Fernhill Park is a green oasis at the far southwest corner of Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. Most of the people who live in the homes surrounding the park are middle-class African-Americans. But on this particular dreary Saturday in May, the park’s only visitors are five white people who didn’t let a little rain stop them from having a few beers at Parks on Tap, a rolling beer garden that set up here for the week.
These five had all moved into the neighborhood within the last five years, part of the latest batch of residents to make their way into Germantown, a neighborhood many other white Philadelphians still regard with wariness.
Hilary Van Engle moved here shortly after graduating from Bryn Mawr College, because the housing stock had character she found lacking in South Philly, her original first choice. And she could afford it too. Her boyfriend, Kirk Draper, noted that another selling point was the amount of space they got for the price. Claudia Channing had several friends who lived in Mount Airy, the neighborhood next door. But houses up there were already out of her price range, so she chose Germantown.
Heather Levi moved to Philly for a job, and knew someone who rented an apartment in this area. She has lived in several cities, but something about this one struck her as interesting: “I grew up in Boston. I lived in New York, I lived in Mexico City, I lived in the suburbs of Chicago,” Levi says. “But when I moved to Philadelphia, what I thought was, ‘This is the most integrated city I’ve ever seen.’ And people were like, ‘Philadelphia? Are you crazy?’ And then I realized it was because I [had] moved to Germantown.”
Philadelphia overall is one of the country’s more diverse large cities: African-Americans make up 43 percent of the population; Caucasians account for 41 percent; and Asians and those who identify as other races make up about 6 percent each. The remainder consists of residents with mixed racial background. Among these demographics, those who identify as Hispanic or Latino (across all races) account for 12 percent of the city’s population. But the city’s various racial groups do not intermingle across Philadelphia’s 135 square miles in a gorgeous mosaic; instead, they live in a patchwork quilt of segregated neighborhoods. According to an index of segregation developed at Brown University’s American Communities Project, Philadelphia is the fourth most segregated city in the United States.
Germantown is one of the few diverse patches in this quilt. Those outside Northwest Philadelphia tend to see the neighborhood as mostly poor, overwhelmingly African-American and plagued by crime and violence. Those who live there know differently, as do their neighbors in Mt. Airy, East Falls, Chestnut Hill and West Oak Lane.
African-Americans do make up the great majority (about 80 percent) of Germantown residents, but a sizable portion of the neighborhood — about 15 percent — consists of Caucasians, based on census data from 2016. Asians account for a small (1.8 percent) but slowly rising share of the population, as do those of other races (1.2 percent), while the Latino share of the population has fallen slightly since 2010, to 2.9 percent. While the median household income for the zip code encompassing most of the neighborhood is just above $28,000 — a good bit below the citywide median of about $39,000 — the neighborhood has both pockets of deep poverty, especially in parts of East Germantown, and islands of middle-class comfort, including the area around Fernhill Park. There’s also a sprinkling of affluence: a little more than five percent of Germantown households have annual incomes of $125,000 or more.
This particular demographic and economic mix, more eclectic than it might seem at first glance, is what the neighborhood’s established residents and many of its newer arrivals are mobilizing to preserve. WHYY reporter Annette John-Hall, in a recent article, referred to what’s happening on Germantown’s east side as “gentrification for black people by black people.” Yet on both the east and west sides, even those who have added a distinctly African-American accent to the process of renewal see a role for everyone — black, white, rich, poor — in rejuvenating the neighborhood.
In particular, it’s the “and poor” part that sets Germantown’s renewal process apart from the way other neighborhoods have dealt with gentrification. Where anti-gentrification activists in Point Breeze have gone so far as to torch new homes under construction, and North-Central Philadelphia residents protest Temple University’s drive to turn their neighborhood into an extension of its campus, Germantowners rely mainly on the neighborhood’s homegrown resources to create what may well become one of the first income-diverse gentrified neighborhoods.
