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When development proponents speak of the Philadelphia Land Bank as a step toward eliminating Philadelphia’s 40,000 vacant properties, I don’t visualize the empty houses and lots. I think of the people who once occupied those neighborhoods. I think of my own family.
In 1925, when my great-grandparents arrived in Philadelphia from Camden, South Carolina, they were searching for the kinds of opportunities that weren’t available to African Americans in the South. They came here with little more than hope.
They lived many places—always within the confines of segregated North Philadelphia neighborhoods like Sharswood. No matter how much they moved, however, my great-grandparents could never outrun the poverty they faced, nor completely solve the marriage issues that caused their eventual split. But in spite of it all, my great-grandmother, and my grandparents after her, helped build something more valuable than houses. They built communities.
Four generations later, those communities are crumbling.
Decades of depopulation, disinvestment, and abandonment have crushed neighborhoods like the ones my great grandmother once occupied, and overwhelming vacancy surrounds the residents who remain. Much of the vacant property is now owned by city agencies, and attempts at large-scale development in those areas are often drowned beneath a torrent of bureaucratic red tape.
The Philadelphia Land Bank is supposed to fix that problem by streamlining the sale of 9,500 city-owned and 17,500 tax delinquent parcels. But in neighborhoods where buzzwords like “development” and “renewal” have often meant the displacement of impoverished long-term residents, there is an underlying concern that the voices of residents will be ignored.
Those concerns are based on a history that has seen the homes of poor and minority residents bulldozed in the name of progress. But the Land Bank is in its infancy. The current 11-member board is a temporary body that will operate until a permanent board can be put in place.
A strategic planning process to determine the board’s policies and procedures is not yet underway, and Mayor Nutter has said that he doesn’t expect the board to be fully operational until year’s end.
That means there’s still time to keep the Land Bank from becoming a body that leads to the wholesale gentrification of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods.
Several of those who currently serve on the Land Bank’s 11-member temporary board have heard neighborhood residents voice that concern. Rick Sauer, president of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, is among them.
Sauer rightly points out that the Land Bank law includes language about new development being in line with City Planning Commission decisions that were made with community input. He also points to the law’s provision that a strategic plan based on census data analysis be developed within a year.
The law says that analysis is supposed to evaluate the need and availability for affordable or mixed-income housing; economic development that creates jobs for community residents; community facilities that provide needed services to residents… community open space; and any additional core beneficial land uses that may be identified by the Land Bank.
“There needs to be a serious commitment to finding ways to engage local stakeholders, to hold neighborhood meetings outside City Hall,” Sauer told me in an interview. “I think that that’s critical. We have to push the city to make that happen. No doubt that that needs to happen.”
Sauer’s right. It does need to happen. But for the affected communities truly to be engaged, they have to understand that now is the time to have a voice in the process—not after the strategic plan is implemented. Because in my view, there is no coherent way in which the Land Bank can identify a community’s needs. Only the residents can do that.
The need for community gardens should not be determined by the politicians who pick the Land Bank’s board members, or by the community development corporations who don’t always speak for the communities where they are based. The community must have the capacity to speak for itself, and the time to gain that capacity is now.
To be sure, the law includes numerous provisions for public input, including public notice, written comments, an appeals process, and online and printed records. But such provisions are often window dressing. That’s especially true when the people who are likely to use that process are elderly.
In the neighborhoods where vacancy has created vast wastelands, many of the residents who remain are seniors. They most likely will not view documents on a website or trek to the Land Bank’s offices. They won’t immediately get over their mistrust of city government.
But the people who remain in vacancy-stricken neighborhoods deserve to be heard, because they are the ones who held together communities when everyone else picked up and left. Like my great-grandparents, they came here with little more than hope, and through hard work and sacrifice, they eked out an existence for themselves and their families.
As the Land Bank enters into a strategic planning process to transform the neighborhoods those elderly residents once knew, let’s respect them enough to give them real input.
Those residents deserve more than a symbolic voice. Those of us who benefitted from their sacrifice will be watching to make sure they get it.