Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
It’s actually economic decline, a new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts finds.
Philly’s neighborhoods are changing—that’s for sure—but gentrification is not the primary reason why, a new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts finds. “The data indicate that, by our definition, gentrification is a relatively small part of the story for the city’s changing neighborhoods,” Larry Eichel, director of Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative, said in a statement.
A gentrified neighborhood, per the report, was predominantly low-income in 2000 (its median income less than 80 percent of the regional median at the time), for one. Second, it saw its median income increase by at least 10 percent in the next 14 years. Third, this 2014 median income was above the city-wide median.
By this measure, only 15 out of 372 census tracts in Philadelphia gentrified in this period. On the other hand, 164 tracts actually saw their median income decline significantly. The number of declining tracts was over ten times the number of gentrifying ones. The report therefore concludes:
From 2000 through 2014, the primary form of change in Philadelphia neighborhoods was not gentrification; it was a decline in residents’ economic well-being.
Here’s Pew’s map of Philly showing its gentrified and declining neighborhoods:
A close look at Philly’s gentrified neighborhoods
As Richard Florida has previously written, gentrification can improve neighborhoods, but it can also harm a city’s most vulnerable residents. So even though it may not be Philadelphia’s biggest problem, it’s one that tends to “stir intense feelings,” and “have an outsize impact in terms of enhancing the city’s economic future and raising concerns about fairness and civic harmony,” the Pew report reads.
The report dives into close examinations of the 15 neighborhoods that gentrified during this period. Only three among them, in the Graduate Hospital area south of Center City, are African-American working-class neighborhoods. These tracts saw steeper rises in median income than other gentrified neighborhoods: Their median incomes more than doubled between 2000 and 2014, from $34,801 to $73,472. Among other changes, this area experienced a dramatic change in racial composition. The report’s authors write:
The loss of African-Americans from this historically black neighborhood actually began decades earlier—hastened by urban renewal-era planning for the never-built crosstown expressway—which is one reason why there were numerous vacant parcels in the area in 2000. The more recent changes were different; for every black resident who left, one white resident arrived.
The other gentrified neighborhoods are former industrial areas around Northern Liberties, neighborhoods in the Center City area, and mixed-income, primarily white tracts in South Philly. All of these tracts already had larger shares of white residents compared to the city as a whole in 2000, but also saw their percentages of blacks fall and whites rise in the following 14 years.
Still, decline is the city’s biggest problem
According to the report, 44 percent of the city’s Census tracts experienced a drop in median income between 2000 and 2014. Of these, 120 tracts were already low-income to begin with. That means that many more of the city’s residents are living in poverty-stricken areas now than they were before.
Planners and lawmakers should generally focus more on this larger aspect of neighborhood change rather than gentrification, John Landis, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, argued in 2015:
Center city planners seeking to reverse neighborhood decline and promote upgrading should focus their efforts on older and walkable neighborhoods with diverse and aspirational populations. Those hoping to anticipate and stem decline should keep a close eye on more distant neighborhoods, those with proportionately more multi-family housing, and those with large populations already in poverty.
His recommendation holds particular significance in Philadelphia—perhaps more so than in other cities.