This unusual transformation effort shows itself most vividly in two of the neighborhood’s newest community gathering places. The owners of these businesses — one a noted African-American intellectual and social critic, the other a pair of white Northwest Philly natives with deep roots in community activism — share common goals and run their distinctive establishments in a similar fashion.
The higher-profile of the two is Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books. The higher profile comes partly from a location right on Germantown’s historic center, Market Square, and partly from its proprietor, Marc Lamont Hill.
Hill, a Temple University professor, grew up in North and West Philly and lived in gentrifying Fort Greene, Brooklyn, for a while before returning to Philly to settle in Germantown, in 2005. Since the November 2017 opening of Uncle Bobbie’s, the stylish bookstore-café has been busy from dawn till dark, filled with people from almost all walks of life who come to enjoy its homey atmosphere — well, it’s homey if your home includes a library full of books.
Uncle Bobbie's Coffee and Books, owned by Marc Lamont Hill. (Photo by Sandy Smith for Philadelphia Magazine)
Hill says he chose to settle in Germantown because of both its diversity and its potential. His income enables him to live just about anywhere in Philadelphia or its suburbs — “I could have a luxury apartment downtown,” he says — but he wanted something else. Like a good barber.
In determining whether a neighborhood was right, he says, “One good measure for me was, could I find a barbershop? If I’m in a neighborhood that’s too fancy, there’s no barbershop for me. But if I’m in a neighborhood where all the barbers are, I wouldn’t want to live there because I couldn’t find a coffee house or a bookstore.”
Hill saw in Germantown a neighborhood capable of supporting all of these, and the patronage at Uncle Bobbie’s has borne him out.
Just a few blocks away is another gathering place, one of those hidden gems Germantowners love to polish. The Germantown Espresso Bar opened in the early fall of 2017 on Maplewood Mall, an intimate commercial lane just off the neighborhood’s main shopping street. Proprietors Miles Butler and Jeff Podlogar have fashioned a small, two-story home into a cozy space for reading, working or socializing while sipping. Several local organizations that focus on social-justice issues gather regularly in an upstairs community meeting room.
Unlike Hill, Butler wasn’t as concerned about finding a good barber. But what he saw in Germantown closely matched what Hill saw.
“I grew up here,” Butler says. “I sang in the Keystone State Boychoir,” which rehearses at nearby First Presbyterian Church in Germantown. “My father taught lessons at Maplewood Music, and I used to run around Maplewood Mall. I fell in love with this neighborhood at a very early age.”
After spending several years traveling and performing music across the country, he returned to Germantown with the idea of opening a coffee shop. “It felt good to be in the neighborhood,” he says, “and we didn’t have a coffee shop here.”
Both shops make themselves open and welcoming to a broad cross-section of Germantowners. On the day I visited the Espresso Bar, an opening reception was winding down for Miles Conyers, a young African-American photographer whose works were on display in the shop.
“While we’re very aware that we are two white men, we are for and by the community,” Butler says. “Having grown up here, I’m sensitive to the racial and class divisions in the community.”
Hill shares that desire to create a place where all races and classes are welcome, but acknowledges that he hasn’t achieved his goal yet. “There’s a rehab two doors down from my shop,” says Hill. “[Rehab patients] walk by Uncle Bobbie’s and go to B&B [Breakfast and Lunch, a popular local restaurant two blocks north] to get their coffee, even though our small coffee, we sell it for the same price. The reason they do, quite frankly, is that it didn’t feel like [Uncle Bobbie’s] was welcoming to them. It didn’t feel right culturally, didn’t feel like it was where they should be.”
He explained that he got the same sensation as a child when walking past West Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania campus, and acknowledged that the feeling of belonging was partly an individual choice. “But it’s the responsibility of the people at those institutions, in those spaces, to make them welcome to the extent that they want them to be,” he continues. “To me, the question is, How do I let them know that I do want them here? What can I do to make them want to be here, and be accountable to them, and service their needs in ways that affect them?”
