Al Jazeera America

A promise yet to be delivered in West Philadelphia

A year after President Obama announced the high-poverty priority zone, residents are waiting to see results

PHILADELPHIA — It's not that change isn’t happening in this pocket of West Philadelphia. It is, and fast.

DeWayne Drummond, president of the Mantua Civic Association, walked through his neighborhood on a recent cold January night, past several newly erected housing developments. He pointed out a fresh tan facade just off the corner of 34th and Haverford, across from a mural-covered rec center and public library.

“That right there used to be 603 N. 34th Street,” said Drummond, 33, dressed in a well-fitting gray suit with a plaid purple tie and silver bar. “Actually, my ma used to live right next door to it, and it used to be a crack house.”

President Barack Obama introduced the then-unnamed Promise Zone program in his 2013 State of the Union address. He revealed the first five locations in January 2014, saying that the ZIP code that children are born in shouldn’t define their course in life. The Promise Zone designation does not guarantee any funding but gives preferential treatment for certain federal grants. The next batch of Promise Zones is expected to be announced this spring.

Residents look over plans for a neighborhood skateboard park at a monthly meeting of the Mantua Civic Association at Grace Lutheran Church in West Philadelphia, Jan. 15, 2015.
Kate Kilpatrick

Al Jazeera America has been following the Philadelphia Promise Zone over the past year, focusing particularly on the neighborhood of Mantua, where many of the zone’s poverty, violence, unemployment, housing and gentrification concerns are most concentrated. The historically black and economically depressed area borders two prominent and well-endowed universities — Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania — yet has one of the lowest-performing public elementary schools in the state and no public high school. (Nearby University City High School closed in 2013 and was purchased by Drexel for $25 million last year.)

Change in Mantua is now undeniable. Modern student housing developments are going up alongside the area’s traditional modest row homes. According to a Philadelphia Inquirer analysis, violent crime in Mantua dropped 15 percent from 2013 to 2014, which was nearly twice the citywide decline. And as one resident explained, white college kids play basketball at the neighborhood park in the evening — something he said was unheard of just a few years ago.

But what’s unclear is whether any of these changes are direct results of the Promise Zone program. For example, the hot spot corner that Drummond pointed out is being tackled with the help of a 2012 grant from the Department of Justice as part of the Obama administration’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. It was one of the programs already in place that boosted the neighborhood’s eligibility for Promise Zone status.

More important, as Drexel University continues expanding north into Mantua, some wonder which changes will help the longtime residents of this blighted, long-overlooked neighborhood. Neighbors worry they’re seeing not investment that will help keep them in their homes and preserve their community but gentrification that they feel is intended to push them out.

“Equitable development” and “fair future” are terms tossed around frequently in these parts, along with the Mantua Civic Association’s motto, “Plan or be planned for.”

“The biggest issue for me is fairness,” said Owen Franklin, director of the Philadelphia Promise Zone Initiative. “For decades and decades, fairness has been compromised in many different ways. And there’s not always equitable access to opportunity. And I think if we can be a source for equity, then that would be our greatest accomplishment.”

“I don’t have any faith at all,” said Jimmy Allen, 66, a former gang member who now works with neighborhood youth. He says many of the people involved with the Promise Zone don’t come from or represent the community. “I think the companies will do well. I think the universities will do well, some of the organizations that do their reports. But the neighborhood is going to still be stagnant.”

He wants to see funding go to grass-roots community groups “so we can make sure our children and our residents and our businesses come up."

‘I can see [transformation] coming in the near future, but I do think that we need to act with a little more urgency.’

DeWayne Drummond

president, Mantua Civic Association

Jimmy Allen grew up in Mantua, where, he said, he was a student of legendary local community organizer Herman Wrice. He fears the Promise Zone will not benefit the longtime residents of the area.
Kate Kilpatrick

While residents can’t yet point to a revitalization effort and definitively say, “That’s a result of the Promise Zone,” leaders say it’s coming. Year One has been about organizing and planning, forming committees and setting priorities.

“When you think of all the ways how poverty can and should be addressed, it’s like boiling the ocean,” said Franklin. “We’ve gotten more organized around how to approach that conversation so it’s manageable.”

Eva Gladstein, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, estimates that Promise Zone partners raised about $30 million last year for Philadelphia’s zone. The big grants have been federal, but she said she has been “pleasantly surprised” by how excitement and buzz around the Promise Zone has also spurred interest from the state government and private philanthropy.

Still, according to Franklin, it’s hard to determine whether any particular grant would have been received with or without the Promise Zone designation. He listed a few notable ones where — whether or not being tied to the Promise Zone tipped the balance — it was at least considered.

In September the city received a $29 million Gear Up grant (to be distributed over seven years) from the Department of Education to prepare low-income students for college and beyond. According to Franklin, the grant is spread among select schools across the city, including a half-dozen that are in the Promise Zone. Philadelphia was also awarded a $13.5 million Healthy Start grant (over five years) from the Department of Health and Human Services — about half of which, the city says, will be directed to the Promise Zone to address fetal and infant mortality. Franklin said the Promise Zone designation was also likely a factor in a $5 million Face Forward 2 grant awarded to a Philadelphia community organization by the Department of Labor to provide education and job training to 16- to 24-year-old youth offenders.

However, there have been disappointments too. When Obama announced the Promise Zone initiative, he asked Congress to pass tax incentives for businesses opening in those neighborhoods. That has not happened.

Andrew Frishkoff is the executive director of the Philadelphia chapter of the Local Initiatives Support Coalition (LISC), the largest community development support organization in the country. He said the Philadelphia Promise Zone was eager to take advantage of Promise Neighborhoods, a federal education program that takes a cradle-to-career approach to ending poverty, based on the famed Harlem Children’s Zone.

“We thought we had a good shot,” he said. “We had put a lot of pieces in place so we would be competitive, but those funds right now look like they won’t exist for new grantees.”

Calls and emails to the Promise Neighborhoods program were not answered.

Drummond said that while it’s too early to see signs of “visible transformation,” he’s “very, very optimistic” those results will come. “I can see it coming in the near future, but I do think that we need to act with a little more urgency,” he said. “Because people can get tired of coming over and over to meetings, and they want to know what’s really going to be the final result of this Promise Zone thing.”

One thing Drummond wants to see in Year Two is better communication.

“Just getting the information out, the planning process,” he said. “You might be an anchoring institution and you’re planning for a community who’s not at the table in the very beginning, and I think that has been a problem. Sometimes the train already left, and it seems like we’re running behind the train just to jump on.”

Donna Griffin, a community engagement specialist for the LISC and member of the Promise Zone executive committee, agrees successful communication is key.

“I think there’s still a need for clarity around what the Promise Zone means for residents and how they benefit,” she said. “I do feel like we’ve made some progress in terms of more residents understanding what it is. But we’re a year into it, and residents more or less have an expectation that things happen sooner rather than later.”

The Promise Zone designation lasts 10 years, but residents like Allen believe time is of the essence. “The neighborhood won’t be Mantua 10 years from now. Ten years from now, it’s going to be University City,” he said.

It’s a concern that Griffin said she hears all the time.

“It’s important to become civically involved, because it is not necessarily true that Mantua won’t exist in 10 years. But if people are not participating, there’s a possibility that could become a reality.”

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