Hard times in the Lower Northeast


Yeah, that’s how you re­spond to a neigh­bor up­set that your dog is squat­ting and drop­ping doo on his lawn. You shoot him.

Six times. Maybe eight times, maybe even nine. The wit­ness ac­counts dif­fer.

That’s the bog­gling scen­ario that has Tyri­rk Har­ris in a bind at the mo­ment, charged with murder and ac­cused of aim­ing his 9mm pis­tol at the head of Ta­cony neigh­bor Frank­lin Santana and blast­ing away dur­ing a Feb. 14 ar­gu­ment about Har­ris’ two de­fec­at­ing dogs.

Of course, the ju­di­cial pro­cess ahead will per­mit him to mount his de­fense and tell his story. But for now, in the re­flect­ive af­ter­math that is sharpened by sit­ting in jail, you have to think Har­ris is won­der­ing wheth­er Chi­hua­hua crap was worth all this.

In a ban­ner year of head-shak­ing vi­ol­ence around our city, the Valentine’s Day mas­sacre of Frank­lin Santana is just an­oth­er epis­ode of in­san­ity even more “sense­less” than the last, but also an epis­ode of in­san­ity picked up by me­dia out­lets far bey­ond Philly’s bound­ar­ies be­cause, well, people typ­ic­ally don’t kill oth­er people over Chi­hua­hua crap.

It doesn’t say a lot for Philly. But then, what does it say for North­east Philly?

Prob­ably that here’s af­firm­a­tion once more that the Great North­east is be­com­ing just an il­lu­sion. A swiftly fad­ing memory of row­house kin­ship and re­cipe swaps and nice lawns and stick­ball in the street, of a nir­vana known for so much cour­tesy and so little crime. It’s a faded pic­ture still clutched way too tightly by old-timers who are loath to peer out the win­dow. To ac­cept real­ity.

This tar­nish is a source of par­tic­u­lar dis­may in the Lower North­east, in ven­er­able neigh­bor­hoods like Frank­ford, May­fair, Wissi­nom­ing, Ox­ford Circle, Holmes­burg — in neigh­bor­hoods like Ta­cony, which de­serves bet­ter than to be men­tioned in head­lines about a fatal squabble over Chi­hua­hua crap or, just four months ago, in the widely re­por­ted story of four men­tally in­ca­pa­cit­ated adults — mal­nour­ished and ab­used — who’d been held cap­tive in the cruddy base­ment of a Long­shore Av­en­ue apart­ment build­ing by schemers steal­ing their gov­ern­ment as­sist­ance checks.

The real­ity is this: The Lower North­east con­tin­ues to grow poorer, a trans­form­ing re­gion be­ing re­shaped by lower-class ho­mo­geny, and demo­graph­ics of the past two dec­ades have charted the world of dif­fer­ence in these com­munit­ies.


Crit­ics of this slide — in par­tic­u­lar, res­id­ents lament­ing an erod­ing qual­ity of neigh­bor­hood life — have tar­geted their own cul­prits. In re­cent years, they’ve looked un­kindly on the fed­er­al Sec­tion 8 pro­gram for low-in­come hous­ing, but lately their ire has been dir­ec­ted at so-called ab­sent­ee land­lords, for the most part real-es­tate in­vestors from oth­er areas who’ve heard op­por­tun­ity knock­ing in the midst of fall­ing prices by pur­chas­ing single-fam­ily homes in places like May­fair and Ta­cony and con­vert­ing them to rent­al prop­er­ties.

Loc­al civic as­so­ci­ations and city politi­cians have joined the chor­us, as­sail­ing these land­lords as ver­it­able slum­lords, their rent­al at­ti­tudes in­tro­du­cing squal­or and lower-class ten­ants to neigh­bor­hoods that once epi­tom­ized the beauty of life in the Great North­east.

