The surprising truth behind the racial dynamics of gentrification in Philly

While it may be harder to tell, data suggests white neighborhoods in Philly are actually gentrifying faster than black neighborhoods.

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Claudia Sherrod (left) and Haley Dervinis (right) in front of their homes in Point Breeze.

Claudia Sherrod (left) and Haley Dervinis (right) both live in Point Breeze. Although Dervinis is a newcomer, she's also wary of the rapid change. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Debbie Bell knows what it is to be made to feel like an afterthought.

She’s a lifelong resident of Point Breeze, a historically low-income African-American neighborhood in South Philadelphia that’s seen a lot of change lately.

To hear longtime neighbors like Bell tell it, Point Breeze used to be about pride. It was mothers cooking collard greens. People pulling together to help each other make the rent when times got hard. It was friendly competitions to see who had the tidiest block.

It was about community.

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But now that a new wave of more affluent residents and expensive developments have moved in, many are mourning the loss of a neighborhood that they had thought of as theirs.

“Most of the elderly residents are upset because their taxes are sky high. Then you’ve got new people moving into the new developments who don’t have to pay taxes for five years,” said Bell, an African-American. “[The older residents] feel like they’ve been pushed to the side, like they don’t matter.”

In many ways, the changes in Point Breeze symbolize the stereotypical definition of gentrification, with young, white professionals moving into a low-income, African-American neighborhood.

And while this dynamic is true — and the frustrations of residents like Bell are real — this isn’t the whole story.

What seldom gets reported is that Philadelphia also boasts neighborhoods where those same young, white professionals are moving into low-income, white neighborhoods.

And while it may be harder to tell, the data suggests that those white neighborhoods are actually gentrifying faster than the black neighborhoods — a point that further complicates a situation already fraught with racial tensions.

Take East Kensington, for instance – a cluster of blocks three miles north of Center City that’s historically been poor and white. With the epicenter of the city’s hipster culture nearby, the neighborhood has transformed over the last several years.

And this has occurred despite the fact that homes abut ground zero of the state’s opioid crisis.

Walking through the neighborhood, a familiar symphony of backhoes, nail guns, and jackhammers can be heard coming from a steady supply of construction projects. Some properties are being rehabbed, but more are being built from scratch.

The area has also attracted a growing number of millennial-friendly businesses. A vacant auto garage is now a trendy bar specializing in fermented foods and sour beers. A short walk away, people pay to hurl small axes at targets inside an old warehouse.

The changes also show up on paper.

Between 2000 and 2016, median household income in the most gentrified section of the neighborhood shot up 124 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

During that same span, the data reveals that median homes prices ballooned 715 percent in the same area.

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“We had no, honest to goodness, no idea what was going to happen to this neighborhood in the next couple years – didn’t even consider the fact that we were buying in a neighborhood that was going to be completely changed,” said Jacelyn Blank, a white teacher who moved to East Kensington with her husband after qualifying for a first-time home-buyer program about a decade ago.

At the time, the neighborhood was not a place where middle class couples typically moved.

Their friends in Fishtown — the gentrified neighborhood next door — thought they were crazy to buy in such a “dangerous” neighborhood, where drug dealing and prostitution were common.

“As if Frankford Avenue were this terrible dividing line between good and bad,” said Blank.

Jacelyn Blank stands in her backyard in East Kensington. When she bought into the neighborhood 11 years ago, she was able to get a large lot. Since then, the vacant lots surrounding her home have been replaced by new construction. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Does she think race – white residents moving into a white neighborhood – has contributed to the neighborhood taking off faster than elsewhere?

Blank said it wasn’t her motivation, but she struggled to answer that question generally.

“Maybe race plays a role, but I’m not sure if that’s something we can quantify, (if that’s the right word),” Blank wrote via email. “I feel our area took off because the developers of Northern Liberties had nowhere to go but north. Maybe that’s because these areas have been white…I’m afraid I don’t know.”

Jayme Goukas also said racial dynamics were not the reason why he picked East Kensington. Goukas, who is white, owns and has rehabbed multiple properties in the neighborhood, including his own home.

He says he originally came for a simple reason: He could afford it.

When he first moved there 13 years ago, the street was home to only a handful of residents, a well-known drug house, and a vacant lot that became a murder scene. Since then, he’s watched more and more white couples opt for the block’s modern construction homes.

