent, or as with our storyteller Mo Burroughs, you can’t move somewhere else, even after an un-announced visit by the new owner of your home.
Mo Burroughs: I stay because I have nowhere to go. And I stay because some of my people are still here. Because I get obstinate in the face of injustice. I didn’t have a plan, I just had a dug-in personality. Some of us have been corresponding with the landlords. They tell us they are no longer the landlords. We say to them, “You used to come to our cookouts. How could you allow for all these people to be displaced in this way?” We are referred to the new landlords. Throughout all this, I become desperate and disheartened. Finding a new place after so recently moving was difficult—my resources had been used up, I didn’t have time to recoup. At this point, I’m staying purely because I don’t have the means to move myself. A few of us kick around these empty buildings, nervous wrecks. One day, a man I don’t know lets himself into my home. I'm in bed and I hear him. I threw clothes on and went out to the kitchen to see what the actual f***. I'm alone now, Cole and Amy having finally recently moved. I block his path into the rest of the apartment. I ask him what he thinks he’s doing. He laughs and he tells me that I shouldn’t be there. I tell him I know you know this is someone’s home and I know you know it wasn’t right to enter. Standing in my kitchen, meticulously decorated by myself and Amy, he takes a sharpie out of his shirt pocket and writes his phone number on the wall. “Call me when you know you will be out,” he says. “It can’t be too much longer,” he says.
Ociele Hawkins: My mother is most resourceful and brilliant people I know, taking lemons and making a four-course meal. So by jumping through whole a lot of hoops, she was able to figure out things affordably. Unfortunately, even with the most resilient and brilliant among us, things don’t always work out.
Jamie J Brunson: Back in New Orleans, Freya is also running into legal problems with her landlord, while attempting to stay in the house she rents.
Freya Zork: I asked him if he knew that there were no functioning courts in New Orleans, so the mayor had put a stay on all evictions. He told me that I hadn’t been evicted, I had been put out. And he hung up the phone. My roommates decided not to return but I wanted to try to stay. I got a room in a FEMA hotel for the first few months. Then friends let me couch surf as long as I needed to. Eventually I found out about this elderly woman who wanted somebody to move in with her so she wouldn't be alone at night so she gave me my own room in her attic. And I traded in drinking beer at night with my roommates to helping Ms. Eugenie to her bed at night, and getting her washed up in the morning. I was fine but things started changing fast around me. City leaders justified each new decision with promises of bringing the city back stronger and safer for everyone. But in hindsight an ugly pattern takes shape. Services were restored to neighborhoods where residents had the means to quickly start fixing their homes - but not in the lower ninth ward. This had been a neighborhood with one of the highest rates of black home ownership in the city. But it was also low lying and vulnerable, so they said it was no longer possible to guarantee flood protection over there. Then they chained up the doors to all the public housing complexes. These old buildings, they said, were a health hazard, and previous residents should not return until they fixed the housing assistance program.
Jamie J Brunson: In addition to closing down all those public housing facilities, the city of New Orleans closed down nearly all of its public schools, to be re-opened as charter schools, an issue that is also confronting the city of Philadelphia. Did you know in 2013, twenty three public schools were closed in in the city. Our virtual realtor elaborates.
Realtor: You could be mad at the Pennsylvania government for tying property tax to public school funding. You could be mad at the Philly city government for then lessening that funding temporarily through the 10-year tax abatement. You could be mad at that the city again, for closing schools like Bok Technical High School, a building that was just too big to knock down. You could be mad at Lindsay Scannapieco for buying that building, at the “makers” willing to rent space there, or at the people coming in from Jersey to get a drink on the roof.
Mo Burroughs: I have the capacity to be angry at all these people, places and things.
Ociele Hawkins: Because it isn't the unfamiliarity of local business developments that upsets me. It's the insidious nature that profit over people and erasure that gentrification is. This coffee shop is in a neighborhood that use to be known as Point Breeze, but is now called Newbold. I guess the same thing could be said when you're trying to sell something to make it more palatable - rebrand a neighborhood, like you would a mocha latte. The same could be said for what use to be The Black Bottom of West Philly, which is now University City. Or parts of Kensington that are no longer Kensington. "You should totally come by and get some coffee sometime". My money may be welcome but my presence isn't. That's why hardly anyone from the neighborhood is in there sipping from those little white cups. Or working behind those counters.
Mo Burroughs: I did move soon after. After that forced move, I moved a lot, actually. It set me up to take places that weren’t suitable for me, over and over again, for years. One giant push, and I found out how easily decimated finances and displacement can bring about unwilling nomadiscism. Sometimes, when Natalie and I would drive around, we’d find ourselves in the old neighborhood. No matter what song we were listening to, or what joke we were laughing at, or what philosophy we were arguing over, as soon as we hit the block, we fell silent. It was like passing an enormous, pristine, gilded grave, not just to Janet, but to all of our lovely lives there. I would think, I could never afford that place now. And I’d look around, and see the spaces where local businesses used to be and were no longer, wonder if they landed okay. And I’d think, too, how naïve I was, to think I was home and I was safe… but I never was.
