‘Challenges and opportunities’ of gentrification discussed at weekend forum in Germantown

To change or not to change: That isn’t the question.

How to manage the evolution occurring in Germantown in ways that benefit its longtime residents as well as newcomers, that is the issue.

On Saturday, the Germantown United Community Development Corporation (GUCDC) hosted a forum at Mastery Charter School’s Pickett Campus on Wayne Avenue.

Some 140 community leaders, organizers and residents on hand to consider some answers.

What it was all about

The “Big G: Gentrification in Germantown: How it works, and for whom?” forum explored “challenges and opportunities” of gentrification, explained Garlen Capita, board president of Germantown United.

The community conversation was led by a panel of special guests, moderated by Alan Greenberger, deputy mayor for economic development.

“I’ve always hated the word ‘gentrification,'” he said. “Some words tend to be so charged that people retreat into stereotyped positions.”

He suggested that the focus be on how to “manage change.” The economic, social and cultural aspects of a community that are affected by gentrification are “unsettling,” but they can also lead to opportunities.

Message from Brooklyn

For its keynote address, Germantown United brought a New Yorker to the table.

Colvin W. Grannum, president and CEO of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corp., came to know Philadelphia as a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

On Saturday, he noted that while there are differences between Brooklyn and Germantown, gentrification’s effects are the same: Higher-income households displace lower-income households and change the culture of the community.

Bedford Stuyvesant was 100 percent African-American when he was growing up there.

“Now, it’s 60 percent and falling,” Grannum said.

After decades of decay and disinvestment, houses in that neighborhood currently sell for $2 million.

“Successful models of gentrification are hard to find in New York,” he said.

The impact of gentrification depends on who you are, though. Many African-American professionals are doing well in Bed-Stuy, Grannum noted.

“Gentrification does not impose suffering solely based on race, but the benefits and power are mainly held by whites,” he said, noting two keys to managing gentrification’s fallout. “You have got to improve the financial outcomes for low- and moderate-income people.”

Restoration plans must include mixed-income housing and low-income housing in business districts, which he called a “vehicle for reigniting the vitality of a commercial corridor.”

The community must also attract businesses compatible with the neighborhood and should support minority entrepreneurship.

The other key to managing gentrification is “institutionalizing” the arts and culture of the African-American community, Grannum said.

By creating public art, dance performances, music festivals and other cultural programming, “you will see yourself and know this is yours,” and the flavor of the community will remain in place, he said.

Local input

Betty Turner, a retired educator and current president of Germantown Community Connection who has lived in the neighborhood for 53 years, provided a short history lesson.

“I can see gentrification coming,” she said. “It’s not a surprise. And it’s not a new thing.”

It started in Rome in the third century with the shift in the situation of the working class and the influx of the wealthy, she explained.

Gentrification arrived locally in 1964, Turner said, a time when Germantown was thriving.

She recalled the decline of the community, when businesses began to leave, followed by “white flight, and later black flight,” as her former neighbors sought better schools, bigger homes and stores and services no longer in Germantown.

However, Turner said she has seen signs of positive change in recent years.

People of all backgrounds are being drawn to Germantown now because of its diversity, and residents are working collaboratively to bring businesses back to the commercial districts, she said.

Turner specifically cited a renewed focus on Maplewood Mall, Germantown High School and Town Hall.

“We’re not there yet,” she said, “but we’re working on it.”

The future of Germantown

Germantown must still address “systemic disinvestment” and the blight of vacant land, said panel member Nora Lichtash, executive director of the Women’s Community Revitalization Project.

“There is a lot of energy and focus” among residents, but “we need to harness that energy and have strategies” to tackle the challenges that exist, including a lack of resources, she said.

Representing the business community at the forum was Steve Mullin, president of Econsult Solutions and former city commerce director. He said stability doesn’t exist in any community.

“There’s no such thing as equilibrium,” he said. “You’re either declining or growing, and change is even more rapid now.”

He also warned against use of the word “community,” because it’s dangerous to think of any group as homogenous.

“People move in and out, and a neighborhood belongs to anybody” who lives there, he said.

Gentrification does have a “nasty connotation,” he said, and “hell, yes, it’s a racial thing.”

The “three sides of the same coin” which led to Germantown’s decline, Mullin said, are the lack of new housing stock, the lack of equitable distribution of wealth and its dearth of quality schools, which “determine the desirability of a neighborhood.”

Grannum later agreed that improving its schools is a key to changing Germantown’s profile: “If we focus on education alone, that would be a powerful community development tool.”

Looking forward

Two members of the Goodwill Baptist Church, on the 4700 block of Germantown Ave., attended the forum to hear what the speakers and residents had to say about the community’s priorities.

Dr. Kenneth Wilson explained that the church is preparing to build on its property, and “we want to make sure our thinking addresses the needs of area families.”

Romaine Thompson is the daughter of Goodwill’s pastor.

“Exciting things are happening in Germantown, and we want to be an aid to the community,” she said. “This meeting has been a great a help to us. People are coming together to make the community better.”

NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Alan Jaffe at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

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