Germantown challenged and changed by gentrification


The Germantown community looks to redevelopment with equal parts apprehension and optimism

Jakob Eiseman, Editor-in-Chief

Header Image: Image courtesy of Jakob Eiseman
These modern apartments on Queen Lane sit where an affordable housing high rise once stood. The rent for the townhouses on the right is a minimum of 30 percent of a tenant’s monthly income even after receiving a Philadelphia HUD Rental Assistance grant.

In 2013, seven cities in the United States accounted for half of the nation’s gentrification. Philadelphia, which was listed as the fourth most gentrified city, has not changed dramatically in the last eight years. According to 2019 census data, between 85 and 88 percent of low-income households were cost-burdened prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning they contributed at least 30 percent of their annual income toward rent or housing expenses, which is only one percent lower than a similar study conducted six years prior. Housing costs have gone up and income levels have dropped lower since the pandemic, and while the city is experimenting with plans to alleviate this burden, the financial situation still persists.

Citizens of Germantown, a historic neighborhood in Philadelphia’s Northwest region, are no exception. One fourth of all Germantown households contribute 35 percent or more of their monthly income toward housing costs according to the 2019 Census American Community Survey, the most recent data on the subject. While the economic effects of gentrification can be unavoidable in low-income neighborhoods, gentrification also changes and dilutes the culture of neighborhoods by bringing in people who do not respect the traditions or local businesses. Germantown has experienced these cultural trends greatly in the last decade.

Infographic showing the rise in median household income in Germantown and surrounding neighborhoods.

Largely, gentrification is caused by wealthier individuals or groups of people who purchase land in areas with a low property value to further grow their income. These wealthy “investors” tend to go into adverse neighborhoods, buy up store fronts, buildings and houses among other properties under the guise of bringing in better opportunities for the neighborhood. In reality, this often forces people who live in these neighborhoods out of their homes and jobs as houses and businesses are bought up, property taxes rise and the cost of living and shopping locally increases. As families are displaced, the history that they, and their neighbors, carried with them leaves the neighborhood, often erasing cultural landmarks that once held sentimental value such as parks, schools or churches. 

There are several organizations that are giving people from Germantown and its surrounding areas a chance to become developers, moving into the community to build it up on their terms. Some members of the community endorse this as it is allowing them to redevelop and clear up some of its blight or deteriorated properties, but others deny that this is helpful and claim the bottom line is that new developments are rarely affordable for Germantowners and almost exclusively welcome outsiders with a higher budget into the area. 

Other community efforts have started, but require large numbers or consistent, long term effort from local non-profits — many of which simply do not have the time or manpower to succeed. The city of Philadelphia has also implemented some programs to help those suffering from the effects of Gentrification, but community members and developers alike often agree that these programs only act as a temporary bandage for the deep cuts of displacement and cultural deterioration.

Beyond just physical and cultural displacement, gentrification can also lead to increases in crime and homelessess as people are forced into worse living situations or take to the streets to pay their increasingly larger bills. Working with all of these problems in mind, there is a select group of community minded individuals who are actively working to keep Germantown’s culture, connection, style and most avidly, affordability and livability the same as they have been for decades through community meetings, non-profit and economic solutions, and staying aware of new developers moving into the area.

Chew and Chelten: What once was

“Germantown used to be a beautiful mix of people,” said Douglas Rucker, who has lived in the area for most of his life, “integration helped people come into the area and get out of bad situations.” Rucker, who works with the Chew and Chelten Community Development Corporation (CDC) recalls a time when Northwest Philadelphia was not only racially integrated, but culturally as well. The predominantly African American neighborhood is now seeing a movement of racial integration in many ways, but also a lack of cultural integration. 

Flying Kite

“We came, we saw, we conquered,” said Rucker referring to typically white developers who buy up land in the area without considering cultural displacement. Over the last decade, the population of Germantown has been slowly rising, but the number of new white people coming into the neighborhood is nearly double the number of people of color. Meanwhile, over the same period of time, the average household income in the area has risen.

According to their Federation of Neighborhood Community Centers page, the Chew and Chelten CDC is an organization operating out of the East Germantown area that looks to engage “youth and young adults through arts, culture and entrepreneurship programs for non-profit leadership development and career success.” Rucker says his team’s goal is to revitalize the immediate community around the Chew Avenue and Chelten Avenue intersection with a business district that is owned and operated by members of the Germantown community and their families. 

Through intervention and prevention of negative gentrification effects, Rucker hopes to, “see this area as it used to be: one that welcomes a sense of friendliness and community.”

