The city’s outlying working and middle-class neighborhoods are beginning to look increasingly unstable.
This week, journalists, delegates, and activists from around the U.S. will swarm into Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention. The event itself will be held in the Wells Fargo Center, surrounded by an ocean of surface parking in South Philadelphia, while the walkable streets of Center City will be put to good use by activists and their law enforcement shadows.
Those who were last here in 2000, when the Republicans held their big party in the City of Brotherly Love, will see a city transformed. Although the revitalization of Center City had already begun by that point, it has since blossomed into a healthy urban core.
Today, downtown Philadelphia and its surrounding neighborhoods have rebounded remarkably from the 20th-century urban crisis. The Center City District (CCD)—a business improvement district—defines its purview as the Schuylkill River to the Delaware River from east to west, and Girard Avenue to Tasker Street from north to south. The densely populated area saw its population increase by 17 percent since 2000, reaching 184,998 people. As CCD likes to note, only Midtown Manhattan has more people living in a U.S. city’s urban core.
Center City and its environs are the Philadelphia that DNC attendees will enjoy during their visit. Most are likely aware there’s another side to Philadelphia they won’t experience.
The large, mostly black ghettos of West and North Philadelphia are abiding pillars of urban America’s segregation. The open-air drug markets and rampant crime of mixed-race Kensington—where black, white, and Puerto Rican residents are equally beset by post-industrial woes—is almost equally infamous. But there’s another unseen Philadelphia beyond the areas that have suffered decades of divestment and joblessness. Many of Philadelphia’s outlying working and middle-class neighborhoods are beginning to look increasingly unstable. Talk of gentrification is near-constant among those living in and around Center City, both among long-term residents and guilt-ridden new arrivals. But in much of the rest of Philadelphia, divestment and decline continues to be a much greater risk.
Chris Rabb, a Democrat campaigning for a position as a state representative, is aware of the troubles facing his neighbors and potential constituents. The 200thlegislative district contains roughly four neighborhoods. The charmingly old money nook of Chestnut Hill is the second most affluent neighborhood in the city and mostly white, while West Mt. Airy remains home to a racially integrated, if majority white, professional class that include many of the city’s political and civic elites. Rabb’s neighborhood is East Mt. Airy, which is mixed race but majority African American. Cedarbrook and the part of West Oak Lane in the district is largely African American. These latter two neighborhoods are among the outlying middle-class neighborhoods that are beginning to struggle while Center City keeps rising.
“My neighborhood, what I like about it is that it is very stable,” says Rabb, who moved to Philadelphia in 2002. “It hasn’t changed much, with the exception of some scattered violence and an uptick in quality of life crime.”
Other areas in the district, Rabb notes, “have suffered more from the byproducts of gentrification, as people largely from North Philadelphia are being pushed out.”
Rabb explains the troubling occurrences in East Mt. Airy and Cedarbrook as a result of the growth of Temple University, Philadelphia’s big state school with over 38,000 students enrolled. The institution is based in North Philadelphia and has transformed itself from a commuter school into a residential one in the last twenty years. Student housing mushroomed as a result, and many of the blocks of row houses around the campus now house undergraduate students. The mixture of undergraduates with any other residential community is an often volatile one, and long term residents have felt threatened by the university’s growth—especially after the school proposed to build a 35,000-seat football stadium in their midst.
Many of the good jobs in the private and public sectors that sustained these neighborhoods were eliminated in the Great Recession. That cataclysm also destroyed a disproportionate amount of black wealth. Meanwhile anyone with the means to leave North Philly has done so.
The Philadelphia Planning Commission describes the planning district Temple lies within as “Lower North Philadelphia,” and reports that after a slight population increase recently (147 residents), the area has 95,000 residents as of 2010—down from about 272,000 in 1950.
As the upwardly mobile of North Philadelphia move northward, so have the some of the residents of Cedarbrook, East Mt. Airy, and other outlying neighborhoods like them. Spurred in part by the school district’s chronic funding crisis, the black middle class has been fleeing the city since before the economic cataclysm.
