Obama designates Mantua neighborhood as federal ‘Promise Zone’

    Philadelphia’s Mantua neighborhood is being singled out as one of five economic “Promise Zones” across the country that will receive federal backing for community revitalization.

    President Barack Obama introduced the “Promise Zones” program in his State of the Union address last year and named the five winners a day after an important anniversary: The fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the “War on Poverty.”

    “Each of these communities is prepared to do what it takes for their kids,” Obama said Thursday. “We will help them succeed. Not with a handout. But as partners with them every step of the way.”

    The Promise Zone in west Philadelphia is home to 35,000 of the city’s 1.5 million residents. It faces a raft of challenges, said Eva Gladstein, head of the newly created Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity.

    “The poverty rate is over 50 percent … our city already has a very high poverty rate of 26.9 percent, but this is almost double that,” she said. “It has a  higher vacancy rate than other parts of the city its public schools have empty seats in them.”

    It also presents a lot of raw potential, Gladstein said. Its existing federally funded initiatives qualified the neighborhood to compete for the “Promise Zone” designation. Now, it will get a bump up in its applications for 25 existing federal grant programs in areas including housing, education and public safety. Federal agencies will also provide technical assistance and staff time.

    Susan Wachter, a professor of real estate at Penn’s Wharton School of Business, said the research supports this kind of an a multi-modal approach.

    “We’ve learned that holistic intervention is important in terms of revitalizing neighborhoods,” she said.

    “It’s not just a matter of bringing down crime rates. That’s extremely important. Public safety is extremely important, but education is also important,” she said. “Housing opportunities are also important. Job opportunities are also important.”

    Mantua’s inclusion in the program recognizes the strength of existing partnerships between the city, nonprofits and private institutions in the vicinity, including Drexel University, the People’s Emergency Center, and Local Initiatives Support Corporation, Wachter said.

    “We’re working to create areas where people feel that they can walk safely and exercise safely in the area,” said Andy Frishkoff, executive director of LISC’s Philadelphia branch. “Those will get added benefits now from the ‘Promise Zone.’ We’ll be able to use this to secure other additional federal funds to create more safe recreational places, safe walkways, safe bikeways — and that’s building on work that we’ve already been doing in the last year with the [Department of Justice] grant.”

    A key part of the federal picture — tax incentives for businesses hiring residents in Mantua and the other “Promise Zones” — has stalled in Congress. The Obama administration has pledged to select up to 20 promise zones over three years.

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