But much of this out­cry won’t amount to more than hol­low pos­tur­ing. The Times’ archive already has plenty of stor­ies from re­cent years on the top­ic — res­id­ents mourn­ing their slid­ing North­east neigh­bor­hoods, politi­cians de­liv­er­ing their get-tough rhet­or­ic, loc­al City Coun­cil hear­ings on prop­erty neg­lect, non-en­force­ment of fines and or­din­ances already on the books — and now we have the city’s re­cent de­but of “blight court” and the battle plan called  Bad Neigh­bor Ini­ti­at­ive from spunky new Coun­cil­man Bobby Hen­on, whose 6th Dis­trict is part of the Lower North­east’s blight heart­land.

Sure, you have to try to thwart these prob­lems. But the chan­ging demo­graph­ic land­scape of the Lower North­east — seis­mic shifts in di­versity and eth­nic pop­u­la­tions, lower stand­ards of liv­ing, the trans­ition­al struggles of new im­mig­rant pock­ets — will en­sure the ex­ist­ence of low-in­come hous­ing. Car­pet­bag­ger land­lords spe­cial­ize in that. But it is demo­graph­ic real­ity, not ne­ces­sar­ily the at­ti­tudes of land­lords, that more people must ac­know­ledge as the force re­shap­ing their neigh­bor­hoods, of­ten not for the bet­ter.

It’s a giv­en that the in­tru­sion of lower-class val­ues — or, more pre­cisely, the lack of val­ues — can severely al­ter the neigh­bor­hood land­scape when it comes to crime, ap­pear­ance and neigh­borly co­oper­a­tion. You don’t simply get petty crime; you get un­fathom­able crime like the so-called “Ta­cony dun­geon” dis­cov­ery or Tyri­rk Har­ris ac­cused of slaughter­ing his neigh­bor for com­plain­ing about Chi­hua­hua crap.

Our own crime cov­er­age here at the Times leads us to be­lieve that life, in­deed, is get­ting grit­ti­er in the Lower North­east, not­ably in Ta­cony and May­fair. Last week, we ran a story about wide­spread and costly van­dal­ism.  In just the past month I have re­ceived four e-mails from May­fair res­id­ents con­cerned about vi­ol­ent crime —  in­clud­ing one wo­man whose 16-year-old neph­ew was hos­pit­al­ized after a gang beat­ing on Jan. 7 at 8:30 p.m., and a par­ent whose 16-year-old son was robbed of his cell phone and wal­let by two gun-tot­ing thugs at St. Vin­cent and Bat­tersby streets at 8:50 p.m. on Jan. 11.

“I would like to bring it to someone’s at­ten­tion that gang vi­ol­ence is hap­pen­ing again in May­fair,” wrote the first wo­man, re­call­ing a Times story dur­ing the sum­mer on the neigh­bor­hood gang is­sue. “This is un­ac­cept­able hu­man be­ha­vi­or that needs to stop.”


Whatever per­cep­tion ex­is­ted that the North­east’s pop­u­la­tion has been un­der­go­ing a rad­ic­al ra­cial and eth­nic shift was val­id­ated last year with a broad study by the non-profit pub­lic-policy or­gan­iz­a­tion Pew Char­it­able Trusts — an ana­lys­is of 2010 census fig­ures to probe those trends in Phil­adelphia over the past 20 years.

As the study ob­served, nowhere in the city has this change been more pro­nounced than in North­east Philly, and the Lower North­east in par­tic­u­lar. Of the pages and pages of stat­ist­ic­al data, the bot­tom line is that in 1990 North­east Phil­adelphia had 409,902 res­id­ents — and 92 per­cent were white.  Twenty years later — with an in­creased pop­u­la­tion of 432,073 res­id­ents — whites had plummeted to 58.3 per­cent, as an in­flux of Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, His­pan­ics and Asi­ans off­set the de­par­ture of white res­id­ents and even in­creased the North­east’s over­all pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to the Pew study.

Of the five city ZIP codes that saw the most dra­mat­ic in­creases among His­pan­ics and Lati­nos, three of them — Fox Chase, Ox­ford Circle/May­fair and Frank­ford — were in the North­east.

