"We want to see growth too" — the gentrification of Strawberry Mansion

Radio feature and article for PlanPhilly and Keystone Crossroads
Aired on Newsworks Tonight, March 14 2018
Photography by Bas Slabbers

Listen to the radio feature here

If Strawberry Mansion gentrifies, Tonetta Graham knows her block is bound to change. She owns a house on 30th Street, right around the corner from her childhood home. It cuts a striking figure. Painted candy apple red with white trim, Graham’s house stands alone, the sole remaining building on this side of the block. Vacant lots surround it, some strewn with tires and old mattresses.

“I know development will happen on my block,” Graham, 50, says, with a wry laugh. “In a couple years from now, I see infills going in here.”

But unlike many of her neighbors, Graham, the president of the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation, isn’t worried — and she doesn’t want anyone else to worry either. She sees the silver lining of change to come. Strawberry Mansion has gone through wave after wave of transformation over the past century: redlining, white flight, riots, the crack epidemic. Now the neighborhood seems poised to change in a way that could restore the well-tended, shop-lined streets she remembers from her youth. This time, Graham wants the main beneficiaries to be people like herself, residents who stuck with the neighborhood during its darkest moments.

“I think that's a misconception: They want it to stay the same,” says Graham. “We want to see growth; we want to see restaurants and eateries, where you can bring your family. We want quality schools as well. We just don't want to be planned over.”

To say Strawberry Mansion is gentrifying might seem like a stretch. It’s long been one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods. In 2000, incomes in Strawberry Mansion were among the lowest in the city. But housing prices are shooting up fast nearby. Median home prices in the 19121 zip code, which includes Strawberry Mansion and Brewerytown, rose by 68 percent between 2010 and 2016. That was the third biggest increase of any zip code in the city. After decades of disinvestment and devaluation, predominantly black Strawberry Mansion is looking more and more appealing to developers and the young, upwardly mobile, and increasingly, white.

I know this because I moved to Strawberry Mansion a year ago. I live about 10 blocks from Graham and a block and a half from Fairmount Park. When I don’t feel like cooking, I can take a quick walk to Brewerytown’s rapidly gentrifying stretch of Girard and grab a $5 slice of pizza or sit down for a $20 prix fixe two-course meal. My roommate bought her gorgeous rowhome — three stories, with a backyard, a basement, and a porch — on the cheap and we piled in like the poster-child gentrifiers that we are, with our chickens and her rescued pit bull and quirky porch furniture. We’re the first white people to live on the block since the last Jewish families left in the 1960s.

”This thing in Strawberry Mansion that I grew up with was, "They're coming. They want the neighborhood back,’” says Graham. “‘They’ was never really defined but that was the term, ‘they're coming, they're coming, they're coming.’”

Starting a few years ago, Graham began to see the tide turning in Brewerytown to the south and East Falls to the north: white people, moving into houses made affordable by decades of policies devaluing communities of color. “It's amazing because as a kid you hear that — ‘They want it,’ and I used to think, ‘But they already had it,’’ says Graham. “What do you mean, why would they just want it again?”

Graham’s childhood self may have been confused, but today she knows exactly what makes Strawberry Mansion so appealing, why the hipsters, as she calls us newcomers, are trickling in. “Folks see the potential in Strawberry Mansion; they see the amenities,” she says. “Fairmount Park is our backyard. We have access to transit; there’s ease in getting just about anywhere.”

Now new schools are proposed for the neighborhood, new housing, new places for kids to play in Fairmount Park. Graham wants to make sure the neighborhood’s black residents can stick around and benefit from the renewed investment. She says Strawberry Mansion has a secret weapon, if they can keep it: high rates of homeownership, between 50 and 59 percent in the northern part of the neighborhood.

“For a neighborhood that’s considered low wealth like Strawberry Mansion, we own our homes,” she says. “They don't value our houses at much, but we do own them, and that's our strength.”

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