Wednesday, June 8, 2011

where we go from here

I went to the Philadelphia City Planning Commission's meeting last night. It was a special meeting, open to the public, to adopt Philadelphia2035, a "citywide vision" that splits the city into 18 different districts and then focuses on ways to improve both the districts and the city as a whole.

The meeting itself wasn't too exciting. I was hoping for more details about what they were actually going to do, but it was more of a general overview (as well as a lot of mutual back-patting). From what I heard, the plan has a lot to do with improving transit (hell, yes), industrial and economic development, and development of green spaces and vacant lots. That's a very truncated version.

My particular "district" (West) is scheduled for development in four years. I haven't read the final plan, so I don't know exactly what they're planning on doing in my neighborhood--which, by the way, is a strange little bit of a neighborhood. It's too south to be Parkside or Belmont, too west to be Mantua or Powelton Village, too east to be Mill Creek. The neighborhood maps I've found call it "Haverford North," but I've never heard anyone call it that.

Anyway, after the meeting, I was with my housemate Emily and two other friends, Vicki and Troy (we went to Dock Street Brewery--so much more fun than a meeting), and we were talking about things we'd like to see in our neighborhoods. Here are some of my thoughts. Not all of them have to do with city planning in particular, but they're things I've observed in my neighborhood:

1. Trash. Oh, God, someone get rid of the trash on the streets! We all agreed on this one: the city would be a whole lot nicer if we just picked up our frakking garbage. By my bus stop, for example, there are two garbage cans at the corners of the street, and I still see people throw their trash on the ground. And it piles up and is so disgusting that no one wants to touch it (including me). Vicki suggested a citywide street-cleaning service. It's basic Broken Windows theory: if people see trash lying on the ground all the time, they'll think that's how it should be; if we keep the streets clean, people will understand that it's inappropriate to throw their garbage on the ground and will seek out the nearest trash can. It'll take money (to form a service to clean the streets) and time (for people to get used to the idea), but I'd say it would be worth it.

2. Sidewalks. There are a ton of broken-up sidewalks in my neighborhood. Let's repair them.

3. Abandoned buildings and vacant lots. No one knows quite how many abandoned homes and vacant lots we have, but the number hovers somewhere above 20,000. My street's got a few--not as many as some--and there are a couple of vacant lots near us as well. I realize it's complicated, finding out who owns these properties and figuring out how to buy them or transfer ownership or whatever, but I'd love to see someone--government or otherwise--take this on mass-scale. Along with this, I'd love to see the city create green spaces and playgrounds.

4. Access to healthy food. There's a corner grocery store around the corner from our house, and it's actually probably better than most corner stores (definitely just used "corner" 3 times in that sentence). It's got fruits and vegetables, but not all of them are fresh. Also, it's a crapshoot. You may find broccoli, or peppers, or apples, and you may not. I go there when I need something quick, but we could never do all of our food shopping there. And we have access to transportation and the money to buy good food, whereas a lot of people in our neighborhood, and in the rest of the city, don't have that luxury. 

5. Improved schools. An entire post could be spent on this, but I don't want to rant. Suffice it to say that the Philly school district is a hard place to get a good education. And it shouldn't be that way. A kid in a Philly neighborhood school should get the same level of education as a kid on the Main Line, and we shouldn't have to force parents to decide between living in the city and giving their children a good education. I think that should be a no-brainer.

6. Improved public transportation. I know this is on the city planning list, but a reiteration is always good.

7. Affordable (and decent) housing. PHA has been under a lot of strain, and a lot of scandal recently, and even if they did manage their resources properly, they most likely would not be able to help all of the people who need housing. In any case, we need to give people affordable housing--and good housing, too.

8. Revitalization without gentrification. We've seen this all over the place, right? A neighborhood improves, property values go up, and all of a sudden the people who used to live there can't afford to live there anymore. I don't want this to happen to my neighborhood--or anyone's neighborhood. I don't want my neighbors to move out (and really, I don't want my neighborhood overrun by students and hipsters; I like my families and old people, thanksverymuch).

The thing is, Philly's become home. And I want my home to improve and to be a place in which people can live lives that aren't continually affected by things like poverty and violence. Of course, all I've said above is rather idealistic, and I don't think we can, say, improve the schools with a snap of a magic wand. But we can work and push and try to make things a little better, yes?


  1. Have to say, I don't really see an answer to your point 8. If an area gets nicer, more people want to live there. More people competing for the same number of houses means the prices go up. Under the UK system that just means that some people can't afford to move in; under the US system with property taxes based on estimated value, that starts to force people out immediately.

    Personally I'd like a nuclear power plant in my neighbourhood. That would keep out people who are scared of the things...

  2. I think the problem is attempts to address gentrification in isolation, as if it's not a symptom of larger problems, or as if improved quality of neighborhoods is the lone contributing factor to property values.

    As we saw with the housing bubble, speculation drove up prices and a lot of people bought houses they couldn't afford because they were afraid of being even less able to afford them later, or because they, uninformed but blinded by dollar signs, though they too could enter the speculation market. Without these factors, I doubt your standard lower-to-middle middle-class family would have been priced out of the neighborhoods they were ultimately priced out of.

    Then there's the issue of poverty in general. Affordable housing is important for the dignity and opportunity of the impoverished, but it is not itself going to lift them out of poverty. Better wages, and better qualifications to gain them the better wages, among many other things, are. The fact that our economic lines also tend to be drawn along racial and other social boundaries is the reason we fear gentrification to begin with, as it suggests a loss of diversity and of affordable housing options for all but the most wealthy.

    A fixed property tax rate at the level the house was valued when you bought the house can alleviate some of the problems. But it seems it can also create a double-edged sword of skyrocketing property values and low property tax income, which can leave a state reeling financially, as long-time dwellers of neighborhoods hold on to their low property taxes, while potential new residents are priced out of the same neighborhoods and are forced to pay still larger proportions of their income paying mortgages rather than investing directly in their communities.

    But I don't have a solution, and I may be full of shit. This is just what I've seen.

  3. Yeah, I don't really have a solution to gentrification, either.

    Part of the problem is jobs, definitely. The Phila2035 plan includes adding 40,000 new jobs, but I have to wonder if those are going to include blue-collar types of jobs. If people in my neighborhood have jobs that give them a solid living wage, I think that would ease my fear of gentrification (at least a little). But then again, better schools would probably add up to better jobs in the long run...I don't know. I kind of feel like scratching my head and saying, hell, I'm a writer, not a city planner/economist/whatever.

    Affordable housing organizations often put a clause in their contracts with homeowners that if they sell, they have to sell at affordable housing rates. I know it doesn't solve the larger problem of poverty or gentrification, but it is a small step.

    There's also the issue of race, and, well, that's for a different post. I have lots of thoughts that probably can't be fit into a comment.