PHILADELPHIA — History and pride run deep in Mantua, but so do blight and trauma. It’s the latter two that this pocket of West Philadelphia is most known for.
There was the infamous Lex Street massacre in December 2000, when 10 people were lined up in a nearby crack house and shot execution-style.
More recently, abortion provider Dr. Kermit Gosnell was sentenced to life in prison for what went on in his squalid Mantua clinic. Gosnell, in his personal “war against poverty,” as he called it, reportedly delivered late-term-abortion fetuses alive, then used his surgical scissors to stab the newborns’ necks and snip their spinal cords. He kept dozens of fetuses’ feet in jars.
These days, it’s good news that has Mantua back in the spotlight. The neighborhood, home to just under 6,000 residents, is now a Promise Zone.
Earlier this month, on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty speech, President Barack Obama announced that a section of West Philadelphia has been designated one of the first five Promise Zones, with 15 more to come across the country, which will be given technical assistance as well as priority when applying for federal aid over the next 10 years. The president has asked Congress to offer tax breaks for businesses that create jobs in the zones.
The other four zones were areas of San Antonio, Los Angeles, southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma.
While the Promise Zone section of West Philadelphia extends well beyond Mantua — including parts of neighboring Belmont, Mill Creek and more affluent Powelton and West Powelton — Mantua contains many of the neediest residents in the zone.
But exactly who will benefit — and how — is unknown.
“It’s too soon. We’ve been in touch with representatives from the federal government, and they’re still working out the specifics,” said Eva Gladstein, who heads the city's Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, the lead agency in the Philadelphia Promise Zone effort.
What is clear is that the neighborhood could use the boost.
The University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University are just a short walk away, but nearly a third of adults in Mantua don’t have a high school diploma, and only 4 percent have a bachelor’s degree.
The median household income is less than $17,000, according to American Community Survey census data. Unemployment hovers around 20 percent — nearly double the citywide rate.
More than half of Mantua residents live below the poverty line, and the statistics are especially dire for children: 96 percent of Mantua’s kids under 5 live in poverty.
Students at Morton McMichael, the local public elementary school, are 95 percent African-American and 98 percent low income, according to the Philadelphia school district. Last school year, only 27 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or above in math and 36 percent in reading.
Drugs, crime, violence, incarceration and blight are all too familiar. A colorful recreation center and popular public library serve as community hubs but are surrounded by blocks of homes in disrepair, many of them boarded up, in varying stages of collapse. According to census data, 1 in 4 area housing units is vacant.
This despite being within a mile of Fairmount Park, the Philadelphia Zoo, the Philadelphia Art Museum, 30 Street Station and the Bill Gates–funded Microsoft School of the Future.