Sunday, June 22, 2014

Gentrification and the Future of West Philadelphia High School

The School District is currently unloading a number of shuttered schools, and has approved the sale of the vacant West Philadelphia High School at 47th and Walnut to Brooklyn based Strong Place Partners' Andrew Bank.

Bank is planning to convert the high school into a mixed use property housing 250 residents, primarily students, which could potentially extend University City's presence to 48th Street. 

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell approves of the project, but has criticized the School Board for retracting their decision to retain its property for future uses that could be assets to education in Philadelphia. The Board has opted to trade them for cash.

While it's certainly a sign of the School District's struggles and cash strapped situation, many of these facilities are outdated. Modernizing a building like West Philadelphia High School to accommodate the needs of the School District would likely cost more than building a modern and sensibly scaled facility on vacant, publicly owned land. 

Our aging schools are dramatic feats of engineering, but education doesn't require the drama of architecture. It's pragmatic, and needs modern technology more than marble carvings and mosaic tiles.

This building's neoclassical design and high ceilings are valuable to developers and tenants, not the School District. Basically, the desirable traits to the buying party are a hinderance to the seller. Unloading these schools makes sense, with or without a beleaguered School District.


However many long time residents have their own concerns. Namely, what would restaurants, shops, and 250 apartments mean to the neighbors near 47th and Walnut? Much of the concerns seem to echo complaints in Point Breeze and other emerging neighborhoods, but West Philadelphia tends to tolerate gentrification more diplomatically than areas in North and South Philadelphia.

Maybe that's because the power behind developers in University City is on par with Center City. But maybe it's that Penn and Drexel's residue isn't truly gentrifying anything.

Most of the housing west of 45th Street is still largely affordable, namely because it houses students who need affordable housing. Bank plans to charge $800 to $850 for a one bedroom, more than the average one bedroom at 47th and Walnut. But with tall windows and high ceilings, these will be more than average apartments. 

Some long time residents have noted improvements along Baltimore Avenue and the safer streets development brings with it. While several neighbors mentioned gentrification, even citing it as problematic. What's taking place in West Philadelphia isn't necessarily gentrification. 

Many students and young urbanites have chosen West Philadelphia for its affordable housing, and that's driven developers to build more. But gentrification occurs when the upwardly mobile displace less wealthy, long time residents. West Philadelphia is actually improving without doing that, at least not to the extent of other neighborhoods. It's getting safer without relocating poorer residents.

As the city continues to improve, true gentrification will probably find it's way to West Philadelphia. But it's a massive area with room to grow, and for the time being, its growth seems to be filling in the gaps, renovating buildings like the Croydon and West Philadelphia High School, rather than razing blocks for high end townhouses and relocating residents westward.


Whatever the fate of West Philadelphia, gentrification will remain both contentious and inevitable. It's simply part of how Westernized cities evolve.

The word was first coined by British sociologist, Ruth Glass, in 1964. But it's evident in cultures dating as far back as Ancient Greece and Rome. Wherever at least some fraction of a society's citizens are free to work, vote, and purchase property, lower classes have been reluctantly displaced at the behest of those with more means.

That doesn't mean it has to be a bad thing. It's rare, and all to often it's offered up by developers who are simply making a pitch for the approval of long time residents. But if zoning and development can manage to accommodate new and long time residents side by side, an area of socioeconomic diversity can theoretically succeed. 


Education is key. 

Unfortunately, Philadelphia has a uniquely problematic public school system. Although Councilwoman Blackwell's ire was directed at the physical assets of the School District, her anger is just. The city has long chosen to address our educational woes by creating charter schools and offering vouchers for private schools, effectively funding the School District's competition.

If our public schools were properly funded, new residents living amongst long time generational residents might send their kids to public schools, bringing neighbors together through their kids. But the city has created an inadvertent caste system, segregating the poor from everyone else at the kindergarten level. There's something to be said about keeping up with the Joneses, and neighbors both rich and poor can benefit from sharing everything from kindercare to block parties.


  1. Interesting article, I've been somewhat impressed that West Philly has managed to bring renewed economic growth without the flipped neighborhood effect that has happened in Northern Liberties and elsewhere. I think it's partially due to the degree of community involvement, yet as you mentioned, it's the schools where economic segregation still plays out. I used to live in the neighboring Terrace Apartments (former Wyngate), and it was a good mix of long time residents, graduate students, etc, but the one thing I never saw was a neighbor with children.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Despite its proximity to Center City and University City, West Philadelphia seems to be more suburbanized than Northern Liberties, Point Breeze, and other gentrifying areas. That means more kids, and may add to why it's less ruthlessly gentrified.

      But yes, the schools are still largely segregated. Perhaps it's because I grew up in the South, but the way the city actively funds its private schools via vouchers has always baffled me. Ironically, in the Bible Belt, religious schools receive tax breaks but not a dime of public funding. Yet north of the Mason Dixon line, states essentially admit their schools are subpar and offer incentives for students to attend Catholic schools.

      It's created a very strange, even prejudice situation, that works its way up to parents in both established and emerging neighborhoods.

      I've always thought that ALL kids should have equal access to public education and ALL money available to fund public education. Vouchers and charter schools sidestep this and the kids - who don't choose their parents - suffer from it.