Wayne Avenue: A look into Germantown life

West of Chew and Chelten is Wayne Avenue, which cuts through the center of Germantown. Traveling through the neighborhoods here, there is a sense that the people coming and going, sitting on their porches or frequenting local businesses are connected by their shared appreciation of this section of the city of brotherly love. Just one block off of Wayne at any stretch of the road there are similar but unique subsections of Germantown such as the houses neighboring the Happy Hollow Recreation Center. Here men and women clad in business attire wait for a SEPTA bus while young people play basketball in the nearby courts. 

WikiMedia Commons

A flea market takes place in front of the Happy Hollow Recreation Center on Wayne Avenue.

A short trip up the road, the homes have a similar style, architecturally, and feature signs that read “Peace,” “Integrity,” “Black Lives Matter” and “Respect for All,” as well as being home to the first front yard barbecues of the spring thaw. These places are home for their residents, and they shouldn’t have to leave because they cannot afford to live in the place they’ve lived for decades.

Germantown has many of these culturally distinct subsections that share an overall connection to the neighborhood, but diversify and create unique subcultures. They may be hidden from Wayne Avenue, but to their residents, these subsections are communities worth persevering.

Renewal with respect

Bruce McCall of TekLaw Properties is working in these small communities to renovate decaying properties while maintaining what makes each property and area unique. A Mount Airy resident and IT worker by trade, McCall took up real estate development in 2005 and has been working in North Philadelphia neighborhoods including Germantown since. With a majority of McCall’s renovation properties being located in Germantown, he has gotten to know the local culture and style well over the years.

“The more that Germantown’s history and classic look is followed, the more well received the project is,” said McCall commenting on his work in Germantown.

“TekLaw prides itself on responsible development with care. We are more socially based as we like to get input from neighbors instead of just throwing something out there and just stick whatever we want to the community,” said McCall. 

One of the key arguments against gentrifying an area, besides raising costs and lowering livability for residents, is that it fundamentally changes the appearance and general feel of an area. When working in Germantown, McCall seeks to avoid this by consulting local community organizations and Facebook groups, which McCall said “gives the neighbors a chance to have some say so on what their neighboring property will look like.”

Hidden City Philadelphia

Even if many community members work together to analyze incoming developments, not all developers will consult the community and some may end up taking advantage. Jumpstart Germantown looks to, “revitalize the Germantown section of Philadelphia, and surrounding communities through training, mentoring, networking and providing financial resources to local aspiring developers,” according to their website. The group helps developers get in touch with the community and learn how to preserve the cultural integrity of their properties while also renovating and raising the value of them. 

“Culturally responsible development is taking into consideration community needs and wants where redevelopment is happening,” Jumpstart Germantown director Angie Williamson said. 

Jumpstart Germantown

Jumpstart teaches residents how to physically redevelop a home and how to do so in a culturally responsible manner.

“Jumpstart Germantown focuses on blight removal — ensuring that homes in the area are returned to livable conditions and provide naturally occurring affordable housing in the community,” Williamson said. Jumpstart consults with and teaches local real estate developers from the Philadelphia area, allowing them to earn a profit by working in their neighborhoods.

“The impact is huge, and growing.  And the Jumpstart model is providing education, mentorship and financing to groups historically denied access to capital and the real estate development profession. More than 85 percent of our participants are women or people of color, which is reflective of the communities in which they are improving,” Williamson said.

Philly Office Retail

The Attic Brewing Company is a project developed in the heart of Germantown that attracts a major college crowd just off of Wayne Avenue.

“As Germantown’s popularity grows and more people realize its many benefits, the demand for, and price of real estate also grows,” said Williamson.

Livability and affordability

Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing (NOAH) is defined by researchers at the Reinvestment Fund as “housing units that are affordable to modest-income families without subsidy such as the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.” As NOAH housing continues to develop in the area, Germantown has also lost several low-income housing options to decay and lost cultural landmarks to redevelopers refusing to be transparent with the community, raising concerns that the Germantown community may be losing its history. 

It took an active group of over 250 residents raising their concerns to a State Representative and State Senator to keep the Germantown High School building, which is over 100 years old, from becoming a shopping center. As of February 2022, Germantown High is not being demolished, but is being repurposed as apartments by developer Jack Azran, the same person who was planning to turn it into a mall, which has neighbors concerned for Germantown’s true heritage being preserved. Buildings like this are being taken advantage of all over Germantown, but 250 protestors cannot show up every time a culturally or historically significant home or business is bought up.

“I don’t think I would be able to purchase a home here now, at least in Germantown,” said Marie Monique-Marthol, an active member of Germantown Residents for Economic Alternatives Together (GREAT). 

