In blighted Mantua, a history of poverty, crime and pride

While it is not yet clear what being in a Promise Zone will mean, the Philadelphia area is ready for improvement

A row house in Mantua, Jan. 26, 2014.
Al Jazeera America

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.

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“In some ways, it’s oddly suffered from its physical location,” said Farah Jimenez, head of the People’s Emergency Center, an influential nonprofit organization based in West Philadelphia that houses homeless women and children. “It’s got these bridges one must cross to get to other parts of West Philadelphia. Most of Philly is on a grid, and (Mantua’s) got angular streets that cut it up.”

Jimenez said that despite Mantua’s economic and geographic challenges, residents have stayed. “They’re very committed to the neighborhood,” she said.

Mantua’s small size shouldn’t belie its rich history. The neighborhood was originally part of a suburban country estate whose owner named it Mantua after the birthplace of the Roman poet Virgil (and where Shakespeare’s Romeo escaped after he was banished from Verona).

At the end of the 19th century, Mantua was a predominantly white, working-class neighborhood. Trolley lines made it easily accessible to the center city.

In the 1920s, African-Americans migrating from the South moved into Mantua, working in nearby manufacturing, railroad, construction and office jobs.

Most of the modest row homes fill the area were built as worker housing in the 1940s. By 1950, Mantua reached its peak population: 19,394 residents.

In a familiar industrial American urban tale, the decades that followed brought gang violence, increased crime, white flight and crack cocaine.

However, prominent community organizers like Herman Wrice emerged during this period. Wrice formed the Young Great Society to steer neighborhood kids away from drugs and violence. He later founded Mantua Against Drugs, holding vigils outside drug houses and putting up wanted posters of known dealers.

Decades later, Gladstein said it is the area’s community involvement that secured its Promise Zone status.

“The federal government was looking at neighborhoods that already have a history of collaboration and partners working together,” she said. “And I think that was very smart.”

A large mural of Wrice loomed over 34th and Spring Garden streets in Mantua for years but was recently obstructed by construction. A reproduction of the mural is slated for a new location two blocks away. As the late Wrice continues to keep an eye on the streets of Mantua from his corner perch, let’s hope he likes the changes he sees.

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