May 21, 1995 – an otherwise normal day – was anything but that for the community of 18th and Diamond streets.
The opening of Diamond Park, a circular park surrounded by vibrant, green trees, was an incipient step toward what Marjorie Valbrun of the Inquirer called a “renaissance” in North Philadelphia. Valbrun wrote that “the roses will climb the arbor, creating the illusion of a huge, rose-covered pavilion,” and that students at nearby schools would want to have their graduation pictures taken there.
I wish she were right.
Today, there are no more graduation pictures. As for the roses, they’ve stopped growing – in fact, the only sign of growth is the rust that coats the green fencing.
It’s a story many have heard before. What befell Diamond Park encapsulates North Philadelphia’s history as a story of abandonment.
In contrast, just months ago the Penn’s Landing neighborhood saw yet another project develop – Spruce Street Harbor Park, which was touted as a “summer pop-up park complete with a boardwalk, urban beach, floating barges, mist walk, lily pad gardens and more” on its website.
The park, which opened on June 27, drew in more than 35,000 visitors on a weekly basis, according to Philadelphia Magazine. These visitors managed to not only satisfy a growing appetite for tourism in a starved city, but also succeed a threshold, ultimately causing the park to extend its stay by one month. Admission, which is free, can certainly be listed as a contributing cause to the park’s success.
Fast forward two months and the city praised yet another major development – Dilworth Park, the site of a newly renovated outdoor plaza, featuring a café, green space, a fountain and yes, even an ice skating rink. Dilworth Park is a Center City District venture that cost more than $55 million.
Both projects were undertaken in the same zip code, 19106, which has a median household income of $93,222, the wealthiest in the entire city, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia 2013: The State of the City Report. Meanwhile, Temple and its surrounding zip codes clocked in at the polar opposite of that spectrum, holding the title of the poorest zip codes in the city.
The crux, said Temple Emeritus Professor of History and Community and Regional Planning Dr. James Hilty, is that the city “does not see North Philadelphia as being a commercially viable district.”
But it wasn’t always this way: North Philadelphia’s halcyon days were ones when the Avenue of the Arts housed a glamorous opera house. In addition, Hilty said Temple’s Tomlinson Theater and Rock Hall held a number of performances.
Even when the area’s economy didn’t necessarily flourish, its art scene surely did, so why can’t this paradigm be reconciled today?
Dr. Hilty said that on numerous occasions, Philadelphia had assisted businesses in moving out of North Philadelphia. There are no words to describe the situation other than abandonment.
On the other hand, Alan Greenberger, Philadelphia’s Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Director of Commerce, said, “It’s a mistake to say that nothing is going on in North Philly.”
Greenberger cited recent development projects that the city has undertaken, like the Center for the Urban Child expansion at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children and a senior center at 24th and Allegheny streets.
“The market conditions in North Philadelphia are fundamentally different than they are in Center City,” Greenberger said. “And market conditions count for a great deal for where and how development happens.”
But that doesn’t mean no action can be taken.
“The government can help push [development], but in weak markets, it can take additional public support, like tax credits,” Greenberger said.
Greenberger said federal budget cuts have hindered growth and the Community Development Block Grant Program, which has been cut almost 40 percent in recent times, has forced the city to “rally money around key programs,” like those that stopped foreclosures.
“When money gets cut, we’ve made priority – and it’s not around sexy, high-profile projects,” he said.
Michael Roberson Reid, the executive director of Tree House Books at Carlisle Street and Susquehanna Avenue, said he feels it’s unwise to place accountability on one group or system.
“There are a myriad of options that are weighed when a decision is being made,” he said. “[But] I do have strong concerns about investment, or lack thereof, in North Philadelphia.”
The problem, Reid said, is not singular.
“There are all these factors at play that make a community – residents, business – and then there are government institutions,” he said. “What ends up happening is that we’re under this belief that one institution by itself can fix things. If we’re all under agreement that there’s something we want to see improve, it’s going to take all of those institutions working together to bring a solution that we want.”
And that solution is attainable.
Ultimately, while the city should not stop making Dilworth and Spruce Street Harbor parks, it certainly seems that, at the time being, great efforts could go toward redirecting those projects to areas that could use a much-needed economic boost. And while tax abatements are given throughout the city, there can, and should, be additional incentives targeted toward areas in low-income neighborhoods like North Philadelphia.
Romsin McQuade can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org