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The Battle of Point Breeze

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By Ryan W. Briggs

In late June, neighbors in South Philadelphia's Point Breeze section held a zoning meeting to determine, among other things, if they would support a proposal for a new bar at 18th and Federal Streets.  After the meeting, John Longacre, proprietor of the hip South Philadelphia Taproom, walked away with a majority vote in favor of his latest project, the American Sardine Bar.

He also took with him a few fresh bruises following a scuffle with long-time resident, Sylvia Wilkens, who was escorted from the premises in a squad car. The police were already on site, having been summoned during an argument that erupted over another project earlier in the evening. 

Welcome to community discourse in one of Philadelphia's fastest-growing neighborhoods, a place where long-time residents struggle to push back an irresistible wave of gentrification.

It's a story that has played out in dozens of neighborhoods across the city as old Philadelphia meets new.Ultimo Coffee  Use this.jpg

In the last decade, a wave of new investment has brought with it wealthier residents, many of them white, into predominately black and impoverished neighborhoods searching for proximity to the city's core without downtown prices. With change comes tension, as everything from cultural differences to rent increases down to construction noise and tight parking test neighbors' relationships with one another.

In Point Breeze, the clash is even more combustible because it is so clearly delineated by race and class. Melodramatic scenes, such as the June zoning meeting, are evidence that Point Breeze is an extreme example, a place where the push and tug of the two sides dominates civic and political life.  I wanted to know why Point Breeze was so volatile and went looking for the answers, talking to developers, residents old and new, and members of the competing civic groups in the area.

Point Breeze runs from Broad Street west to 25th Street, and from Washington Avenue south to either Moore, Mifflin, McKean, or Snyder Avenue, depending on who you ask and how they're feeling. Encompassing hundreds of blocks and over 23,000 residents, it's a massive area to fall under the banner of a single name, let alone the auspices of a single civic organization.  But one group has tried to take up that mantle.

In the power vacuum created by years of decline and the decay of extant civic groups, an affordable housing agency called South Philadelphia HOMES, Inc, (an acronym meaning "Helping Others Means Everyone Shares") had made itself the locus of power through a lack of competition and political connections to District Councilwoman Anna Verna.  In 1994, South Philadelphia HOMES spun off a civic association called the Point Breeze Community Development Coalition. The group's power is considerable because it provides recommendations to the City's zoning board on neighborhood development.  PBCDC hosted the June zoning meeting. 

Both groups are now headed by long-time neighborhood resident Claudia Sherrod. Many I spoke to acknowledged her as, for better or worse, a central figure in neighborhood development issues through her dual role as a non-profit housing developer and president of the group with the most power over zoning decisions.

I met with Sherrod in her office on the second floor of a small rowhome at 1444 Point Breeze Avenue, the neighborhood's commercial heart, populated with the dollar stores, wig shops, and check cashing joints.

"If I had to answer you, I'd say most of it's not happening fast enough," she said, chuckling, when I asked her what she thought about the pace of development in her neighborhood.  I was surprised by how nonchalantly she handled the question; private neighborhood developers had openly said South Philadelphia HOMES obstructed development and functioned as a mouthpiece for older, black residents opposed to development.

Claudia Sherrod use This.jpgBut Sherrod views herself as a neutral party, saying that while she personally enjoys the increased quality of life new development brings, her group exists only to enable community consensus through voting at zoning meetings.

"All I can say is the majority rules," she said. "We try to get along with everyone and as a zoning committee we can't really take a position one way or the other."

She took pains to downplay the group's role in opposing or supporting development saying that as an organization she "couldn't remember" there ever being a "conflict with any proposal".

"Basically our zoning meetings are pretty orderly," she said, stressing that the dustup in June occurred after the meeting had ended.

It seemed unlikely to me that she honestly believed that because disputes spilled out onto the sidewalk that meetings were orderly. 

Developers, such as OCF Realty's young and brash Ori Feibush, see the group's official neutrality as a facade, and are upset by the neighborhood zoning group's cozy relationship with a subsidized housing agency.

"In my opinion there is no such thing as a non-profit developer in Philadelphia," said Feibush adding that the "Number One" problem with building in Point Breeze is that "the party that is responsible for granting civic approval is also a developer."

He asserted that non-profits like South Philly HOMES want to keep Point Breeze poor and undesirable to further their acquisition of government housing contracts targeting blighted neighborhoods.

I found the assertion of a sort of strange inverted racial power structure --in which old, black community activists oppress young white real estate developers -- dubious. But, Feibush insists the PBCDC is empowered by Verna, who is white, but retained her seat because of black supporters. "Some people want to ensure that the area stays blighted, stays a certain skin color or demographic," he said. 

He said that caused the initial disturbance at the June meeting, which occurred during consideration of his proposal to develop city-owned land.  He said he believed HOMES wants to obstruct the auction of the nearly 500 city-owned lots in Point Breeze to private builders because they want the land for themselves.

Sherrod's calm and grandmotherly demeanor seemed shaken when I introduced the idea that she might have a conflict of interest by being a developer and head of the local civic group that passes on zoning matters.

"There's no conflict whatsoever.  I have nothing to gain from doing what I'm doing or being voted in as the president." she said. 

Sherrod described Feibush as "ignorant" and although she openly questioned the practice of selling city lots to private developers, said she only denied a vote at the June meeting because Feibush did not yet own the lots in question.

But Feibush didn't think ownership had anything to do with it. "He said it was because we didn't like the color of the room," Sherrod told me, referring to whites who attended the June meeting.

Sherrod and Feibush are not the only ones at odds over the future of Point Breeze.  The battle has been joined by a number of new groups, who stand on opposite sides of the issue.

Newbold Neighbors Association and the Point Breeze Pioneers formed in the whiter, gentrifying edges of the neighborhood favors development, while a kind of cadre of older residents called the Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze is opposed to virtually all development.

Despite Sherrod's assertion that all was calm, it felt like the neighborhood was splintering, as civic militias fought over Point

 Breeze's future -- sometime literally, as in the case of Wilkens, a Concerned Citizens member, tussling with Longacre, a founding member of Newbold, at the June zoning meeting. I had to talk to the heads of these new factions - although in one case it  would be easier said than done.

 

Tomorrow: The fight escalates as new civic groups enter the fray.

 

 

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