“That wouldn’t surprise me in the least,” said Goukas, when asked whether white professionals are moving in because East Kensington is a white neighborhood.

“Just because of embedded racism,” he said. “American culture.”

Things have changed since Jayme Goukas bought his first house on East Cumberland Street in East Kensington. A wave of new construction has filled the vacant lots and Goukas has bought and renovated three more houses. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Sociologists say this is far from a Philadelphia dynamic, that gentrification takes this shape across the U.S.

Jackie Hwang, a professor at Stanford University, says studies show that people think about race when choosing where to live, and that built-in biases influence where urban-minded professionals choose to buy property.

“Neighborhood preferences follow a racial hierarchy, where people least prefer African American neighbors, and then least prefer Latinos, Asians, and have higher preferences for whites,” Hwang said. “And these preferences are generally strongest among white residents.”

Role of developers

But Hwang said would-be residents aren’t the only ones calling the shots when it comes to the racial makeup of a neighborhood.

“The developers play a huge role,” Hwang said. “They’re basing decisions on these types of preferences and stigmas that they know will create more demand.”

In Point Breeze, developer Ori Feibush puts it another way: “I’m decreasing barriers to entry.”

Feibush, 33, owns OCF Realty, which has been the neighborhood’s most high-profile and controversial developer. He moved to Point Breeze fresh out of college a decade ago and guesses he’s developed hundreds of parcels since then, including a coffee shop, a yoga studio, and dozens of three-story townhomes with roof decks that can sell for more than $500,000.

Feibush believes he’s doing a service to the city, revitalizing a neighborhood that had become known for violence and blight.

But the racial implications of this development have been clear. In a city where blacks and Latinos are far more likely to live in high poverty neighborhoods, the people who can typically afford to buy new homes in Point Breeze now are white.

From 2000 to 2016, according to the U.S. Census, the median housing price in the most gentrified areas of Point Breeze went from $29,000 to $234,000. During that same time, the neighborhood went from 80 percent black to 46 percent black.

While the rate of median housing price change is actually lower here than the rate in East Kensington, many of the longtime black residents in Point Breeze could care less about the nuances in the numbers.

They feel swallowed up by the changes.

“The disrespect, the condescending attitude of developers who don’t give a darn about the community has to be stopped,” said Claudia Sherrod, the outgoing director of South Philadelphia H.O.M.E.S., a social services nonprofit. “They’re building three-story homes because they want to get their money’s worth. Well, money’s worth is fine, but there’s no interest in how the character of the community was.”

Claudia Sherrod at her home on Federal Street in Point Breeze. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

For Debbie Bell, it’s the simple day-to-day logistics that can be most frustrating.

“You can’t drive, you can’t park … It’s construction everywhere,” she said. “You’re like, ‘Where am I at?’ ”

For white residents who are relative newcomers, there can also be unease, leaving some to grapple with their contribution to the rapid change.

White resident Haley Dervinis — an academic advisor who bought a two-story rowhome in Point Breeze in 2006 — is wary of the “gentrifier” label.

“I think of a ‘gentrifier’ as someone who moves into the neighborhood because they see its ‘potential,’ or that it’s ‘up-and-coming,’ ” Dervinis said. “That’s offensive terminology to me. Moving into a community you want to see changed is not a community.”

Haley Dervinis stands on the porch of her rowhome on Annin Street in Point Breeze. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Echoing what many of her black neighbors said, Dervinis also feels overwhelmed by the aggressive pace of development, and also lamented the loss of a certain community vibe.

“There are new faces in the neighborhood, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the neighbors tend to be white people of a certain financial status in a predominately African-American neighborhood,” she said. “It sometimes feels like white folks moving in forget the community in which they’ve chosen to purchase a home.”

Hwang said researchers are still parsing through the long-term consequences of gentrification, but one thing seems clear.

While professionals looking for well-connected, vibrant places to live are finding increased opportunities in some Philadelphia neighborhoods, the changes may be less beneficial to low-income residents of any race — especially if they get priced out.

This article is the second in a series, “Gentrified: stories of rapidly changing Philadelphia.” The series is a collaboration of PlanPhilly, Keystone Crossroads, and WHYY News, supported by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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