Two years ago, I sought to mount a sig­ni­fic­ant Times pro­ject to eli­cit res­id­ents’ views on life in North­east Phil­adelphia. Our pub­lished ques­tion­naire ex­plored myri­ad top­ics — key is­sues, the North­east’s ap­peal, eth­nic di­versity, crime, city ser­vices, neigh­bor­hood pre­ser­va­tion — but in the end I de­cided the roughly 190 re­sponses, as in­sight­ful as they were, proved in­suf­fi­cient for an ac­cur­ate ana­lys­is of at­ti­tudes or pin­point­ing key is­sues in our neigh­bor­hoods.

Just the same, I’ve held on to those re­sponses. Gen­er­ally, there re­mains strong loy­alty to the North­east, even enough pluses for many to stay, but there is little doubt about the un­nerv­ing winds of change. There’s a sense that the re­gion is at a make-or-break cross­roads.

A sampling:

• May­fair is now get­ting the same lower-level people that would be found in the worst sec­tions of the city. My room­mate has seen drug deals go down in front of the house, and aban­doned cars are in front. We told po­lice, but they’d rather run red lights after people at night than in­vest­ig­ate these things.

• I will con­tin­ue to live in Wissi­nom­ing. We have been here for many years … raised a fam­ily here … we are close to everything … neigh­bor­hood tra­di­tions still mean a lot to many of us. Much about the North­east is be­com­ing un­desir­able, but it also has giv­en us a won­der­ful life.

• A lot of neigh­bor­hoods have to unite. We have people of dif­fer­ent back­grounds that need to be­come “neigh­bors.” A lot of low-lifes and drug deal­ers have been cor­rupt­ing Ta­cony for years. It has ac­cel­er­ated the break­down of our fam­il­ies and the total neigh­bor­hood struc­ture. People are afraid to speak up be­cause they don’t have the sup­port from their neigh­bors or the po­lice.

• I don’t think it’s ra­cial. But look at Frank­ford, Wissi­nom­ing, Ju­ni­ata Park, Ox­ford Circle, North­wood … these were beau­ti­ful at one time. All you have to do is take a good look at how they have be­come un­desir­able neigh­bor­hoods.

• I think what still keeps me con­tent, or still re­mains ap­peal­ing to me here in the North­east, would be the fa­mili­ar­ity of neigh­bor­hoods, streets, busi­nesses, people. If you’re from the North­east, es­pe­cially if you grew up here, no mat­ter where you go you al­ways some­how wind up back in the North­east.

• The people of dif­fer­ent eth­nic back­grounds here are not the same as the people who came to Amer­ica be­fore them. The at­ti­tude is that they should be ac­com­mod­ated and that it is we who were born and raised here who need to change our ways. They think we should un­der­stand that they like loud mu­sic, curs­ing is a way of life, push­ing and shov­ing is al­lowed be­cause they don’t un­der­stand, and that throw­ing trash and spit­ting on the ground is their cul­ture.

• I live in Park­wood. I have lived in the North­east for thirty years. I grew up here and wanted to stay here. I did live in a Ta­cony apart­ment for a few months and it was hor­rible. Liv­ing on Tor­res­dale Av­en­ue was a little scary, with me and my daugh­ter alone. I didn’t feel safe. I will live in the city un­til the trash moves up this way. If I move, I will be go­ing to­ward Abing­ton, where I work. They have a great school sys­tem.


It’s also worth not­ing  that, in the re­cent Pew study, North­east folks were the most pess­im­ist­ic of all re­spond­ents when asked how Phil­adelphia has changed over the past five years. Only 15 per­cent thought the city is bet­ter today; 48 per­cent think it’s worse. Roughly 35 per­cent have seen no change in the city’s bet­ter­ment.

