Download our new ebook: When Communities Own Spaces for Business
Map by Azavea
For a city that is more than 300 years old, five years is the equivalent of a blink of an eye.
Still, no one can deny the forces of change, even over a short period of time, even in a city as large as Philadelphia, with its more than 1.5 million residents. To see how these changes affect people, it is best to go to where Philadelphians live their lives. Whether it be Kensington or Chestnut Hill, Roxborough or Holmesburg, the city’s 55-plus neighborhoods are the prisms through which people view the world. They were the starting point of this analysis.
The goal: Find the neighborhoods that had prospered and grown in just five years and those that had not.
We examined five key factors: crime, household income, population, poverty and home prices. We also devised a single score for each neighborhood — to see which have done exceptionally well and which are under stress. We then grouped the scores into the classifications seen in the interactive map below.
In some cases, the data confirmed conventional wisdom. (Yes, the neighborhoods around Center City have grown in wealth, population and home values.) But it also offered up surprises. For one thing, it revealed the duress being experienced by middle-class neighborhoods in the Northeast and Northwest. It also revealed that some poor neighborhoods have made slow, but steady progress. Fairhill remains the city’s poorest neighborhood, yet our data analysis shows that it beat the city average in progress on some key indicators, including crime reduction, and population, income, and home value growth. The progress catapulted the area into our “advancing” category. Another advancing neighborhood is Nicetown, a section of North Philadelphia that has struggled since highway planners ran an expressway over it in the 1950s. Later in this story, Majeedah Rashid, head of the Nicetown Community Development Corporation, explains the hard work needed to rebound.
Our goal was not to compare one neighborhood to another. Each has different issues it is grappling with — a different geography, a differing population mix and different density. That’s why, instead, we looked at how the city as a whole had performed during a five-year period in key categories and matched how close each neighborhood came to the those averages.
In our period of analysis, crime went down by an average of 19 percent citywide while home values rose by 6 percent, poverty levels increased by 2.6 percent, median household income dropped by 7 percent and the population grew by 1 percent. Neighborhoods that exceeded the city average — or fell below it — in each of the five categories were scored with either plus or minus numbers. We then added them up to create a single score for each neighborhood. (Read an explanation of our data here.)
There were 16 neighborhoods that came close to citywide averages on the five factors we measured. Their status mirrored the city’s as a whole.
There were other neighborhoods (20 to be exact) that outpaced the city. At the top of that list is Southwest Center City, where the decline in crime and poverty, and the increase in population and wealth far exceeded the city itself. Others are Point Breeze, Gray’s Ferry and Fairmount/ Spring Garden and Northern Liberties/ Fishtown.
Another 19 neighborhoods were at the other end of the spectrum, outliers whose factors lagged behind the city writ large. Surprisingly, Wynnefield led that list because it experienced a loss of population, an increase in poverty, and a decline in household wealth at a pace far from the city average.
Clearly, Wynnefield is under stress, as are — to varying degrees — the 18 other neighborhoods classified as falling behind or facing the greatest challenges. A number of them, including Frankford and Overbrook, are the so-called “middle neighborhoods” known for their stability in the past, but where evidence shows that is changing.
Oxford Circle is one of those middle neighborhoods, but it scored square in the middle of the pack, close to the citywide average. Instead of losing residents like Wynnefield, the neighborhood is attracting new residents and retaining growing families.
When it comes to Oxford Circle, state Rep. Jared Solomon is something of an expert witness. He moved there as a toddler, and lived above his grandparents’ butcher shop off Castor Avenue. He played Little League there. He was bar mitzvahed there. Today, he lives on Large Street with his fiancee, in a ’50s-era rowhouse with a greystone facade and a small patch of lawn. His mother still lives a few blocks away.
After Swarthmore College, after Villanova Law, after a stint in the Army, Solomon returned home infused with ambition and a zeal that led him to become a community activist. That, in turn, led him into politics. Last year, he made his second run for the State House and defeated Rep. Mark Cohen, who had represented the 202nd District for 42 years. The ossified Cohen was no match for the energetic 38-year-old.
