There is an understated forcefulness in the way Gilberto Gonzales speaks of gentrification. He gestures with his hands, his brow knits together, and though the tension in his voice is apparent, it’s often hidden beneath a wry smile.
Gonzales, 49, has been dealing with gentrification—rich people moving into poor neighborhoods and displacing impoverished residents—since he was a child growing up on Spring Garden St. Back then the neighborhood was home to a large Latino community. Gonzales’s earliest memories are of his father, an apartment building manager, fighting against the practice.
“When people were being kicked out of their homes, my father would step in,” Gonzales says. “He would rent them one of his properties. Spring Garden at that time had a lot of [Philadelphia Housing Authority] scattered sites. His organization was instrumental in getting those people placed in PHA housing.
“And I was there with my father … I helped him from a very young age. I knew what gentrification was and I knew how it impacted families. And people would cry, I mean, because, you would come home from work and your furniture would be outside on your sidewalk. That was a horrible time for us because it was happening up and down Spring Garden.”
But gentrification didn’t end with Spring Garden. It is now a source of controversy in rapidly changing places like Point Breeze and Northern Liberties. On the one hand, when well-heeled, often white, buyers invest in poor, often minority communities, property values and tax revenues increase. On the other hand gentrification frequently pushes out the very people who provided a measure of stability to the neighborhood.
I for one have never seen that as a fair exchange. When people have lived in a home for decades, investing in their community even as their neighborhood crumbled around them, they should be among the first to benefit when things improve. They shouldn’t be forced to leave.
But as 2014 approaches, bringing higher property taxes to gentrifying areas due to the city’s Actual Value Initiative (AVI), some residents will be forced out. This is especially true for renters, since they won’t benefit from the Homestead Exemption that will soften the blow for homeowners.
Gonzales, who last year produced a documentary called “Cuentos” about the Puerto Rican community’s experience with gentrification in the Spring Garden area, knows firsthand what a forced exodus looks like. But not even Gonzales could have foreseen how stark the change to his old community would be.
Today, the area between Broad and 19th Sts., and Fairmount and Spring Garden Sts., a community now known as Fairmount South, is almost completely gentrified. With a median household income of $59,510, it is among the five richest neighborhoods in the city.
Sidewalk cafes have replaced bodegas, and Salsa music has given way to occasional Hip Hop emanating from passing cars. There are still muted signs of a Latino presence: A painting of the Statue of Liberty with the Puerto Rican flag; a Spanish poster advertising the fourth Annual Reunion and Picnic in the original Barrio of Spring Garden; a mural at 17th and Wallace.
But even with the words “Aqui Me Quedo” painted on a wall on Mt. Vernon St., it’s clear that the original Spanish Barrio has moved. And if the population numbers in the Pew State of the City report are any indication, the Latino community has moved to the East side of North Philadelphia, in area code 19133.
With a median household income of $14,586, the city’s only majority-Latino neighborhood is also one of the city’s poorest. Job numbers explain why. In a city whose overall unemployment rate was 9.6 percent as of April, the unemployment rate among Latinos was a staggering 19 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Gonzales remembers a much different community.
Before gentrification, Philadelphia’s Latino community was bound together not only by geography, but also by institutions. There was a Latino Clinic at 17th and Spring Garden, a youth job program called Potentials, and the now-shuttered La Milagrosa Catholic Church, at 19th and Spring Garden. There were restaurants and businesses. There was a sense of togetherness. There were leaders.
Gonzales says those institutions were scattered when gentrification took place, and so were the people. He believes the same thing could happen in other Latino communities where property values are rising, unless people gain a clear understanding of their options. So far, that’s been an uphill battle.
“Patricia DeCarlo of the Norris Square [Civic Association] called me last year to talk about gentrification to the community,” Gonzales says. “[At the time] there were people going door to door saying, ‘I will give you cash for your house,’ and people were taking the cash. The problem with that is that they’re not getting the value of the house, that’s number one. Number two is that no one is educating the Latino community about finances: How to manage your money; how to manage equity. They had no clue that if your house is worth $300,000 and you paid $50,000 for it you have this equity and you could [use the equity to] build a house in Puerto Rico…”
Not only that. When people take the cash, Gonzales says, they end up moving to a worse neighborhood where property values are declining, and they don’t get the benefits they could have gotten if they stayed, like the improved neighborhood schools that often come with gentrification. Perhaps worse, they end up settling for far less than they deserved.
As 2014 arrives, and AVI’s increased property taxes speed the exodus of the poor from gentrifying areas, I wonder if the lessons of the past will resonate. Will we remember that when gentrification swept through Spring Garden, one community got sidewalk cafes while another community’s institutions were destroyed?
Will we remember that one community became the fifth richest in the city while another remained stubbornly impoverished? Will we remember that one community got shiny new condos while another got double-digit unemployment? Will we realize that herding the impoverished into ghettoes makes our city a desolate place?
I’m reminded of something Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez told me in February, not long after she was castigated for supporting two eminent domain projects to build affordable housing in gentrifying areas of her Seventh Council district.
“There is nothing more important that government can do… than to assure affordability and accessibility in the entire city,” she said. “The problem with our current strategy has been we are going to sell off the most valuable land for a short-term gain, not thinking about the long-term interests of the city… You have to stop the gentrification by ensuring there’s affordability everywhere.”
I agree, because if we don’t assure affordability and accessibility to everyone, we might as well draw a line down the middle of the city.
And then let the herding begin.