I was a 21st Century gentrifier years before it became a front page story or a topic of debate.
For a decade, from 2004 to 2014, I lived in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. It is the third neighborhood north of Old City when following the Delaware River and, when I moved in, no one was talking about gentrification. While Port Richmond and especially its neighboring areas, Fishtown and East Kensington, have seen a demographic shift in recent years, I was one of the first.
But instead of trailblazing or carpetbagging, my decision to move was largely a product of laziness.
I grew up on the outskirts of a medium-sized rural town, in a large split-level that was located on a four-acre spread, a third of which was covered in trees. Growing up, we cut grass, collected twigs, pulled stumps and chopped firewood. We played on a rock pile and explored local woods and creaks. There was no sidewalk. We had well water and oil heat. At one point, the two closest neighbors had a goat and a horse as pets, respectively.
But my parents didn’t always live that way. They both grew up hovering around the poverty line, my mother putting cardboard in her shoes to cover up the holes that had been worn into the bottoms, my father putting water in a ketchup bottle to get every last bit out.
My father hailed from Kensington, my mother from Port Richmond, two blue collar sections of the city that were on the downswing in the late ’70s. After living in the neighborhood for a few years, renovating a home, and having two kids, they moved out to their four acre spread in 1977, three years before I was born.
That’s where I lived for my entire life until I left for school.
In August of 1998, I enrolled at La Salle University, which is located two blocks off Broad Street in the Olney neighborhood of North Philadelphia. I absolutely loved it, but once you left the cocoon of the one-block radius surrounding the quad that held most of the classrooms and administrative buildings, it wasn’t the picturesque postcard campuses of Duke or Penn State or even UPenn. The school had a housing shortage. For my final two years, I lived on campus (meaning I paid room & board to the school and was held to their living standards) in a building that, just three years prior, had been condemned:
Only 10 months ago, the Department of Licenses and Inspections saw only a run-down apartment complex that had become too dangerous for the remaining three dozen tenants to continue living there. The once-grand, 50-year-old buildings had been allowed to deteriorate steadily under their previous owner, Robert E. Hankey.
L&I said Hankey had allowed a host of unsafe conditions – electrical hazards, gas leaks, faulty elevators, and a defunct heating system – to multiply despite numerous citations.
I adored it, not only because there were very few rules because campus officials pretended it didn’t exist, but because I loved living in a city. I liked being able to walk to the subway and roam around Center City without worrying about finding a place to park. There were drawbacks, of course – not being able to control the heat, for instance – but I wasn’t going to be living there forever and, besides, as college kids we could handle it.
Like so many of my generation, I moved back in with Mom and Dad after receiving my diploma and my Sallie Mae bill. I eventually snagged a job downtown, actually across the street from where my father worked, so for the next year-and-a-half, we did the 90-minute commute together – a thirty-minute car ride followed by an hour train ride.
I loved working in the city, being able to take a walk at lunch and experience everything Philly had to offer – parks, architecture, art, whatever. I saw the changing nature of the city, a food and social revolution that Stephen Starr had introduced in 1995. Starr has expanded his empire to New York City, Washington, D.C., and Florida, but his impact is still felt there, where he has more than twenty restaurants. In fact, “Center City as we know it today simply wouldn’t exist without him.”
After work, it was wonderful to leave my office, walk a few blocks, and meet up with friends for happy hour or dinner. But the later I stayed, the longer that trek home seemed to take. I wanted back in the city. When we went out, our nights didn’t begin until 10 p.m., so there were many nights on which I would sleep on my friend’s floor. I saw them living in the city, walking to work or taking a short train ride, able to do everything I wanted to do without having to travel forty miles to do it.
Since I was living at home rent-free, I was expected to help out around the house. While my father didn’t have as many projects as when we were younger, there was still grass to mow, weeds to whack, and wood to split. I was in my early 20’s and single. I had no desire to have a yard to maintain. I would much rather spend my Sunday afternoons drinking bloody marys than rototilling dirt.
Moving into the city would mean no outside upkeep and a short commute. Win-win.
