In Strawberry Mansion, anxiety over taxes, neighborhood changes haunts an annual tradition

Residents gather to join in the festivities at the 12th Annual Strawberry Mansion Day in North Philadelphia on September 9th 2018. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Residents gather to join in the festivities at the 12th Annual Strawberry Mansion Day in North Philadelphia on September 9th 2018. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

This story originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

They came out in droves on Saturday to celebrate the North Philadelphia neighborhood they love at the 12th annual Strawberry Mansion Day. On the grounds of Mander Recreation Center, the vibe was jovial and friendly as families celebrated their community with live music, games and a kid-filled bouncy castle.

But walking off the grounds,  area residents reentered the reality of a community in flux. Older homes and vacant properties that were once eyesores have become open invitations to savvy developers and investors.

“I don’t think this is going to be here for much longer,” said Aisha Vance, a long-time resident, looking back at the festivities. “It’s a sad thing.”

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Situated between West Philadelphia, hipster-esque Brewerytown, and the expansive Fairmount Park, Strawberry Mansion is the next frontier for developers. Between 2010 and 2016, median home prices in the 19121 zip code, which includes Strawberry Mansion and Brewerytown, rose by 68 percent  — the third biggest increase of any Philadelphia zip code.

The new attention feels familiar to longtime residents of the city who’ve seen gentrification change the fabric of communities, often making the cost of living unaffordable to those who stuck through the tough times.

Vance, 40, owns a home that has been in her family for 67 years. Like many of her neighbors, she saw her property value increase by more than 40 percent this past year, upping her taxes along with it.

Strawberry Mansion and Brewerytown experienced the largest spike in property values of all of the city’s 57 neighborhoods, increasing 47 percent between 2018 and 2019, according to an analysis of city data by the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News.

Vance said she plans to keep the house, but worries about renters in the community and some homeowners who may not be able to ride out the property value increases.

“A lot of people don’t know what’s going on with their houses,” she said. “That’s the sad part.”

‘Unstoppable’ Change

The story of gentrification is nothing new in Philadelphia and city officials, along with some developers, are working to avoid displacement and other pitfalls.

In April, for example, the Philadelphia Housing Authority completed 55-affordable housing units along 33rd Street in Strawberry Mansion.

City Council President Darrell Clarke said gentrification is something that is nearly unstoppable and can even be a good thing so long as equitable development is part of the process.

“The reality is you want to encourage new investment,” he said on Saturday. “The question is can you make sure that the neighborhood continues to be affordable for the residents that live in here and the people that want to live in here.”

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Some who came out to celebrate on Saturday were still coming to grips with the School District of Philadelphia’s transition of the community’s 54-year-old alma mater, Strawberry Mansion High School. This year, the school will phase out its comprehensive 9-12 programming and begin offering alternative education programming.

The District said the changes are designed to serve the community  — since most young people in the area are enrolled in alternative programs.

But some vocal Strawberry Mansion residents, many of whom were alumni, saw the changes as an omen. These critics have said that the District didn’t involve residents in the decisionmaking process. Soon after the District announced the school’s reprogramming, residents began a campaign to “save Strawberry Mansion High School.”

“The community has to realize that they must speak up for the community,” said Tyrone Williams, a recently retired community liaison for the Strawberry Mansion Neighborhood Action Center.

“Because if they don’t, a community without a plan will definitely get planned for.”

Five years ago, residents fought a similar battle and won, when the school was removed from the closure list. Among the opponents to that closure was Council President Clarke.

He was far more optimistic about current plans to revamp the high school.

“There wasn’t the appropriate opportunities being offered in that school,” he said. “We’re now doing that, and we expect the population to continue to grow.”

The massive building, estimated at nearly 300,000 square feet, once housed 1700 students. Over the years that number has dwindled to less than 300.

The District has said that as plans move forward at Strawberry Mansion High, it intends to involve community members along the way.

Tanya Parker is a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, and a community activist. On Saturday, she said the changes at the school trace back to the larger cycles of reinvestment and displacement happening in the area. She said it is important to educate people in the community about what’s going on and move beyond divisions to fight for common goals.

“Some folks just don’t care because they don’t live down here anymore,” she said. “Then you have the seniors who’ve been telling us all the time that this was coming and now it’s here. Then you have the new generation, which does not have the communication skills to reach over our obstacles of differences. So we’re just in the struggle.”

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