“Germantown has been mixed for centuries,” Butler tells Next City. Although the demographic breakdown has changed over those centuries, his statement gets at a fundamental truth. William Penn was a Quaker who left England to establish an American colony that would be tolerant to all religious beliefs. In 1683, Penn sold land in his new colony to Francis Daniel Pastorius so that the German religious dissident could establish a settlement where his fellow Pietists, as well as Mennonites and Quakers, could practice their beliefs freely. That spirit of tolerance and dissent from orthodoxy continues to inform Germantowners’ attitudes today. But the trajectory of the neighborhood over the centuries has varied.
The town Pastorius and his fellow Germans founded began as a linear settlement along an old Lenape trail the settlers called “the Great Road” — today’s Germantown Avenue. After the railroads reached Germantown in the mid-19th century, the neighborhood began to expand to the road’s east and west. Germantown’s west side quickly filled with stately homes for the well-to-do. Some popped up on the east side as well, but most of that area was developed to appeal to working-class families.
Construction of the trolley line along Germantown Avenue, circa 1894. (Credit: Germantown Special Services District)
These two groups of residents, both mostly white, coexisted until the late 1950s and early 1960s. At that point, in response to both a fresh influx of African-American migrants from the South and the construction of public housing in the neighborhood, real estate agents who were looking for a quick profit began to stoke racial fears; they sold cheap houses to black families in search of a decent home, then warned the white neighbors of an impending invasion to trigger panic selling.
What made Germantown’s fate different from that of a number of similar neighborhoods in North Philadelphia was that not all the white people fled; a few hung on to their large homes on the neighborhood’s more affluent west side, and new white residents with a more countercultural sensibility reclaimed space that other fleeing whites had left.
Ann Marie Doley was part of that latter group. She bought a house on Rockland Street in southwest Germantown in 1981, after the wave of panic selling had mostly run its course.
Her block, she said, has been through ups and downs in the 37 years she’s lived here. Right now, her particular block is more down than up, thanks to what she terms an “overconcentration” of low- and no-income renters. The problem on her block, she said, is that the owners of its large, three-story homes bring in friends and relatives as tenants to help them defray expenses, overcrowding those homes as a result.
Ann Marie’s block hasn’t yet seen a wave of renovation: according to Zillow estimates, most of the houses on West Rockland Street have values ranging from $7,000 to $75,000. But there are a few signs of change: Zillow values a renovated home that sold for about $42,000 this past January at $93,000, and a second rehabbed home on the block sold for $135,000 in 2010.
At the neighborhood level, the story follows a similar arc. The Zillow Home Value Index estimates Germantown’s median house value as $227,000 as of May 2018. That’s about 54 percent above the citywide median of $147,800. The 30 percent increase in house values in Germantown since May 2010 closely tracks the 29 percent rise citywide over the same time span.
Contrast that with house values that have zoomed upward over the same time span, in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods: in Francisville they’re up 58 percent, in Fishtown 84 percent. In Point Breeze, they have skyrocketed, rising 172 percent since May 2014, the earliest year for which Zillow provides May data for that neighborhood. (Median house values in all three of these neighborhoods are now higher than they are in Germantown; in 2010 or 2014, that was true only for Francisville.)
But that doesn’t mean residents such as Doley don’t worry about what might happen. She does not oppose redevelopment but she does want it to be structured so that as few people as possible face displacement. “You can’t stop it, so you have to try to manage it,” she says. Besides, rising home values mean that low-income, African-American homeowners especially benefit: “They can get some equity, which has been denied them forever, right?”
The continual influx of mostly white middle-class residents who find lots to like in Germantown as it is distinguishes this second-oldest neighborhood in today’s Philadelphia from the other mostly African-American neighborhoods that experienced disinvestment and white flight in the 1960s and 1970s.
Their presence makes Germantown exceptional in a way that even famously integrated Mount Airy is not. By moving into a neighborhood where close to eight of every ten residents are African-American, and a plurality of those residents are low-income — 48 percent of Germantown households have incomes of $25,000 or less — they help make the neighborhood one of the more socioeconomically diverse in the city.
