A Community Talks About Fixing Itself

By Jeff Gammage, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 28, 2014

How do you fix a broken neighborhood?

It’s a question that has proved painfully persistent in Philadelphia.

And nobody among the five dozen activists who gathered on Wednesday had the solution. But they believe they might have the beginnings of an answer, at least for one impoverished area.

They began hashing out what the new federal Promise Zone designation could mean and do for a desperately poor and blighted part of West Philadelphia.

“I’m really hopeful,” said Gwendolyn Morris, a retired educator who is secretary of the Mantua Civic Association and a 42-year neighborhood resident. “I think we are on the brink of something really great.”

Who came? Practically everyone with an interest in the outcome: Residents, city officials, transportation leaders, financial whizzes, community organizers, housing officers, educators and church people.

People circulated table to table to talk about problems that require multifaceted cures: crime, homelessness, poverty, education, safety. The guest list included several representatives from the city government, along with those from the United Way, EPA, SEPTA, Free Library and Drexel University, and federal housing, education and health officials.

Everyone was encouraged to attend Funeral for a Home Saturday, when clergy and residents will memorialize decrepit 3711 Melon Street before it is ceremonially demolished.

The Wednesday gathering at 45th and Market Streets – in a building once home to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand – was an opportunity for leaders to discuss core goals and partnership structures for the zone, at the beginning of a years-long initiative.

In January the Obama administration designated five Promise Zones nationwide, offering them federal attention in a collaborative effort to halt decades of decline. But the designation carries no federal money, instead offering extra points in competitive grant evaluations and other, unspecified government assistance.

The White House says that if Promise Zones are to flourish, Congress must to act to offer tax credits to businesses that create jobs.

It’s surely harder to go forward without the backing of government cash, said Kira Strong, a vice president of the People’s Emergency Center, which serves homeless mothers and their young children. But, she said, looking around the meeting room, the hall would be empty if people thought the task was impossible.

“We’re all here,” she said. There’s a feeling that while the Promise Zone is a place of pressing need, it also holds great promise.


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