Community tensions in Point Breeze are intensifying over what some are calling the latest sign of gentrification — a summer pop-up beer garden.
The seasonal enterprise has now been shut down twice by city regulators, but as the developer fights for its reopening, some are debating how welcome the beer garden is in the South Philadelphia neighborhood.
“There’s already an underlining smolder of tension between the people that’s moving into the community and the established people that’s been here,” said Larry Moore, who grew up in Point Breeze and used to play basketball on the site when it was a public park long ago. He said he’s been watching the community get whiter and whiter.
On the once-derelict lot, stylish outdoor lights swing from tree to tree. Lawn chairs sit around large wooden spools that have been turned into tables. A repurposed 18-wheeler painted bright green and yellow serves as a bar. Food trucks are parked.
The site abuts rows of two-story row homes in various states of repair.
Moore said when the lot was filled up with beer-drinking-revelers, some longtime residents starting talking.
“I hope that you can afford the tax increases that are about to come in the neighborhood, or prepare to leave the neighborhood. I think once they saw this, it was like a wake-up call,” Moore said, just as young professional-looking hipster pedaled by on his bike.
“Perfect example,” Moore said, laughing. “It’s funny. Twenty years ago, you would’ve never saw that. So now I think when people see that, it’s like, ‘huh?'”
Resistance to change called chronic
A state representative has even entered the fray. After fliers circulated in Point Breeze calling the pop-up garden a “trick to take over our community,” Rep. Jordan Harris held a neighborhood meeting, where more than 100 people confronted the man behind the beer garden: John Longacre.
“The small vocal minority — it’s the same small vocal minority that opposes every single thing that happens here,” Longacre said.
Longacre, who owns the lot, plans to eventually build apartments there. Not that far away is another one of his ventures, American Sardine Bar. The back yard of the bar occupies what he said used to be a bad drug corner.
“It had 238 documented police incidents under the previous owner,” he said. The bar has “been open for four years, not a single one.”
Critics have said the beer garden doesn’t fit the fabric of the community.
“The shitty trash-strewn lot with magnum-350 shell casings and drug bags did fit the fabric of the community?” Longacre said.
In recent years, Point Breeze has gotten wealthier and whiter. Still, it’s still predominantly a black, working-class section of the city.
Claudia Sherrod leads the nonprofit South Philadelphia HOMES. After living in Point Breeze for more than 50 years, she said some residents are chronically resist change.
“Reverse racism seems to be a factor here, I have to be quite honest. It is a factor. Some of the people who are screaming and hollering, they think that you’re taking something from them,” Sherrod said, saying Longacre has done his part to solicit community input.
“Sure, he’s a developer, sure, he wants what he wants, but guess what? He knows what he can and can’t get,” Sherrod said.
And, Sherrod pointed out, not every neighbor is opposed to the nicely landscaped beer oasis.
A self-described “freelance barbecue specialist” lives right across the street from the lot. He goes by Wala Wala.
“I love it,” Wala said. “It was a junkyard when I moved here. Now it’s beautiful. Nobody understands: If you gonna move forward, you can’t live in a neighborhood with the junk, OK?”
Who benefits from beer garden, neighbors ask
But Moore wonders whether it’s really an asset for the people who live in Point Breeze or for those coming from other parts of town, lured by the watermelon wheat beer and small-batch Pilsners?
“Who we gonna kid? The type of beer, or spirits, that they sell isn’t the type that most of the locals drink, OK?” he said. “At the prices that they can afford, you know what I mean?”
There’s a deli a block and a half away from the beer garden site, Moore said, pointing to it. There, he said, cops are constantly breaking up guys loitering out front for being a community nuisance.
Meanwhile, beer garden visitor can be seen whiling away their evenings and having an easygoing time with security on site, Moore said.
“That’s where the animosity comes into play, and actually racial undertones come into play,” he said.
City officials have shut down the beer garden for not successfully going through a zoning change. Developer Longacre, who said it’s not required, said he’s secured all the permits necessary and that that the site is above board.
The land use dispute is now stuck in municipal courts, but Longacre said he’s hopeful the craft taps will be flowing again sometime next week.
He’s planning to ask a judge to lift the city’s cease and desist order, something that happened once before.
If the city keeps fighting it to Commonwealth Court, Longacre said he won’t back down.
“If they do, that’s fine. I’ll go to the commonwealth level. If the commonwealth judge says, ‘yes, it should be closed,’ then we’ll close and we won’t think twice about it,” Longacre said. “But that’s just not going to happen. Because these permits were made for this very intent.”