“For a lot of black families, we are disproportionately impacted by violent crime, so issues around public safety and public education are paramount,” says Rabb. “In the case of a neighborhood like Cedarbrook, you are right on the suburban border. Move a few blocks and you are in a different school district.”
The effects are measurable. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2011 that the corner of Rabb’s potential district that includes Cedarbrook and parts of East Mt. Airy lost 8 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010. Even more worrying, median income fell from $65,000 to $53,000. (Philadelphia as a whole has a median household income of $39,043.) Based on American Community Survey data from 2013, it looks as though those median incomes have continued to fall in almost all of the neighborhood’s census tracts.
The neighborhood is moving in the opposite direction of the revitalizing neighborhoods in Philadelphia’s core. “That has caused some destabilization,” says Rabb. “And when it comes to young people who are marginalized and do not have a range of opportunities, or engaged adults, that can lead to violence. There are tensions on corners and in schools.”
Perhaps those tensions were related to the traumatizing event the candidate experienced two days before the primary. During the hectic week leading up to the Democratic primary in May—which effectively decides who wins the seat in this overwhelmingly Democratic city—Rabb was making the rounds of the neighborhoods he aspires to represent. Seeing a group of young people on the corner, he approached them with his aide and introduced himself. Rabb hit it off with one young man, 21-year-old Alex Cherry, who took a piece of campaign literature and expressed excitement about working the polls with his mother that Tuesday.
After Rabb entered a nearby bodega, and his aide continued to chat with Cherry, another man approached and shot the 21-year old in the head. The assailant turned away, then returned to shoot him twice more. Cherry died with Rabb’s campaign flyer still clutched in his hand. Later that day, another young man—a friend of Cherry’s—was murdered a few blocks away in what police believe was a related incident.
The experience made headlines across the country. It shook Rabb to his core, reinforcing fears he already dealt with every day.
“I am a black man who has lived and worked and studied in cities,” says Rabb, who is from Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. “I’m the father of two black boys in a society that criminalizes and brutalizes black bodies. I’m more likely to be murdered than the average American and my kids are more likely to die of gun violence. This is already an issue I’ve been forced to think about my entire life.”
In the wake of the searing horror of Cherry’s murder, Rabb went on to win the primary against Tonyelle Cook-Artis—a favorite of the local political establishment. Rabb is likely to win in November. Once in Harrisburg, he hopes to work on legislation to incentivize reinvestment in neighborhoods like Cedarbrook, and aid in finding a way to ease the educational funding inequities suffered by Philadelphia. Rabb says that the experience with Cherry reminded him that “there is an invisible mass of good people who are in bad situations, people who want to be involved and affirmed and embraced who have not been reached.”
Neither Cedarbrook nor East Mt. Airy are anywhere close to Philadelphia’s poorest or most violence-racked neighborhoods. Both still have higher median incomes than that of the city as a whole, and the population loss is not yet acute. But they are beset by troubling trends, as are their counterparts. On the border of Delaware County, the West Philadelphia neighborhoods of Overbrook and Wynnfield saw a median income decline of over $14,000 according to a 2014 report from the Inquirer.
The struggles of these outlying neighborhoods, which sustained Philadelphia in the late 20th century as Center City shrank and sputtered, speak to a deeper malaise. Philadelphia is not like its big Northeastern peers. According to CCD, private sector job growth has totaled just 0.9 percent annually since the end of Great Recession. (Since 1970, about a third of the city’s jobs have moved elsewhere.) Philadelphia’s economy is not strong enough to attract investment and new residents across the city.
The Philadelphia that journalists and delegates visiting the DNC will see is far away from Cedarbrook. But that neighborhood’s story is just as much a part of today’s Philadelphia as any new downtown skyscraper. The city’s urban crisis never really ended. It just moved.