Realtor: 4973 Catharine St, a walkers paradise. Daily errands do not require a car. So close to shopping, transportation and two local parks, Cedar Park and Black Oak Park.
Mo Burroughs: Black Oak What?
Freya Zork: That’s Malcolm X park on 52nd. They’re trying to rebrand it to sell houses.
Mo Burroughs: Huh. I guess saying Malcolm X Park is too aggressive.
Ociele Hawkins: Aunt Sista don’t live there no more. She moved not far away when you look at it on a map, but you can’t plot the distance of three decades of memories made in that home. She grieved the death of her eldest son in that home. She raised bail money for her youngest son in that home. Aunt Sista threw a Halloween party for all the kids in the neighborhood in that home. The Halloween party that I missed because I was 7 and enamored by the Wizard of Oz and I didn’t want to leave until I heard Dorothy say “there’s no place like home”. Aunt Sista met my mom when they were kids at a middle school that was long underfunded and no longer exists, not too far from that home. She used to threatened to call my mother when I made too much noise and ain’t go to sleep when I was supposed to when I was in that home. Aunt Sista put warm food on the table for me and my big brother in that home. She fixed the leaks, sealed the cracks, exterminated the rodents and bugs, painted the walls, because that was her home. Aunt Sista made section 8 housing her home. She got word from her landlord that her home was in fact his house and she had 30 days to leave that home. She knew no regard went her way in the matters of her home. Aunt Sista knows why devastation hit her home She told my Ma that Mr. Landlord Man tryna sell to a developer, that’s why he puttin’ me out my home. Aunt Sista see the changes in the neighborhood. How the houses that use to be run down and forgettable, now built up and stark. The same houses that were on the same block of what used to be her home. She know Mr. Landlord Man, be lookin’ at her and be thinkin’ she too poor, she too old, too disabled, too black to be in that lottery house in that “up and coming neighborhood” that wasn’t up and coming 30 years ago when she moved into that home. Aunt Sista use to have a home, across the street from the 17 bus stop, between Tasker and Morris. Where she used to sweep up Twizzler wrappers and 25 cent hug bottles outside her home. She now displaced, disjointed, and dissatisfied, living in a one room apartment that ain’t her home but a place to stay until she die.
Freya Zork: Whenever anybody had heard about how it had gone down with my landlord, they gave me the same advice. You need to get in touch with Sarah McMorris. McMo will know how to handle this. I remembered Sarah as a 5’1 outspoken feminist from LSU campus where we both gone to college. She was a fervent defender of the little guy and I knew that before the storm she had been working for the legal aid service as an eviction attorney. So when we first started talking, she wasn’t immediately sure about taking my case. The people she’d signed up to defend were not usually young white women she’d gone to college with. But when she heard the rather egregious circumstances of my eviction she reconsidered. But my landlord, Oscar, who was also a lawyer, managed to avoid receiving the papers every time we tried to serve him. We could not find him for over two years. And then one day, Sarah saw his name come across a courthouse docket for a lawsuit involving another tenant. So she showed up in court that day and got the bailiff to block front the door so he couldn’t get out, and then she walked up put the papers right in his hands. She got him. But then he filed so many extensions and delays that it took us another three years to get to trial. In 2010, I walked into a courtroom to face Oscar for the first time in person in 5 years. I found out that he was also counter suing me, for some reason, so I sat there in front of the judge as he slandered my good name with accusations of greed, deception, defrauding the federal government. I don't know, but by the time it was my turn to testify I was so rattled that everything I tried to say just came out wrong. Then, after my testimony, Oscar walked right up to me as cocky as the king of spades and he said he was willing to offer me a deal. If I dropped my suit he would drop his. Then I felt Sarah's hand on my arm. She said, "Freya, don't say a word." And she signaled to the judge and the three of them disappeared into the chambers.
Mo Burroughs: My favorite neighbor here is Mac. She’s the one who owned the thrift store around the corner where neighbors would come and chat. The last time I saw Mac was three months ago. She collapsed, weeping, in my arms, said she “couldn’t do it anymore.” That her husband’s failing health, and the fact that she might have to sell her house might kill her. Her dog waited patiently. We spoke in the shadow of the new giant luxury homes that replaced the grassy lot. There are three new corner stores. The red brick warehouse has also been converted into luxury homes. The old place is so different now. My Gran, were she alive, wouldn’t know what to make of it. She also likely couldn't afford it. I’m experiencing displacement while standing still. Feeling the squeeze of money all around me without money of my own to squeeze back. It’s a crazy-making feeling to walk down the street and have it change almost as quickly as you walk by, like seeing a dear friend turn into a stranger in a blink of an eye. Who are you, Emily Street? You used to be Gran’s house. Joe-Joe’s, easy smiles, easy waves, who are you now? Are you as sick as I am of those ugly, pop-up houses as much as I do? Mac is being pushed out, too. The store she owned was given up because of rising rent costs as our neighborhood became more and more desirable. When I look into her eyes I see displacement approaching like an oncoming train in a tunnel. “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do” has become her mantra.