Solomon’s street-level knowledge of his district is deep. He can rattle off its ethnic and racial composition (29 percent black, 27 percent white, 23 percent Latino, 18 percent Asian); the condition of its playgrounds and recreation centers (generally poor); the decline in both family income (down 14 percent) and home prices (down 11 percent).
Solomon frets about the perception that all is well in the Northeast: “What’s very frustrating is that whenever I bring up the Northeast, people say ‘Oh, you’re fine.’ No! They are thinking of the Northeast of 20 years ago.”
In his youth, Oxford Circle was mostly white and very Jewish. It had a religious, cultural and ethnic cohesiveness. In short, it was an enclave. Six out of every 10 houses were built in the 1940s and 1950s.
It is a classic post-World War II housing development.
In the generations since the neighborhood was built up it has changed in ways that are both immediately obvious and more subtle. The synagogue where Solomon was bar mitzvahed is now a Buddhist temple. The Jewish butchers, bakers and grocers are long gone, replaced by nail salons, day cares and a panoply of ethnic restaurants — Café Albania, Montana Grill, Tio Pepe, Azaad, to name a few.
Riding along Castor Avenue with Solomon is like traveling with two people: One is the cheerleader, raving about the strengths of the neighborhood and its great potential. The other is the critic.
“Because the business corridor is not thriving, no one really is taking pride here,” he says. “So, the lighting’s bad. The storefronts are shabby and rundown. It’s dark. It’s dank. There is no real momentum forward. So, when you have that, you see graffiti and you get trash. And trash begets trash.”
Solomon is working to build a network of engaged community members called “Jared’s super volunteers.” He is seeking to rebuild civic cohesiveness, “getting people on each block really engaged — not just complaining about issues, but being active in trying to solve them.”
Solomon the optimist sees these goals as attainable — with lots of hard work. Solomon the critic realizes the obstacles: the disengaged newcomers, the unhappy old-timers who kvetch about how things aren’t like they used to be.
Solomon the critic: “You can’t romanticize the past to such an extent that it makes you unable to do anything. To say: ‘Oh well, the past was so good, let’s just talk about it.’ We have these exciting changes and we have to figure out as a community a way to embrace them and use them to move the neighborhood forward.”
Solomon is convinced that the area’s diversity, as evidenced in its cuisine, is the key. If it seems implausible to rebuild commercial corridors by emphasizing the experience of exotic cuisines — and build from there to a general revival — Solomon the optimist insists it can happen.
Driving through the neighborhood that he has built a life around, Solomon was talkative, candid and knowledgeable, but he stumbled over one question: What does your neighborhood need the most?
Finally, that all-encompassing phrase that had been rattling around in Solomon’s mind finally came to his lips. “We have to change the narrative,” he says, referring to his vision of a new, revived Oxford Circle. “If this becomes the narrative and vision and if that is how we are selling this neighborhood, I think that will be a good thing.”
State Rep. Jared Solomon stands on the stoop of his childhood home in Oxford Circle.
Solomon’s phrase could be the unofficial motto of Philadelphia: “Changing the Narrative for Over 300 Years.”
Philadelphia has gone from colonial village, to rapidly growing pre-Civil War city, to “Workshop of the World,” to 1970s dystopian nightmare city, to a bustling post-modern center for “eds and meds,” with a glittering and prosperous downtown.
Neighborhoods go through cycles as well. To oversimplify, Philadelphia has two kinds of neighborhoods. Those like Oxford Circle, most of which were the product of the post-World War II housing construction boom.
The other neighborhoods were factory towns, built around the industries that located there beginning in the early decades of the 19th century and continuing into the middle of the 20th century.
For instance, Nicetown was once synonymous with Midvale Steel and, later, the Budd Company, the Brown Instrument Co. and Tastykake. They are all gone now.
For those seeking to change the narrative in these neighborhoods, it’s not a simple matter of rebranding or coming up with a new defining slogan. More jobs, higher income, less poverty, a growing population and a solid real estate market must be included in the mix.