When you de­bate the qual­ity of neigh­bor­hood life, es­pe­cially here in the North­east, im­mig­rants and oth­er minor­ity fac­tions have been tapped for its down­fall, but they’re easy scape­goats. Even though strong growth in the Rus­si­an pop­u­la­tion here over the past 15 years has been over­shad­owed by the ar­rival of oth­er eth­nic set­tle­ments, North­east res­id­ents re­main wary of im­mig­rants — a note­worthy point in an­oth­er Pew sur­vey of gen­er­al at­ti­tudes about life in our city.

As to wheth­er im­mig­rants help strengthen Phil­adelphia, 44 per­cent of re­spond­ents in the North­east said no, while 40 per­cent think they do, yet it was by far the most neg­at­ive view among five Philly geo­graph­ic re­gions that en­com­passed the sur­vey.

If you un­der­take an ana­lys­is of demo­graph­ic num­bers com­piled by the U.S. Census Bur­eau, an­oth­er real­ity worth not­ing is that a pop­u­la­tion tract com­posed of May­fair, Ta­cony, Wissi­nom­ing and Ox­ford Circle is grow­ing poorer.  Dur­ing the dec­ade end­ing in 2009, the num­ber of people liv­ing in poverty un­der fed­er­al guidelines (house­hold in­come of less than $22,050 for a fam­ily of four) had in­creased by 110 per­cent, with the latest es­tim­ate that, of a re­gion­al pop­u­la­tion of 114,287 in those neigh­bor­hoods, nearly 21,700 people were poor.

What’s be­hind this erosion of the good life?  Fore­most, it seems, a pre­dom­in­antly white middle class is be­ing sup­planted by re­l­at­ively poor blacks and Lati­nos, along with more older people re­tir­ing to fixed in­comes. High un­em­ploy­ment has been com­poun­ded by an ex­pand­ing base of low-wage jobs in ser­vice in­dus­tries for folks who do find jobs.

By most as­sess­ments, neigh­bor­hoods of the Far North­east haven’t felt the tremors of this demo­graph­ic quake. However, in the neigh­bor­hoods of the Lower North­east, I do be­lieve that the rise of minor­ity pop­u­la­tions has had two not­able ef­fects: There is a palp­able de­cline of that “Great North­east” elit­ism, as well as an eas­ing of overt ra­cism, an ob­ser­va­tion I base simply on the Times be­ing used as less of a sound­ing board these days for vit­ri­ol­ic callers or let­ter-writers who want to dis­cuss their “prob­lems” with blacks, His­pan­ics or im­mig­rants.

That’s the un­for­tu­nate as­pect of this chan­ging Lower North­east. Wheth­er it’s a com­munity meet­ing charged with dis­tress over dis­in­teg­rat­ing neigh­bor­hoods, or a Times read­er’s let­ter lament­ing the erosion of com­munity pride, it’s easy to ste­reo­type that single black moth­er or that re­cently ar­rived Brazili­an fam­ily as reas­ons for North­east Phil­adelphia’s van­ish­ing charms.

It’s also un­fair. I’ve been re­minded of this dur­ing phone chats now and then with strug­gling fam­il­ies who want oth­ers to know that they share the same com­munity pride, or want the same safe schools for their kids, but that they also need the as­sist­ance of Sec­tion 8 hous­ing to work to­ward their dreams.

What all this comes down to is that the chal­lenges fa­cing the Lower North­east are far big­ger than chas­ing after ab­sent­ee land­lords. People have reas­on to worry about de­teri­or­at­ing neigh­bor­hoods, crime, di­min­ished home val­ues. But these also are the byproducts of a demo­graph­ic vol­cano that has been sim­mer­ing for years, rum­blings that are far more for­mid­able than per­suad­ing a bad neigh­bor to get his act to­geth­er.

As the num­bers show, the real chal­lenge will be to ad­dress pro­found is­sues and trends that are trans­form­ing the Lower North­east in ways that so many could not have en­vi­sioned dur­ing those hap­pi­er times two dec­ades ago. ••


You can reach at jscanlon@bsmphilly.com.

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