By Ryan W. Briggs
There is a touch of espionage when it comes to people in Point Breeze talking about their neighborhood. Everyone uses code words. Property developers and their supporters aren't building to make money, they're "revitalizing a community." Opposition to development is guised as a fear of "rising property values", instead of a fear of racial change.
Most people in Point Breeze know John Longacre as the owner of the South Philly Taproom, Ultimo Coffee, and the American Sardine Bar. But, in a way that is a mask as well. He's also the owner of the Longacre Property Management Group, and up until the Taproom opened in 2003 his main business was selling houses. It just happens to be a lot easier to move property in a struggling neighborhood if you build amenities that your target demographic group desires.
Longacre's businesses have become the social nucleus for the young, mostly white newcomers to Point Breeze. The South Philadelphia Taproom at 15th and Mifflin Streets, draws a hip crowd that enjoy the vegan beer dinners the kitchen sometimes creates. Ultimo, on the 1900-block of South 15th Street, is a bright place, with wooden tables usually inhabited by residents with laptops and lattes. They are potent symbols of the new Point Breeze.
This is what made the Sardine Bar, at 18th and Federal Streets, worth fighting over for members of the Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze. They cast the high-end gastropub, that would replace a dive known for under-the-table coke dealing, as a potential "nuisance bar".
OCF Realty jumped on the bandwagon, opening the OCF Cafe at 20th and Federal, an inroad into the still undeveloped heart of Point Breeze. Though developer Ori Feibush's cafe has yet to open, the model is clear. If you build a coffee shop, they will come.
The bars and cafes are externalities that spur development. Resistant long-time neighbors use civic associations to combat that development, so Longacre and a other new residents started their own group in 2007.
"Nobody here was doing the work of a civic association," says Newbold Neighbors Association president Jim Resta, speaking to the group's boundaries from Broad to 18th Street, Washington to Passyunk Avenue. "People may have been holding zoning meetings, but no one was doing any of the other work." he said
He adds, wearily, that their name ("Newbold" was the former name of Hicks St, and is engraved on the side of Longacre's Taproom) was chosen by vote and not intended to be construed as a breakaway neighborhood. While it may not have been the intent to create a new neighborhood, many new residents and real estate agents have taken to using the name as a brand for the developing side of Point Breeze. Older residents see it as an attempt to divide.
"Some people have the opinion you can just rename a neighborhood, but there is no such 'apart'. It's all Point Breeze. When you start trying to change names we have a serious problem, starting with me." Those tough words are Claudia Sherrod's. In Point Breeze, labels have become symbols of encroaching gentrification or neighborhood rebirth, depending on your viewpoint.
Yet, Newbold's activism and organization has won it begrudging recognition from Sherrod's South Philly HOMES, which has delegated a certain amount of zoning control to the organization over "their" part of the neighborhood.
It's a similar story for another group, founded in 2008 by new transplants in the northern zone of development. The Point Breeze Pioneers were initially formed by new residents to maintain a series of community gardens they said had been neglected by South Philly HOMES. It, too, generated local controversy for what some saw as a name with colonialist overtones.
Their founder and president Antoinette Johnson appeared with an older, black resident who works with the Pioneers, Art Johnson, in "The Concert Garden", one of their flagship greening projects. It sits in the shadow of half a dozen new rowhomes that are under construction.
She presents the Pioneers as a potentially unifying force.
"While sometimes the media likes to play up the differences, there really is an effort to work together to create a community that is much like maybe when he first moved in," she says, nodding toward Art, "My fiancée's grandmother grew up here and it was a mixed neighborhood."
Johnson went out her way to promote the group as a coalition of the new and old, but sitting in their tidy garden next to a massive construction project, it was hard not to see the Pioneers as another vanguard of the new.
Though ostensibly formed around gardening projects, the group has become, or perhaps always was, increasingly concerned with neighborhood politics. "There are certain individuals who have power, and when presented with change, it makes those people fearful that that power will no longer be in their hands," Johnson said.
She went on to say that South Philly HOMES has become entrenched and unresponsive and that she was working with members of a nascent business association to form a new Point Breeze Civic Association to directly challenge Sherrod's South Philly HOMES civic group on zoning matters. "We've been to the last five meetings and she won't hold a vote - that's dictatorship," said Johnson, a charge Sherrod vehemently denies.
While some downplay the conflict between the old and the new in Point Breeze -- and some even deny it exists -- there is one group that doesn't use code words when it comes to what is happening, the cadre of old-time neighbors who created the Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze.
"Oh, you mean developers, we know them as 'developers'," Betty Beaufort corrects me when I unwittingly make reference to private builders. Inside a library in Point Breeze, I found Beaufort, president of the Concerned Citizens, to be charming and soft spoken, but her opinions hard as iron.
"It's a war," she said. "They're fighting, so we're fighting."
The group got attention after convincing Councilwoman Verna to introduce legislation banning the construction of three-story houses in Point Breeze - legislation quickly shot down after Newbold and the Pioneers resisted, holding a "roofdeck party" to rally newer residents against the ban.
Beaufort seemed willing to talk more, but it was around this time that Tiffany Green, another Concerned Citizens member that Beauford had invited to contribute to the interview, had had enough.
"Are you speaking as an individual or as the Concerned Citizens?" she challenged Beaufort,
"He's coming in here about development, and we're not interested in talking about that."
When Beaufort indicated she wanted to continue, Green repeatedly interrupted her. The two then argued at length, Green stormed in an out of the room several times, accusing me of working for Newbold and Feibush, among others.
She struck at Beaufort as well, saying that there would be consequences from the rest of the group for continuing to speak with me. After Green threatened "to call her lawyer", Beauford said she felt she could not continue. End of interview.
Everyone I talked to said they wanted to make Point Breeze a better place. I don't think any of them were lying, but the vision of what "better" meant was the sticking point. The racial component was impossible to ignore: groups favoring development were mostly white, groups that questioned or opposed it were mostly black.
Simple resistance is not an alternative plan. "Affordable housing" is a common trope, but HOMES and the PHA had been building in Point Breeze for decades. It did little to cure the maladies of the neighborhood. Building expensive new housing will do little to bring back the industry that forged working class Point Breeze or help those who languish in its multi-generational poverty. But the alternative is only to entrench that poverty.
Gentrification seems to be a force that cannot be denied. Walking through certain parts of the neighborhood I was struck by the clatter of hammers and nail guns, sidewalks blocked by cement mixers and construction workers. Point Breeze was being re-made, even in the midst of a recession.
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Ignore newcomers and they form their own groups, protest and they will learn to protest, too. Ironclad resistance is met with steely insistence.
I never totally bought into Sherrod's stated neutrality, any more than I believed that Feibush was building dozens of houses out of a selfless desire to improve a neighborhood. But, I came to see Sherrod as representing a kind of middle ground. Not totally pro- or anti-development, but definitively pro-South Philly HOMES, I felt her interest mostly lay in preserving the power structure she had carved out, be it for self-gain or her stated love of her community - likely a little of both. Compromise, albeit begrudging on Sherrod's part, would serve people on all sides, and the larger Point Breeze community, far better than simple war.