Some journalists are noble. They report on things they think are relevant to others. When brainstorming story ideas, I do not take this approach. Journalism is an avenue for self-indulgence. I pretty much use my press badge as an excuse to try out obscure things, like, in the case of this week’s article, to research a little thing I’ve been curious about for a while — gentrification.
Yes, you read that right. For this, the farewell article of my parked-at-the-Arts-Garage column, I used my credentials to try to find out what the hell is going on in North Philadelphia and how self-owned-and-operated establishments like the Arts Garage are affected by the tidal waves of development I’ve heard so much about.
Prior to researching, I had a working understanding of the concept of gentrification, but didn’t know enough to be able to tell whether the Arts Garage would be assimilated into a gentrified neighborhood or if it would be one of the pieces of the landscape to be pushed out.
The Arts Garage is part of the Francisville neighborhood; something I didn’t even realize had a name until I spoke with the Barbara Kelley, the Ridge Avenue commercial corridor manager, who works for it. Since the only time I’m in that area is to go to and from the Arts Garage — which, to refresh your memory, is at 16th Street and Ridge Avenue — I had no idea that it is one of the fastest-developing neighborhoods in Philadelphia.
The story I expected to hear from Kelley was that developers were taking over the neighborhood, building unwanted residences that drive up prices, forcing economically disadvantaged families out to make room for yuppies. Though this is an alluringly dramatic story, it’s not quite right.
Kelley said that the community is extremely active in the neighborhood’s committees, and that, far from being victimized, they are approving new development projects every step of the way. Though there are disgruntled voices, the desire for the amenities, such as grocery stores and other retailers, that are sure to accompany residential development is strong enough to bring the community together in favor of new construction overall.
Kelley said Ridge Avenue is on the brink of a swell of commercial activity, and that the Arts Garage is in an excellent position to thrive in the coming years.
“This is wonderful,” I thought. “If the community doesn’t mind that some of their renters will be pushed out, it can’t be so bad. Why, then, is gentrification such a big deal?”
Confused, I phoned a friend. Luckily for me, a kind geography and urban studies major came to my rescue and let me ask him stupid questions for 45 minutes while I combed through endless ambiguities. This is what I learned:
The main difference between gentrification and community building is that the former typically attracts outsiders and the latter is more likely to be self-generated and self-serving — an example of this is a community organization like the Arts Garage popping up and bringing visitors, revenue and jobs to locals. In either case, the outside pictures may look similar, but for the sizeable minority who don’t get to benefit when gentrification occurs — what’s for them?
One option is rent control, another is contractually obligating developers to designate a percentage of the units built to low-income housing, and another is to sprinkle Philadelphia Housing Authority homes throughout up-and-coming neighborhoods. These strategies can work, but the catch, as always, is financial.
The free market doesn’t mind homogenous, segregated neighborhoods or cyclical poverty. Those socially concerned individuals understand that while this makes for a healthy bottom line, these patterns become toxic to the society overall — think inner city public schools for a start. Though economic diversity is important to those who prioritize people over profits, displacement is often acceptable to those with converse views.
Money usually wins arguments, but it doesn’t have to. Active and vocal community members can make the difference between a good and a bad deal for their neighborhood. The key to this is becoming educated on the issues, even if it’s by harassing your favorite GUS major or getting directly involved.
To part on the note of moral music — just because we’re students, doesn’t mean we don’t count. Even if only for a short bit of time, we are residents, and taking an interest in what’s going on around us could have a lasting impact.
How’s that for an exit line?
Victoria Marchiony can be reached at email@example.com.