Changing neighborhoods: 20th and Diamond streets edition

cc_logoOne in an occasional series examining how Philadelphia residents handle change

Since its inception, PCHR has helped residents manage change when neighborhoods undergo cyclical change. New people come in, older neighbors move out – or sometimes stay. Friction – born of differing cultures, attitudes or plain fear – at times arises. Tempering hard feelings before they escalate to negative actions is central to the PCHR mission – and why commissioners gladly accepted an invitation from longtime residents within the 32nd Ward to get their take on the rate and quality of change in their community.

Stretching from 33rd Street on the west and Broad Street to the east, Susquehanna Avenue to the north, Oxford Street to the south, the ward is a swath of North Philadelphia that serves as a gateway to both Fairmount Park and Temple University.

On Tuesday night, an assortment of neighbors spent two hours sharing their thoughts and frustrations about standing in Temple’s growing shadow and amid renewal prompted by outside developers. Listening to those concerns were PCHR Commissioners Marshall Freeman and Sarah Ricks, joined by PCHR Deputy Director Randy Duque.

Changing North Philly

Longtime resident Jane Swinney Wilson describes life in her changing North Central Philadelphia neighborhood as Commissioner Freeman, PCHR Deputy Director Randy Duque and Commissioner Ricks listen and jot notes.

“Everybody has the same situation, every black neighborhood does,” said Basir Fulmore, a South Philadelphia transplant. “We’re misinformed and getting locked out of our neighborhoods and out of the loop.”

The results, Fulmore and others said, wreck quality of life. Skyrocketing taxes. Declining public services. Exclusion from construction jobs. Police harassment. Disrespectful neighbors. School closures. Displacement. Illegal rooming houses. Wayward and inconsiderate parking. Mounting trash.

“I just want my neighborhood to be clean, to be able to sit on my steps without smelling trash, to look like anybody else’s neighborhood,” said Jane Swinney Wilson, a longtime resident. “I’m old. I’m retired. I’m tired. And I don’t want to spend the rest of my life fighting people in the streets about this and that.”

Judith Robinson, an area committeewoman and realtor, organized the meeting at Jones Memorial AME Church at 20th and Diamond streets. As whirring fans cooled the 50 or so gathered, several took their turn at the mic to share their testimonies.

Many statements echoed each other, and by the nodding heads, summed up nearly universal feelings. They were reflective of similar concerns voiced elsewhere in the city and heard by PCHR commissioners and staff as cranes, bulldozers and other signs of renewal have become commonplace fixtures in communities in transition, from Point Breeze to Yorktown, Fishtown to Cobbs Creek.

The pace and unintended outcomes of that neighborhood change has reenergized PCHR in intensifying its role as mediator and information hub for communities in need of that guidance.

For the past year, commissioners and staff have dedicated time to listening to concerns, extracting similarities and producing new tools to help people navigate any disruptions to their way of life, newcomers and old-timers alike. PCHR now is working on assembling a set of resources for people seeking to create and maintain community, even in the face of rapid change.

The people assembled at Jones Memorial said they’d be grateful for whatever partners they can get.

Earl Lively, a neighborhood activist, spoke about the health and security hazards stemming from blocks of illegal dumping taking place under the city’s nose, with little support to stop it to date. He implored PCHR to “help us do something.”

And then there are the Temple students.

Nearly every speaker had a horror story of inconsiderate, entitled students invading or disrupting communities already teetering. Efforts so far – from complaints to landlords and city agencies to calls to the university – have yielded little.

“I work at 5 in the morning, and their party is just getting started sometimes,” said Michelle Jones. “I’ve seen them take their trash and dump it over a fence. It’s disrespectful. It’s wrong.”

Changing North Philly

Michelle Jones describes frustration in dealing with her student neighbors.

But not every neighborhood ill could be blamed on outsiders, one woman reminded the crowd.

Michelle Bailey said she took on the mantle of block captain in her neighborhood because she could no longer bear the filth rising. But all the culprits aren’t sporting the cherry-and-white.

“Let’s be real, some of our neighbors make it hard for us to live next door to,” Bailey said. “And I’m tired of the noise, and excuses.”

For their part, the neighbors assembled pledged to start, with community planning sessions and renewed efforts to connect with Temple officials.

Freeman and Ricks took notes to share with their fellow commissioners. Duque told the audience that PCHR would share its new community-building tools once they’re developed – to further aid their empowerment effort.

“At times it’s the worst of the worst. But it can also be the best of the best,” Robinson said. “We know the problems. Now we need to find solutions, and that’s the real tough part.”

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