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There is frequently a sense of foreboding near the Norman Blumberg Apartments, the high-rise public housing development on an eight-acre site near 23rd and Jefferson, in North Philadelphia.
In July, when I went to the neighborhood to research a series of stories on the community’s overwhelming abandonment, I saw Philadelphia Housing Authority police in bulletproof vests. And when a man who saw me videotaping a vacant house on nearby Sharswood Street told me I was about to be shot, I took the threat seriously. Just two weeks before my arrival, a 16-year-old was caught in the crossfire during a shootout in the projects’ courtyard.
Blumberg is a dangerous place, a fact that even Philadelphia Housing Authority CEO Kelvin Jeremiah acknowledged after visiting the development earlier this year. It is so dangerous, in fact, that the principal of the recently shuttered Vaux High School told me that he forbade his teachers from visiting students who lived there. He simply couldn’t guarantee their safety.
But a recent announcement by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) could change the dangerous nature of Blumberg and the surrounding neighborhood. After years of trying, PHA was chosen as one of nine agencies to win a Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant.
The $500,000 grant, along with a promised $400,000 from the City of Philadelphia, will aid in the crafting of a plan to revitalize Sharswood, the neighborhood where Blumberg is located. After completing the planning process with more than a dozen partners including city agencies, such as the Office of Housing and Community Development (OHCD), PHA intends to apply for a Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant to bring the plan to fruition, said PHA spokeswoman Nichole Tillman.
It’s too early to know what the plan will entail, but neighborhood leaders want the high-rise portion of the Blumberg Apartments to be demolished. Such a move would clear the way for the kind of development that would connect Sharswood with rapidly developing areas like Brewerytown to the west, Francisville to the south, and Temple University to the east.
With nearly 200 vacant parcels, including entire city blocks, located within the census tracts that make up Sharswood, an influx of HUD dollars could lead to a frenzy of development. It could also lead to gentrification—moving out poor residents for the rich. That’s an outcome that makes many neighbors nervous.
Talmadge Belo, 70, of the Brewerytown-Sharswood Community Civic Association, is not among them. “I don’t care about [gentrification] as long as we don’t get excluded,” said Belo, who has lived in the neighborhood for 47 years. “Why shouldn’t we benefit from increased development? We suffered through the whole thing.”
The thing to which Belo refers is the neighborhood’s decades-long fall into disrepair. During the segregation era, Sharswood was home to doctors and lawyers, teachers and political leaders like the late Cecil B. Moore. When talk of bringing a public housing development to the area began, neighbors protested to no avail.
The first Blumberg tower went up in 1967 and construction was completed in 1969. By then, integration afforded many the opportunity to move out of the community. Soon the middle class that anchored the neighborhood was gone. By the time the crack epidemic of the new millennium arrived, the neighborhood was rife with poverty, abandonment, and crime.
When Vaux High School and Reynolds Elementary closed at the end of the 2012 school year, the cycle of abandonment was complete.
“Not many young people stayed in neighborhood,” said Belo, who retired as Eastern Region Staff Director of SEIU Local 668. “They all ran. What you have here is old people like myself. It’s old folks who are going to die off pretty soon anyway. Why shouldn’t we enjoy our final years in relative comfort and safety?”
The answer to that question will depend upon what happens with PHA’s planning process. It will also depend upon the agency’s ability to win an implementation grant. No one can say what will happen with those plans, but here’s what I believe should occur.
The neighbors of Sharswood who’ve remained through decades of crime and abandonment should have the opportunity to participate in the planning process in more than an advisory capacity. They should be employed as paid consultants.
And if the process leads to implementation of a viable community plan, it should include the opportunity for the residents of the Blumberg Apartments to move to places where there is dignity and safety, rather than degradation and crime. If new housing is erected in the community, the Building Trade unions can’t be allowed to play keep-away with the construction jobs that will be created. A portion of those jobs must go to the people who live there.
Why should we require this? We should do so because our tax money will have partially paid for the planning and implementation of the neighborhood’s resurgence. We should do so because too many good people have endured a hellish existence for far too long. Most of all, we should do so for a reason that is far more important than all the others.
We should do so because it’s the right thing to do.