Jumpstart Germantown developer Bruce McCall, standing in front of a house he renovated, on Coulter Street. (Photo courtesy of Bruce McCall)
The people who stuck with Germantown in the down years see this economic diversity as an asset to maintain, now that seeds of change are beginning to sprout in the form of new businesses and residential construction. And that includes most of the people who have been planting those seeds.
One of the biggest seed planters is Ken Weinstein, the Mount Airy-based head of Northwest Philly’s largest real estate development firm. Weinstein’s firm, Philly Office Retail, specializes in restoration and adaptive reuse of the area’s rich stock of old buildings. And in a rapidly-spreading offshoot of his business, he enables a new generation of small-scale developers to follow in his footsteps.
Bruce McCall, a 38-year-old Mount Airy native, was the first of this new generation to go through what became Jumpstart Germantown, a developers’ boot camp that has produced its own offshoots in two other Philadelphia neighborhoods, with more on the way. “Ken calls me a trendsetter,” he says.
His story is similar to that of some 300 people who have gone through the Jumpstart training since the program began two and a half years ago. McCall met Weinstein when he attended a community meeting to discuss plans Weinstein had to purchase and rehabilitate the former Germantown YWCA. The meeting didn’t go too well for Weinstein, but it ended up being productive for McCall afterward.
“After the meeting, I reached out and said, ‘Ken, I see they beat you up a little bit tonight, but I’m looking to be a developer in the area.’ And I had Germantown, Mt. Airy and West Oak Lane in my sights,” he says.
McCall asked Weinstein if he would sit down and give him some pointers on the development business in exchange for his doing IT work for Weinstein. So McCall brought Weinstein’s website back online after it got hacked, and then the developer invited McCall to meet with him and another person who had expressed a similar interest in development.
“When we started our meeting, we noticed he had a notepad,” says McCall. “So he was taking notes too, and we started wondering, ‘What exactly is it that you’re doing?’ He was thinking of starting Jumpstart Germantown from these meetings. So myself and Nancy Deephouse [became] the first two Jumpstart Germantown students.”
McCall was already working on a house in West Oak Lane when he met Weinstein, and since going through Jumpstart, he has restored two more houses, one in Germantown and the other in Point Breeze.
His experience with the Germantown house on West Coulter Street illustrates the neighborhood’s changing fortunes. “When we first did the numbers on it, we were thinking [we could get] $230,000 for it after the repairs,” he says. “And Ken was thinking $180,000. But it wound up going for $280,000, so there was an increase in just the first year.” McCall also notes that two brand-new houses are now under construction a block away from the one he renovated. “A lot of people don’t know this, but they’re going to go for $420,000.”
That figure might cause Christian Heyer-Rivera some angst, for he would see it as a sign that the neighborhood is in danger of becoming too thoroughly middle-class.
Heyer-Rivera moved to Germantown in 2004, while finishing a degree from what is now Palmer Theological Seminary. He and his wife had spent the previous two years in Mt. Airy and had fallen in love with the area, so when he was named director of Christian education at the racially integrated First Presbyterian, the couple immediately started looking for a home in the neighborhood. They settled near Greene Street and Washington Lane, just outside the Tulpehocken Station Historic District, one of three National Register historic districts in the neighborhood.
Heyer-Rivera is up front about why he moved to Germantown: “I didn’t move here to be around a bunch of white people,” he tells Next City, elaborating further. “Other than politically, the neighborhood’s pretty diverse. Socioeconomically, racially, there’s a lot going on here. And I wanted to do ministry in a place that was contextually urban, and I wanted even more diversity than Mt. Airy had as far as economics were concerned.”
“I made a commitment that I needed to have people around me who were different than me,” he says. “Germantown enticed me too because the population was that diverse. People thought differently, people had different experiences.” Too much upscaling of the neighborhood’s housing stock, he fears, would snuff all this out.
