November 12, 2023
(PHILADELPHIA) — Over the last decade, Philadelphia has experienced a significant demographic shift in many of its neighborhoods. In the face of predatory land development, the residents of Grays Ferry, a predominantly Black and low-income neighborhood in Southwest Philadelphia, are working to preserve their community’s legacy.
On Oct.14, Philly Thrive, a Grays Ferry-based activist group fighting environmental racism, brought together community members, homeowners, and allies to present staggering statistics about the rapid displacement happening in Grays Ferry at Universal Audenried Charter High School.
Held in the school’s auditorium, the meeting allowed community members to voice their concerns and form solidarity with other groups facing displacement across the city.
After a preliminary information session, the main event was led by Philly Thrive Co-Director and Policy Coordinator Shawmar Pitts who hosted an expert panel, which included representatives from Rebuilding Together Philadelphia, Regional Housing Legal Services, Habitat for Humanity, as well as Save the UC Townhomes and Save Chinatown.
Founded in 2015, Philly Thrive is perhaps best known for bringing awareness to illness and fatalities allegedly caused by air pollution from the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) Refinery in Southwest Philadelphia. Once the refinery exploded in June 2019, leading to bankruptcy, the 150-year-old plant shut down and the community celebrated winning the “right to breathe.”
The organization is now mobilizing against mass displacement of residents and gentrification. In the absence of the refinery, Hilco Redevelopment Partners is building the $4 billion Bellwether District, a life and science campus that is expected to take 10-15 years to complete. According to responses from community members at the event, land developers are already using predatory tactics, such as calling daily and showing up on their doorsteps with eviction notices, to try and remove them from their homes to make way for wealthier residents with advanced degrees.
As a result, Grays Ferry has seen its Black population fall from 71% to 33%, housing prices double from $81,000 to $163,000, and the average rent increase from $914 to $1,115, all in the last five years, according to Philly Thrive.
“We won this clean air by getting the refinery shut down, and residents who’ve lived at the front lines of that environmental racism for generations deserve to get to stay in their homes and benefit from that win,” R Merriman-Goldring, Staff Organizer for Philly Thrive told The Click before the community meeting, “but if we don’t pass policies that fight displacement, that’s not going to happen.”
The luxury development has brought about a shift in the culture of the neighborhood that lifelong residents of Grays Ferry are already mourning.
“I wouldn’t even say that Grays Ferry is changing,” said Pitts, “It’s changed.”
Those at the meeting presented solutions to the encroaching development, such as allocating Pennsylvania’s rainy day fund for home repairs, creating a community land trust, and demanding a community benefits agreement that would require developers to work with the community to ensure they can stay in their homes.
Still, the tone of the meeting was one of somber urgency. After a lifetime in Grays Ferry and nine years of living in his current home, Antwyone Banks was told that his landlord had sold his home with no prior warning and that he had 30 days to find a new place to live.
Banks has been worried about the future of this neighborhood after seeing the way North Philadelphia has been taken over by luxury land development around Temple University.
“People are so defeated and they think nothing will happen and that nothing will change,” said Banks, “It’s why they don’t show up, but we need to band together and make a bigger noise.”
Many community members also brought up the lack of any kind of response from District 2 Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who has represented South and Southwest Philadelphia since 2012. Johnson has been a part of affordable housing initiatives like Turn the Key, although the so-called “affordable” homes are still out of the price range for most Grays Ferry residents.
“He does a lot for a lot of people, just not us,” said Banks. “He’s not saying anything negative or positive, and he could make a real difference.”