Philadelphia does not need Jeff Bezos’ endorsement to affirm that we have neighborhoods both of great need and great potential. Nor was the race for HQ2 the only prize that stimulated public-private coordination. Philadelphians are already making the push to work together to tackle critical issues across zip codes, removing silos and engaging and empowering residents and organizations to drive joint priorities and develop actionable solutions.
There will be other Amazons, in different forms. Some of these opportunities may not have been conceived yet. Some may even be homegrown. Philadelphia is, after all, a city with a booming innovation and life sciences sector. Projects like the University City Science Center on Market Street, Pennovation Center on Grays Ferry, and the future Schuylkill Yards represent billions of dollars in new investment.
Maybe we should give some serious thought to what landing (or birthing) a future ‘HQ2’ could mean, or even what the growth we are experiencing now, and on paper, means. The impact of innovation-based economic development does not stop at neighborhood boundaries. Instead, it spills into other neighborhoods. The simplest and probably most currently recognizable term is the “G word”, or gentrification.
Gentrification is already a familiar topic in Philadelphia neighborhoods that do not have these catalysts. New investment and jobs can trigger economic forces that also impact adjacent neighborhoods that are often low-income, communities of color, or both, and change them rapidly. Housing prices and rents increase with new demand from workers and the investors that have a somewhat symbiotic relationship with them. Commercial rents rise and local establishments (and often entire buildings) are replaced by trendier enterprises selling lattes, avocado toast, and the latest ‘gotta have it’ craft brews. Long-term residents and those on fixed-incomes can be displaced. However, there is an opportunity too—to work on an approach that includes and benefits current residents.
The impacts—and perils—of innovation are real. For example, per American Community Survey data, in 2011, 25.7 percent of the households in Seattle’s 98109 zip code, home to Amazon, earned under $50,000 per year. By 2016, that percentage dropped to 10.1 percent. These households did not move up the economic ladder into higher income brackets (i.e. from $50,000 to 74,000) but rather were (presumably) displaced – mostly by households earning over $200,000 per year. Luckily, Philadelphia is not there yet and we have a chance to do something about it.
There is a chance to make a difference and raise the economic floor in neighborhoods like Mantua and Powelton, but it takes a commitment to inclusion and equity. In order to avoid a planning table with “the same 15 people,” one cannot simply invite existing and emerging stakeholders to the conversation. Go futher and make an effort to bring them in and welcome them. And, for those who lack the comfort or confidence to come, find a venue where their input is going to be received and heard. Do not take a “menu” of predetermined choices to a community to pick from (beef, chicken, fish, vegan…) as if at a wedding. What is a community actively asking for? What “local ingredients” do community members want to utilize, and where can assistance and expertise be helpful? Boards need to develop the next generation of leaders and community capacity by providing meaningful—and not token—opportunities for participation. This positions Philadelphia’s neighborhoods to better to take advantage of and thrive when the next HQ2 knocks at the door rather than wither in its shadow and be swept aside.
To this end, in West Philadelphia, a new initiative is rising that is focused on tackling six critical issues in West Philadelphia’s five zip codes, removing silos and engaging and empowering residents and organizations to drive their priorities and develop actionable solutions. Together for West Philadelphia welcomed over 100 participants to its first retreat in October. Established by Main Line Health System’s Chief Academic Officer and surgeon Dr. Barry Mann, TfWP aims to align 20 partner organizations under a common charter to begin to drive and focus on six key areas of challenge: health equity, education, food justice, housing, employment, and seniors. The retreat was not “a free breakfast and talking heads” event – rather participants actively engaged in subcommittee strategy sessions and joined an “out of the box” lunch session that brought diverse attendees together to develop responses to issues.
TfWP’s approach aims to address critical issues by breaching silos and dismantling the top-down approach. Success, according to TfWP, does not mean ‘a seat at the table.’ It focuses instead on building a really big table that is genuinely inclusive, and digging deep to find the community’s needs via local partners such as faith-based venues and health centers. This approach was recently underscored on November 8 when TfWP and its partners hosted five On the Table Philly conversations, one in each zip code, to gather perspective and ideas for building and implementing community partnerships between existing resources, new efforts, and the community.. And simply to listen. The sessions provided a venue for just that. Hosting tables at African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas (19151), Penn Medicine’s Center for Community Health Workers (19104), Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (19131), Central City Toyota (19139), and Victory Christian Center (19143). Neighbors talked about issues such as delivering and accessing community health resources, tackling food access and security issues across cultures, and helping high schools work with local auto dealers to better showcase career paths outside the college track that can support a family. The next year will focus on working together to accomplish in areas that matter and are measurable, and gaining traction to make West Philadelphia better.
To help jump start 2019’s efforts, TfWP will conduct a series of ‘zip tours’ of each West Philadelphia zip code to delve deeper into community needs and the work of existing organizations, and to better orient leaders from the community and partner organizations. The zip tours kick off with 19104 on December 8.
TfWP’s approach is just one example for how Philadelphia neighborhoods work together across zip codes to tackle critical issues and create localized solutions that benefits existing residents. This arms Philadelphians with intentional strategies to move forward together, with or without Jeff Bezos’ endorsement.