The discussion surrounding gentrification is one that has been building for several years. Some defend it, claiming that it is not nearly as destructive as many believe; Others, like Spike Lee, see it as displacement, a 21st Century Trail of Tears. Is gentrification a natural byproduct of capitalism and the free market? Is it the result of collusion between city planners, developers, and politicians that see an opportunity to make money by moving certain people out and raising the rent? Is it simply the result of a generation that doesn’t want the same life as their parents or something more elaborate and sinister?
As with most things, the truth seems to be tangled and layered.
I know several people from Brooklyn, B.G. (Before Gentrification). One of my best friends grew up in Crown Heights and my wife has family that hails from Bushwick. These are areas that were not war zones, but certainly had their rough aspects, particularly for those that didn’t grow up in the neighborhood.
It is not uncommon today to to hear lawyers or young parents talk about how much they enjoy living in Bed-Stuy, the section of Brooklyn that birthed The Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z and used to be commonly referred to as “Do or Die.” But it’s more than just anecdotes or attitude. The transformation is clear and well-documented.
On its own, this is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing. In the abstract, no sane person prefers an abandoned lot to a condo or violent gangs to yuppies. Most people like having cleaner streets and a wider variety of stores. And while there is certainly some resistance to change, particularly the way in which it is being instituted, there are plenty of individuals that would be happy to stay and enjoy the trappings of a nicer neighborhood after enduring years of living through a struggling one.
The neighborhood, once burdened by drugs, crime and racial strife, has changed in the decade since Ms. Burke left home. Nail salons, bodegas and 99-cent stores along Franklin Avenue have been joined by shops selling brick-oven pizza and craft beers. New rentals and condominiums have risen in place of dilapidated buildings, attracting young professionals and white couples pushing strollers.
Ms. Burke is among a generation of young New Yorkers who grew up in neighborhoods that have rapidly gentrified. When they were children, their corners of the city were dismissed by wealthier — and usually white — New Yorkers. But now that their neighborhoods are hot prospects, these young people are struggling to stay, and wondering what comes next.
Many times, they have nowhere to go. After all, there’s a reason other races and ethnicities don’t have their own version of white flight.
But their biggest beef arises when they get looks from their new neighbors as if they do not belong on a street or in a store that they’ve been frequenting their entire lives.
These are people that lived through the crack epidemic and Reaganomics of the ’80s and the Giuliani ’90s only to be told that their turf is no longer theirs. Not unlike the Native Americans. 390 years after Manhattan was purchased for 60 guilders and turned into the ultimate metropolis, it’s happening again, just on the other side of the East River.
I’d like to think I wasn’t that way. I know that I tried my best to be understanding and respectful of the people that lived in my neighborhood for decades before I did, but I wasn’t blameless. If I’m being completely honest, there were times when I looked down upon some of my neighbors and wished I could trade them for people that were more like me.
Even though I was the interloper that had come into their neighborhood uninvited.
In 2004, I moved into Port Richmond, renting a room from a friend. My commute was now a few train stops. I loved it so much that a year later, I bought my own house around the corner.
The gentrification of that part of Philadelphia did not have the racial element that has been prevalent in other cities. In reality, it was almost the opposite. When we moved in, our neighbors told us they were relieved because we weren’t black or Hispanic – though they used different (and pejorative) terms to describe those groups.
While it wasn’t a race issue, it was certainly a socioeconomic one:
Also the neighborhoods affected by gentrification aren’t always black. Kensington and Fishtown, for example, were traditionally blue collar white neighborhoods. And in San Francisco white middle class professionals are being shoved aside by higher income earners in the tech industry.
For the last half of the 20th century, many parts of Philadelphia were on a downward spiral as the city lost population and business.
Now, the tables have turned. The city’s population is on the rise, growing by 58,897 to 1,547,607 from 2006 to 2012, according to the most recent census estimates.
Many of these newcomers are choosing to live in Center City and nearby neighborhoods that offer quick access to job centers.