Jamie J Brunson: Dan, it seems to me that as gentrification becomes more visible and perhaps creates more conflicts and misunderstandings, activists around the country, including in Philadelphia, are working on the idea of “development without displacement.”
Dan Gasiewski: Right. The goal is to have livable affordable housing that allows people to stay in their original neighborhoods. To demand an urban policy change instead of just forcing people out. Whatever the alternative, what's important before moving into any neighborhood, is to find out the history of the place and its people.
Jamie J. Brunson: Yeah because home owners that move into a new neighborhood, they're not the villains. And the people who call that neighborhood home aren't villains either.
Dan Gasiewski: No. When you hear people moving into neighborhoods that's just becoming fashionable, you so often hear them using language like, "Oh, I'm out in the Wild, Wild West." or "Oh, I'm out in the ends of the earth," and that's just totally disrespectful of the culture of the people who are already there.
Jamie J Brunson: Right, that's home for them!
Dan Gasiewski: Right. People move into new neighborhoods like Columbus "discovered" the Americas and all the tens of millions of people who were already living there.
Ociele Hawkins: If I was to give any advice to a white person moving into a predominantly working-class and poor neighborhood of color, it would be - it would be - when you go to speak to your neighbors for the first time, introduce yourself as someone offering to organize with them against policies that are threatening to push them out. Because if we understand gentrification as systemic and not just individual, the range of what’s possible begins to expand. Right? Through organizing we’re able to challenge the narrative that the only thing that can “save” America’s neighborhoods is gentrification; essentially displacement.
Mo Burroughs: My least favorite neighbors are my least favorite neighbors because they have brazenly demonstrate that sometimes gentrifiers are not bumbling, misinformed, well-intentioned lost little lambs, but the rousting, ousting small-scale hostile invasion is alive and well. Garet moved onto down the block while I was away. He met my white granny and found her quirky, quaint, and convenient. After she passed and I finally moved into her house, he did not find me to be these things. He has loud discussions with my other least favorite neighbors about how lovely the neighborhood's becoming and whether or not I will ever sell. Ever consider selling? Cuz, you know, if you need money, you could get a lot of money for that house. How long have you lived here? Oh, really? Well I’d love it if my best friend could move in next door to me, but I guess that’s not a good enough reason to try to get you to go. Would you ever consider selling? Is the electrical up to date? Because you know, you’re single, you don’t have any children…and there’s no one to take care of you when you get old. If you sell now, and save, then you can pay for elder care when the time comes. Yo, the only silver lining to the last time I faced gentrification is that this time I’m hip to that s***. In Chicago it had me fearful, and ungrounded. I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. It seriously affected my mental health. It exacerbated my anxiety, my depression, isolation. It brought about paranoia, self-injury...it took a long time to work thru but now at least I’m not caught off guard. I see the signs and I am watching.
Freya Zork: There was a small settlement in my favor. But in hindsight my little triumph is bitter sweet because I know that while I waited all those years for my day in court, so did a lot of other people. And for many, justice came even more slowly or never. Meanwhile, rents across the city continued to rise and whole neighborhoods where working class people used to live have been bought up by investors. So that some parts of town, AirBnB rentals outnumber residents. The fact that this city exists at all is still incredible to me. And the reason it survived is not the drastic reform measures. And it's definitely not the carpetbaggers that are down there now, flipping houses and pricing everyone out. No. It's the people that returned in those first few months to live in gutted homes and trailers, to start fixing things and taking care of each others kids, and voting, and playing music in this place that was not a city but they believed could become a city again.
Ociele Hawkins: Over the years, I’ve come to understand gentrification as more than individual stories or individuals moving into a “up and coming neighborhood”. It’s policy driven. Defund, point the finger, push out, save the day. Gentrification says that there’s nothing of value in these neighborhoods, and it’s going to put something of value there. And I say that’s bulls***.
Jamie J Brunson: Indeed. So we could spend a week listening to stories of people talking about their changing neighborhoods. But that's it for the moment. We all stay woke. I’m Jamie J., here in the studio with Dan Gasiewski and you’ve been listening to Commonspace, a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY. And it’s been supported by the Pew Center For Arts And Heritage.
Commonspace is a monthly broadcast and podcast available on iTunes and Stitcher. Please subscribe, and while you’re listening, give us a rating! WHYY’S Elisabeth Perez-Luna, is Executive Producer of Commonspace. I'm Jamie Brunson, producer, host and co-writer of Commonspace.
Commonspace is produced by Mike Villers. Our Commonspace team members are First Person Arts' Dan Gasiewski, Associate Producers, Jen Cleary and Ali L’Esperance. And the theme music is by Subglo.
Additionally, before we end this episode I have one last important shout out. Gentrified featured stories from our Commonspace live event by the same name, held at Fringe Arts. Props to Donna Oblongata, who directed that event. Donna worked tirelessly with the storytellers we featured on air to develop a stellar live performance around the topic. Thanks Donna, we love ya!!
Next up on Commonspace: Turning Points - in life, love, and politics. Thank you so much for listening.