Using those criteria, Nicetown has taken steps forward in the last five years. The North Philadelphia neighborhood, which straddles Germantown Avenue just west of Broad Street and Erie Avenue, has seen its population rise 4 percent (above the city’s 1 percent increase), its housing prices rose 11 percent — again above the citywide average. As important, while the citywide poverty rate rose 2.6 percent, in Nicetown it declined by 23 percent.
Highway planners did Nicetown no favors in the 1950s when they decided to cut the neighborhood in half to link the Roosevelt Boulevard to the Schuylkill Expressway. It was a move that added insult to injury; the post-World War II decline of manufacturing in the area had already hollowed out the neighborhood, leaving working-class families living alongside vacant factories and abandoned rowhouses. The highway added another shadow: It doesn’t run through Nicetown, it runs over it — perched atop concrete pillars that hold up the highway viaduct. Like many poor communities, the neighborhood never quite recovered from the trauma inflicted by urban renewal’s bulldozers. Even so, many residents never gave up on the idea that one day Nicetown would again live up to its name, says Majeedah Rashid, executive director of the Nicetown Community Development Corporation.
Majeedah Rashid runs the Nicetown Community Development Corporation.
Slowly, that change is happening and she sees it every day along Germantown Avenue, where her CDC has built two handsome brick apartment complexes.
Rashid recalls that when she first arrived in 2002, not much was happening in Nicetown. The Neighborhood Advisory Council, which the CDC now runs, had shut down, she says. The Democratic political organization, which the community had relied on for its connections at City Hall, wasn’t much help either.
“There was a lack of cohesion,” Rashid says. “People were in their own little cliques. We had some elected officials who had people who were like henchmen. I have a bone to pick with certain politicians and committee people because they just hold the title. The NAC wasn’t doing its job. The politicians ran it like a club. You had a void.”
Today, the CDC, which has the chipper motto of “working together to put the nice back in ‘the town’” runs arts and culture programs for the neighborhood’s children and operates a boxing clinic. It sponsors an annual Nicetown Festival and runs landscaping and land management services through subsidiaries that employ local people. Councilwoman Cindy Bass and new state Sen. Sharif Street have district offices in the CDC’s buildings. It wasn’t always that way.
Getting the trust of residents was what Rashid calls a “slow-row process.” It involved including them in every step, regardless of the project. People were skeptical and resentful and likely to be on board for a project one day and off the next.
When the CDC decided to build its first apartment complex, Nicetown Court I, which featured top-flight design and materials, residents feared it was so nice that apartments would have high rents, and be affordable only to people from out of the area. Still, on opening day there was a line of applicants that stretched down the block, she recalls.
Later, Rashid convinced Temple University Hospital to open a doctor’s office on the ground floor of the apartment complex, and thus was able to replace the neighborhood’s doctor, who had retired. “And they pay rent every month, on time,” she says. The CDC gets income from its rents and its landscaping subsidiaries. It also gets $100,000 a year from Comcast Corporation, as part of a city program that lets businesses divert some local business taxes owed to qualified CDCs.
The next step for the CDC may be its biggest yet — a potential game changer in one of the most desolate sections of the neighborhood, the land beneath the Roosevelt Expressway.
A young block leader came up with the idea of building a skatepark underneath the expressway. That led to a planning process. In turn, that led to planning by the Community Design Collaborative, a nonprofit group of planners and architects. In turn, that led to a project called the Nicetown Sports Court, a 3-acre installation of skateboarding features, basketball courts, a futsal (a small soccer field), a lawn set around an open amphitheater, and interactive rain gardens to handle the flow of water that washes off the expressway.
Rashid has secured buy-in from PennDOT, the city, a private developer of such parks and, of course, the community. She is tying up details of funding the $9.4 million project. The Sports Court will run under the expressway. And it could become a destination for both residents and outsiders.
