Temple students and faculty – both exurbanites and Philadelphians alike – rarely regard neighborhoods surrounding Temple with an appropriate degree of respect. Whether one comes from the sprawling NEast, affluent Mount Airy, South Philly or any number of suburbs, attending Temple resounds with a unique flavor of racial and economic polarization. While busy commuting corridors buzz with glitzy construction and investment, the tumble-weeded, graffiti-stricken blocks of apparent decay in the surrounding areas above Diamond, and recently, West of 17th Street appear in stark contrast. However, recent opposition in the Yorktown community southeast of Main Campus challenges the archetypal “island in the hood” stereotype that Temple has grown accustomed to.
For Yorktown, a vibrant middle-class collection of proud home owners, the arrival of both students and commerce spells more than just “growing pains.” Members of the 653-home community that stretches from Girard to Cecil B. Moore avenues, from 13th to 10th streets, have seen prosperity in a way that no other North Philadelphia community has.
Yet stereotypes would not exist if they didn’t contain a shred of truth. Consequently, if I were to claim certain neighborhoods in the area were independently successful despite Temple’s expansion, I would be received just as skeptically as if I claimed that Greece was in the G8. Yorktown, in this way, is an anomaly. Not only did it defy the pattern of urban decay since its establishment in 1960, but Yorktown’s very success hinges on isolation from Temple’s expansion.
Just as former Mayor Wilson Goode praised Yorktown in 1987 as the “only community where the first owners were black,” residents interviewed in a short documentary done by Scribe Video Center seem equally aware that the key to success in this neighborhood is ownership. The racial polarity, though certainly the most visual effect of Temple’s influx, is not the reason that residents are angry.
Furthermore, I think that those of Yorktown have an argument that is not racially, economically, nor logistically charged, but expresses Yorktown’s desire not to become defined by its proximity to Temple.
Each neighborhood surrounding Temple, regardless of their level of affluence, has ultimately been hushed in the light of expansionist success stories. From the newly-built Fresh Grocer, Pearl Theater and Liacouras Center, the effect of Temple’s recent residential demographic looks great on paper. Yet with prices catered to upper-middle class suburbanites and insufficient parking for commuters and students who retain a vehicle, most residents are forced to swallow discontentment and inconvenience, resulting in tension and insult.
“The community is where people live and play, work and have babies. The education community is a place where 90 percent of folk are dropping in for four or five years, getting an education, and ‘bye’,” former Reverend William H. Gray III of Bright Hope Baptist Church said on 12th and Oxford in the Yorktown documentary.
Darrell Clarke, the fifth district Councilman who recently called for a controversial ban on all absentee landlord development in the area has been misunderstood. By this act of ambitious defiance, Clarke attempted to establish boundaries between the educational and residential community, which, regardless of their success, act as checks and balances on Temple’s unbridled expansion.
After a small zoning ordinance victory at the state level, the Yorktown neighborhood was given its first glimpse of hope. Pamela Pendleton-Smith, president of the Resolute Alliance in Yorktown said to philly.com “[f]or the first time the long dollar or the deep pockets did not win out.”
Temple, its students and private developers need to distinguish between neighborhoods that are open or closed to development. Philadelphia has been, and will continue to be a collage of unique neighborhoods, even though Temple Town is at an utter loss for character, culture or class. Just as a prosperous, mutually-respective community cannot possibly survive on four-year residents, neighborhoods like Yorktown will evaporate if certain boundaries are not maintained.
Regardless of how much Temple claims to be monitoring off-campus students, or the student’s individual respect for surrounding neighborhoods, Yorktown is one battle that should not be fought. While citizens’ are already under siege from encroaching shopping plazas on Oxford Street and Girard Avenue, the threat of private development reduces the “Yorktown success story” to that of an open market. If this neighborhood is not preserved to the highest possible degree, then Temple will lose any remaining credibility as a benevolent patron of urban renewal.
Joel Faltermayer can be reached at email@example.com.