But Weinstein believes the let-a-hundred-flowers-bloom approach to development that the Jumpstart program encourages will actually help prevent this from happening.
“In Jumpstart, we talk about creating a healthy mix of market-rate and affordable housing,” he says. That’s one of the stated goals in our workbook. But just like the neighborhood, developers are not a homogeneous group. We have different goals and strategies, and that includes goals on rental rates” and house prices.
“I always tell people in the training program to follow their passions. If their passion is historic preservation, they should do that. If they are interested in preserving affordable housing, they should pursue ways to create it.”
“A group of people came in to the shop a while back and said they weren’t developers but investors,” Miles Butler says. “I try to be nice with everybody here, but if you’re coming into this neighborhood to figure out how to make money off the community, I’m not fine with that.”
Weinstein’s largest redevelopment project to date also reflects those mixed goals. Focused on Germantown’s southwest corner near SEPTA’s Wayne Junction regional rail station, the project — also called “Wayne Junction” — will take several abandoned and underutilized former industrial buildings and turn them into office space, new restaurants, and a mix of market-rate and affordable apartments. Enthusiasm for this project runs high in the neighborhood, something that couldn’t always be said about prior projects Weinstein has proposed.
While everyone interviewed for this article shares a vision of a reinvigorated Germantown that is racially, culturally and socioeconomically diverse, most acknowledge that some obstacles remain in its path. One is the need to ensure that the affordable housing that gets built stays that way. Nora Lictash, the executive director of the Women’s Community Revitalization Project and a Germantown resident since 1971, has stepped in to provide that, with a 35-unit townhouse project on what’s currently vacant city-owned land near Wister Regional Rail station.
“[The units] will start out as rentals, and the tenants will have the option to buy them,” she explains. “The land will be owned by the Community Justice Land Trust, so it will be affordable permanently. There will be equity that the owners will be able to draw out, and they will be able to pass the homes onto their children, but any buyers will have to meet income guidelines.”
The project got a less-than-warm reception, however, when it was presented to neighbors on Germantown’s generally poorer east side, according to Emaleigh Doley, who attended the informational meetings. Emaleigh is one of Ann Marie Doley’s daughters and like her mother, still lives in Germantown. She is the commercial corridor manager at the Germantown United Community Development Corporation. “The neighbors [at the meeting] were predominantly low-income homeowners,” she says. “They felt their area couldn’t improve by adding more poor people to it.”
Can this neighborhood successfully integrate the poor and the not-poor? Some census tract data suggests it might be possible. For instance, the blocks bordering Fernhill Park have median household incomes approaching $60,000 per year and homeownership rates between 66 and 88 percent. Walk two blocks from the park and those figures drop into the low-to-mid- 20s for income and from 25 to 35 percent for homeownership. And despite an influx of white residents, all of these blocks remain predominantly African-American. Institutions such as the Hansberry Community Garden also bring lower- and higher-income residents together in pursuit of common goals.
Another hopeful sign is that most of the reinvestment is of local origin, exemplified by those Jumpstarters. And some residents do their best to make sure it stays that way. “A group of people came in to the shop a while back and said they weren’t developers but investors,” Butler says. “I try to be nice with everybody here, but if you’re coming into this neighborhood to figure out how to make money off the community, I’m not fine with that. I think they got the hint, and they departed.”
Perhaps the most hopeful sign that everyone in Germantown might succeed at revitalizing the neighborhood while keeping it diverse on all fronts is that the pace of change has been gradual so far, and everyone understands what might come if that pace accelerates. This measured approach buys the neighborhood valuable time — time it can use to protect its interests.
And maybe when that Parks on Tap beer garden rolls into Fernhill Park again, the scene will be one of a diverse array of residents enjoying Philadelphia’s most distinctive neighborhood on a bright sunny day.
Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.
The 21 Best Solutions of 2021 special edition magazine
Brave New Home by Diana Lind