Fishtown, the neighborhood next to Port Richmond, has become the Williamsburg of Philly, with its outdoor brunch spots and lofts inhabited by artists. And, like Brooklyn, this has led to tension.
As someone that was at least a little complicit, it’s not like you move into a neighborhood and think of yourself as a gentrifier. You don’t put on a cape and immediately start demanding Frappuccinos and breakfast burritos.
It’s gradual. We would have parties and friends would come by and we’d talk about the benefits of living in the city and, next thing you know, a friend buys a house on the next block. Then, the two of you are talking and one of you says, “I wish we had a La Colombe near us,” and the other adds, “I’m so hungover, it’d be great if I could just walk to brunch.”
You know, the things that burden well-educated young white people in the 21st Century.
In fairness, it wasn’t malicious. We didn’t want to push people out. We didn’t want the local stores to close. We liked them. We supported the small corner shops and delis every chance we could – but we also wanted more.
Of course, not everyone felt the same way.
In 2007, a new spot called Memphis Taproom opened in East Kensington, located on the same street in which my parents had lived after getting married. It was too far for me to walk, but it much more convenient than going downtown.
A combination of wonderful food and a never ending craft beer list situated in a comfortable setting, it immediately became my favorite place. It is regularly mentioned as not only one of the best bars in the city, but in the entire country.
But, at least in the beginning, it was also a place where where many of the people that grew up in the neighborhood wouldn’t set foot in, ostensibly because they didn’t sell Budweiser or Miller Lite, but also because it was a new bar with new people.
The opposite was also true.
There were plenty of other neighborhood or corner bars and while I wouldn’t be forcibly removed from them, I would not have been welcomed inside, no matter how long I lived n the area. I was new. They didn’t have the beer I wanted and I had nothing that they wanted.
Over the course of my ten years living there, I saw the area change.
The de facto dog park across the street that had come into existence when a church had been razed was ultimately replaced by shiny new townhomes. Old neighbors were replaced by ones with nicer cars who began renovating their homes.
Even the drugs eventually went away.
When I moved in, the house two doors down was occupied by a family comprised of a father and two teenagers. The kids got the father hooked on heroin and, while scoring one night, he was shot and killed in his car. The kids were now orphans and the house became the place to score and shoot. When the water and electricity were turned off, they began using buckets outside as a toilet. Eventually, L&I (Licenses and Inspections) boarded up the house.
A couple years later, the house next to me was rented to a young woman who let her younger brother live with her. He started selling and he was the worst dealer in history. He made hand-to-hand transactions in broad daylight and was robbed several times. Ultimately, a cadre of undercover cops arrested him. His sister soon moved out.
Still, there were factions of the original neighborhood that remained.
There was the morning federal marshals pounded on my door, looking for a wanted fugitive that once lived in my home. There were the kids breaking into cars and stealing whatever they could grab. When new construction went up, signifying the changes happening, it was covered in graffiti almost immediately.
While we often went into the heart of downtown to have dinner or go shopping, most people on our street stayed close to home. My neighbor once told me, “I only go into Center City for court,” before rhetorically asking why she would go all that way when everything she needed was in the neighborhood. We were three train stops from Independence Hall, a few more from City Hall, but she had no interest in going anywhere.
Another way in which I was different is that I wasn’t planning on living there forever. I didn’t know how long I’d be in that house – I had no timetable – but I knew I’d eventually move out and move on.
For those from the neighborhood, this was a foreign concept. When you live in the same house your entire life, one that you inherited from your parents and one that your kids will inherit from you, you have no concern about property values. While I would be buoyed and encouraged when a new restaurant opened or an abandoned factory was turned into apartment lofts because these developments (theoretically) meant my home would be worth more, many of those around me saw it as their neighborhood – their home in which they had lived their entire lives – being changed against their will.
In the two years since I moved, the transformation has continued at an even more rapid clip. When we go back to visit, we see new things that we wish had been available when we lived there and we wonder why this couldn’t have happened five years earlier.
Meanwhile, there are many others wondering why it had to happen at all.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, Medium, The Cauldron, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.