When completed, it will include a metal tower that will be visible to drivers overhead. Along its spine, it will have an arrow pointing down to a sign that says “It’s Nice Down Here.”
Growing wealth in Center City Philadelphia is a trend that’s been underway for more than 20 years, and it has continued to accelerate in the last five (after sputtering a bit during the Great Recession). But market forces are fueling change in other neighborhoods too. A growing, urban-oriented millennial population is looking for housing that costs less than the high six figures of Center City. To the north, movement was helped along by the greening and renewal along Frankford Avenue done by the New Kensington CDC. To the south, a nonprofit-led makeover of the East Passyunk commercial corridor turned the area into a hotbed of chef-led BYO dining destinations and small shops.
Growth is good, but repopulation can be as jarring as depopulation if it is accompanied by the arrival of strangers who seem alien to longtime residents. This is truest in Point Breeze, where the undertow of class and race are added into the mix.
To some African-American residents of Point Breeze, the word gentrification is often synonymous with displacement of older residents, the fear that higher real estate taxes will force them out, and the sheer volume and speed of unwelcome change.
The population of Point Breeze, which begins south of Washington Avenue, west of Broad Street, increased by 1,600 people between 2010 and 2015, a 1.5 percent rate of growth that put the neighborhood slightly ahead of the citywide average of 1 percent. But with the growth has come a significant demographic shift; the new residents included 1,000 Latinos and 1,900 whites. During the same time, the black population declined by 1,250. As the area has become whiter, it has become more prosperous, with trend lines for median household income (up) and poverty (down) going counter to citywide patterns. Where home values are concerned, Point Breeze outpaced the citywide averages by an enormous margin with prices shooting up by 70 percent between 2011 and 2015, compared to a citywide jump of 6 percent.
The pace of development in the neighborhood has to be seen and heard to be believed. On a spring day this year, Ori Feibush, a developer who owns OCF Realty, could not make it through the streets in his car without swerving to avoid side streets blocked because of construction, backhoes parked at curbsides and red cones warning of obstacles ahead. The sound of diesel engines and air-powered hammers echo on many streets.
To older Point Breeze residents, Feibush is the evil of gentrification personified, someone inclined to ignore their wishes and their needs, and go full speed ahead building what he wants where he wants.
An apartment building under construction in Point Breeze
For his part, Feibush pleads not guilty and complains about the tortuous path to get zoning approvals, and the de facto veto power Councilman Kenyatta Johnson has over development. Feibush even ran against Johnson in the Second Council District in the 2015 Democratic primary. Johnson clocked him, winning by better than a two-one margin.
Still, the dynamic of what is happening in Point Breeze goes far beyond personal feuds. Feibush cites the law of unintended consequences: Pinching off the kind of larger, denser developments Feibush specializes in drives up prices on shells and existing single homes that can be purchased, improved and flipped by small developers. Riding past 19th and Wharton streets, Feibush points to several new townhouses going up.
“This is an area where a shell or older homes [were] trading from $60,000 to $70,000 five years ago,” Feibush says. “Today, you are at $250,000 — for a shell. … There are hundreds and hundreds of investors and newer developers who are desperate for these kinds of properties.”
There is a displacement of residents, especially renters, Feibush says, because most of the development is happening to the existing stock of housing. Sometimes owners sell for a decent profit; other times, renters are evicted by the new owner-developer.
Absent another recession, market forces will continue to change Point Breeze, for the benefit of some and the detriment of others. The narrative of this neighborhood is changing with a force that cannot be denied.
Next City’s coverage of Philadelphia’s changing neighborhoods is made possible with the support of the William Penn Foundation.
Tom Ferrick is an award-winning journalist who has reported on urban government and politics since the 1970's. Ferrick is a Philadelphia native who lives with his wife and children. They are longtime residents of Bella Vista.
Joshua Scott Albert is a Philadelphia-based photographer and reporter. He's contributed to VICE, Buzzfeed, Philadelphia Magazine and several other outlets.
2022-2023 Solutions of the Year magazine
Brave New Home by Diana Lind