Gentrification is believing you are ‘Year Zero’: 100% Philadelphia at FringeArts

Neighborhoods and cities always change. Concerns about gentrification come when that change happens with such speed that those new to a place don’t even realize a community predates them.

After a special performance of 100% Philadelphia, something like an on-stage census map with real-life residents, at FringeArts, I was part of a panel discussing the issues the production brought up. The performance has been organized around the world. In each case, 100 residents of that city were selected to represent the dynamics of that place — race, location, income, politics, etc. Throughout the show, the residents are given prompted questions and move about stage to help give an in-person sense of thoughts on issues, both local and human-wide.

It brought thoughts to mind for me.

For instance, the cast showed just how statistically small Philadelphia’s surge in Millennials is, but hit on the public education issues that drive so many decisions about where to live.

After the showing, one of the most interesting panel topics that came up for was on the issue of gentrification that I’ve put a lot of thought into. The panel was moderated by WHYY director Chris Satullo and included School Reform Commissioner Farah Jimenez, Erica Atwood of the City of Philadelphia and myself.

Many of the performers hit on the idea that their neighborhoods were changing. Several alluded to the idea that they were feeling pushed out — rents in their neighborhood were increasingly faster than their incomes and they expect to be pushed out.

What’s to be done about that? In some ways, nothing. Cities should change, neighborhoods have moved since their beginning.

For homeowners, when real estate prices rise, there’s an added benefit. That’s less the concern, so really we’re talking here about renters and generational cycling — that special spirit when sons and daughters grow up where their parents grew up. For those (homeowners and not) who simply fear a different kind of person (physically, socioeconomically or culturally) crowding the neighborhood, well, that too is healthy.

The problem is when it happens too quickly. When big institutions build on a large scale, when real estate gets hot enough that the speed quickens, then enough new people come at a given time that there is a sense that they are the beginning. They become part of ‘Year Zero.’ That’s gentrification.

When you say the neighborhood was dangerous, and then I came and it was better. That’s gentrification. It lacks the details of how and who helped shape that.

The best antidote — the only one I know — is that we all need to learn about our neighborhoods, how they developed and who helped make them. What is culturally significant about that place and how can we support it? We are entering in the middle of a narrative, not beginning a new one.


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