Marthol, a Germantown resident since 2007 and transplant from New York City, says that, “real estate access for working-class to poor people, whether you are renting or plan to be a homeowner, has diminished significantly since 2007.” Mathol says that her neighbors and her receive daily phone calls, text messages and letters from developers requesting to purchase their homes for what she calls “the absolute lowest price.” 

“They are like sharks circling who detect a little blood in the water,” said Marthol.

GREAT via Facebook

Members of the Germantown community gather pre-pandemic for a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day celebration featuring a discussion of Dr. King’s concept of the “beloved community.”

When questioned about local development groups like Jumpstart, Marthol responded “I personally haven’t seen any development that doesn’t lead to displacement or a change in the economic mix.” 

Taking a different approach to redevelopment, GREAT has several programs that are trying to preserve Germantown’s community and culture through economic and community assistance. The group’s main counter to the effects of gentrification are Community Land Trusts, sections of property owned and operated by a non-profit that is influenced by members of the community to keep the rates affordable and housing or commercial land in the hands of longtime Germantowners. 

Citizens take action

Marthol, who says she moved from New York due to rising housing costs caused by gentrification there, was attracted to Germantown because of its community efforts, architectural style and historic value to the city. Although she has learned and experienced much of Germantown’s history, she, like many moving to the neighborhood every year, was not there to see the community build itself up after it experienced major divestment in the latter half of the 20th century — what Marthol refers to as “the lean times.” 

“When you remove the people who lived through it, you remove that history… the holders of history are more important to culture than the architecture,” said Mathol.

Freedom’s Backyard

Rittenhouse Town is a historic site in the Germantown area that was built in the 1600s when the neighborhood was first being formed. It is home to one of the oldest paper mills in the United States.

A way that Germantown citizens like Marthol can be proactive when it comes to protecting their homes and community culture is by participating in government exemptions such as the Real Estate Homestead Tax Relief Program or the Longtime Owner Occupants Program (LOOP). The Homestead Program is a simple application that homeowners can fill out and send to the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Revenue. According to the city’s website, to qualify, one must only own a home in Philadelphia in which they live as their primary residence. Once accepted, the property gains the Homestead Exemption leading to a reduction in assessed property value of up to $45,000

LOOP is the most direct counter force homeowners in areas like Germantown have against gentrification, as it directly assists those whose assessed property value (after applying for a Homestead Exemption) has risen by at least 50 percent in one calendar year. This can occur for a variety of reasons, but the most common and obvious reason is that when a developer moves into a low-income area and builds up high property value locations, the property tax of the surrounding area rises with it. LOOP limits a property’s tax increase to 50 percent, and while an increase of that size can still result in financial complications for some, the ability to limit the financial effects that gentrifying developers have on an area is currently the best way to preserve affordability.

Some members of the community such as Rucker see these governmental programs as beneficial to the community, but also as just the first step. 

“City officials do not do as much as they could, and they have the legislative power to help communities like ours,” said Rucker. He sees community redevelopment as a positive in many ways, especially when new developments such as high-end apartments bring talented individuals and diverse populations into the community, bringing back the integration he spoke of from the area’s past. 

Workers World

This demonstration at a city council meeting is one of many that have demonstrated Philadelphia’s citizens’ desire for policy change and fixes in the city to help people resist the effects of gentrification.

According to Rucker, if the city government will not intervene when developers try to take advantage of lower-income neighborhoods, then “it is up to the individual to become educated on how to protect their community, to protect the future of their children and families.” 

When developing in culturally rich areas like Germantown that also have abandoned or deteriorating properties, there is a fine line to walk between improvement and cultural displacement. 

Williamson says that when developing in the area, it is important to remember that “projects can be profitable and remain affordable,” and to “listen to the neighbors and pay attention to what the community wants and needs.” While even the leading industry executives are still somewhat unclear as to how development and culture can get along, and local organizations are doing their best to preserve their communities, there is still more that citizens of gentrifying neighborhoods can do, and plenty that those looking in from other neighborhoods can do to help. 

“If the locals rise up, come together and create what they’d like to see in their neighborhood, it would offset some of the negative impacts of new development,” said McCall, “I think it can be done but it would take some collaboration for sure.” When moving to an area like Germantown, supporting culturally responsible development and avoiding obviously gentrified developments is a practical way to add to and experience another culture without displacing those that built it. 

As was voiced by several Germantown citizens though, the city of Philadelphia is ultimately the place Germantown citizens should turn their criticisms toward, as more stringent policy changes could lead to the help that this community needs.

Editor’s Note: This article is a modified version of a story written as part of my upcoming indie publication Finding Philadelphia, and owes credit for some contributions to Myles Williams.

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