Crossing cultural lines to solve everyday troubles in Northeast Philadelphia

In two decades, Northeast Philadelphia has gone from almost all white to super-diverse.  A new community group there is breaking down language and cultural divides so it can deal with everyday complaints such as noise and trash.Volunteers are setting up chairs inside a small room in the Max Myers’ Community Center.Creating the “Take Back Your Neighborhood” group was a personal project for Center City lawyer Jared Solomon,”When I left Northeast Philadelphia and moved into the city I was worried about my mom, the neighborhood started getting worse and I realized that of all the time I lived here I barely knew any of my neighbors and the whole premise of it was to band neighbors together to start solving problems,” said Solomon.Solomon says the Northeast’s reputation as overwhelmingly white, is long gone.The numbers bear that out.  A new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative shows eye-popping racial changes in the Northeast, going from “from 92 percent white in 1990 to 58 percent white in 2010.”  The idea at these meetings is to bring the community and all its languages and cultures, together to solve problems.The Pew numbers show over the last two decades, the Northeast has seen eleven to fifteen percent increases in its Hispanic and Black populations, and a five percent rise in its Asian community.  Elaine Zeng translates for her mom, Rui Zeng, who came from China. “She wants to get involved in the community and she wants to make it a better place,” she said.  “She wants the streets to be cleaner and she also wants there to be less crime especially in the middle of the night she always hears like there’s kids out there and she wants to see less of that.” Sitting nearby is Zahida Rehman.  She grew up in Pakistan and moved to the neighborhood in the ’80s.”I don’t like the mess up I want to clean!  If somebody need my help I will be willing to do,” said Rehman.Next to her 80 year old Betty Loev says the neighborhood used to be predominately Jewish.”Now I’m probably the only–one or two that are Jewish on there now!  My next door neighbor’s from Nigeria and we have a lot of couples on the block that are half and half, we have Russians on our block, Greeks,” said Loev.  “We have a few Chinese.”A few minutes later, Jared Solomon steps in front of the group,”We all know that the people of Northeast Philadelphia finally have to stand up,” said Solomon.The old business on the agenda includes: getting the Big Belly trash cans common in Center City. Solomon says he’s also working with police to address reports of illicit drug activity.  He says he’s making progress on a complaint about construction; a report of an illegal tenant, and a trash strewn lot at a vacant synagogue.  Then Solomon ushers Kathy, one of the owners of a night club to the front of the room.  “I’ve been a nursing home administrator for about 12 years and this is all in Northeast Philadelphia,” she said.  “I do a lot of volunteer work.  I played a big role when the earthquake occurred in Haiti I actually spent one month in Haiti.”The owners answer complaints about noise and the club’s patrons, and their personal stories seem to relieve some of the tension in the room.  But it rachets back up when a Police Department representative in the room says he’s hearing the same complaints.  Solomon tries to calm everyone down and keep them focused,”Now we’ve built this bridge here so I’m going to be able to talk to them whenever you bring up an issue,” Solomon said.  “They’re going to be able to talk to me.”Other business owners take turns.  A gas station owner, who’s from India, complains about people dumping trash next to his building.  A real estate broker steps up,”Good evening everybody.  My name’s Ken and I came to the meetings the last two times I heard a lot of people complaining of the next-door neighbors not taking care of the properties,” he said. “If your rental they don’t speak English just give me a call and I definitely can help you out.”The real estate broker offers to find a translator who speaks Portuguese.  Noelle Monk says she’s timid about bringing up problems with neighbors–even without a language barrier.  “As a new neighbor I see the trash, dirty neighbors, drug activity, lack of response from police,” said Monk.  “Me and my husband we didn’t know who to turn to, so it was really great knowing there is a community and they are doing something and they do care.”Monk says the older people on her block chat about problems, but she’s going to tell them about these meetings where people problem solve together.A woman named Marianne White, has lived in the neighborhood most of her life.  She’s says it’s more multicultural now.”I come to almost every meeting,” said White.  “It’s a good way to get to know people and clean up the neighborhood.  I’d rather have more of a community atmosphere like they have in Mt. Airy or Germantown.  I’ve heard about meetings there.””Take Back Your Neighborhood” is trying to prove you can have that tight-knit feel even as the the Northeast grows more diverse.

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