Two children, ages 10 and 2, were among the latest victims of senseless gun violence in the Point Breeze section of Philadelphia Tuesday night — an incident that started as a fight between young people and escalated into a potentially deadly confrontation.
Tuesday’s shooting started around 7:30 p.m. and was the latest incident involving blazing guns and innocent children caught in the crossfire. Tuesday’s incident mirrors an earlier shooting last Sunday in which a 6-year-old girl was struck by a bullet.
Among those wounded Tuesday night where 59-year-old Andrea Cooper, who was struck in the leg, her granddaughter 2-year-old Aisha Owens, wounded in the stomach and hand and Cooper’s grandson, 10-year-old Siyir Owens, who was also struck in the right leg. Another 25-year-old male was also wounded in the finger.
Aisha Owens remains in critical condition as of Tribune press time. The other victims are in stable condition and are expected to recover.
Investigators said that what sparked the shooting was a brawl between at least three girls who are students at South Philadelphia High School — a fight stemmed from an unruly Facebook posting back in July.
“This started behind some nonsense at South Philadelphia High School,” said Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who was at the scene of the crime. “Basically it was a fight between some girls that spilled over onto the streets. At least two of the girls went to a house in the 1200 block of South Bucknell Street where one of the girls, a 14-year-old they were fighting with, was staying with her grandparents.
According to Ramsey, the two girls brought a group of men along with them and managed to force their way into the home.
“They started a physical confrontation, some males arrived with some sticks, golf clubs, so it continued into a physical confrontation,” Ramsey said. “They literally forced their way into the home and then tried to force the 14-year-old female out. Some other guys in the neighborhood came to see what was happening and that was when the males in both groups began shooting. We’re just really fortunate that no one was killed. It had nothing to do with Wall Street going up or down, I can tell you that. It was some dumb crap that they were fighting over that means absolutely nothing — and now we’re talking about a 2-year-old who is in surgery because of these ignorant people who are out here.”
Police say they are looking for a suspect described as a Black male, 25 to 30 years old, 6 feet tall with a heavy build, about 210 pounds. The second gunman is described as a Black male in his early 20s with a dark complexion.
“There have been several shootings in this community lately, and all of them have been tragic and senseless,” said state Representative Kenyatta Johnson. “I understand that this latest incident started at South Philadelphia High School, which one of the reasons why I’ve been aggressive on dealing with school violence — it always spills over into the surrounding community and usually escalates. Although the identities of the gunmen aren’t known yet, I know the police are aggressively working on this case — but it takes the community to get involved and get involved right from the start. There was a crowd standing around watching this unfold. People need to call police right away when they see something about to jump off. This isn’t entertainment; it’s not reality television. You would think people would have called 911 and say ‘trouble is starting out here, send some officers.’ When police catch up to these two gunmen and arrest them, I hope that the sentence they’re given will put them under the jail.”
Tuesday night’s incident is just the latest where children have been wounded by gunfire in South Philadelphia. On Sunday, 6-year-old Denean Thomas was hit in the leg by a bullet. Thomas is listed in stable condition at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and police have made two arrests in that case.
The suspects have been identified as 17-year-old Charles Rice and 19-year-old Tyler Linder. Both young men have been charged with three counts of aggravated assault, conspiracy, weapons offenses, simple assault, reckless endangerment and related charges.
According to law enforcement authorities the shooting happened on September 26th at around 9:35 p.m. in the 1600 block of South 18th Street. Investigators report that a 23-year-old female, a 17-year-old male and Thomas, were sitting in front of a residence when Rice and Linder allegedly approached them, pulled out handguns and proceeded to open fire.
Their target was the 17-year-old male, whose name has not been released yet by authorities.
Police are still unraveling Sunday night’s incident but believe it was in retaliation for an earlier shooting involving two local street gangs.
“This was a turf war,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of good, hardworking people in this community, but we also have some individuals who just don’t have the community’s best interests in mind. We can’t keep them from going down that path and unfortunately, we’ll have to deal harshly with them.”
Commissioner Ramsey said that so far, there’s nothing to indicate that the shooting on Sunday night and Tuesday night’s incident were related.
“Obviously the investigation will take us where it takes us but so far, there’s nothing that indicates they were related,” he said. “Right now it does look like Sunday night’s incident was gang related.”
Philadelphia City Council passed a bill on Thursday guaranteed to make more than a few of my neighbors angry.
The bill, sponsored by Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, would allow the city, by means of eminent domain, to seize 43 properties abandoned or blighted properties in Point Breeze, 17 of those properties privately owned, to ensure a mix of affordable housing in the booming neighborhood.
I live in Point Breeze, and Johnson is my Councilman. I’ll give him this – he’s about as visible and accessible a representative as you could ask for. I see the guy all the time. He’s talking to neighbors, sweeping up the trash, and conducting walking tours for fellow politicians. He has his finger on the pulse of the community, and on this bill, he’s been listening to what they tell him.
First, let’s talk about the underlying cause of the consternation over Johnson’s bill, and that angst can be summed up in one ugly word – gentrification.
A predominantly Black neighborhood for generations, Point Breeze in recent years has seen an upsurge in young, white hipsters moving in. For that, you can’t really blame the hipsters. Their parents abandoned Black neighborhoods in the ’60s, and now they’re lured back by the inexpensive housing market and the neighborhood’s proximity to Center City nightlife.
Developers see that happening, and pounce on every property they can get their hands on. Some they transform into expensive single-family homes, some they convert to apartments, and some they allow to lie fallow, waiting for the financing to redevelop.
Meanwhile, longtime residents, who for years put up with feeling abandoned by city government, are now at the center of the action, and fear the increased development will drive up property values, which could tax them out of the community they love.
It’s not an unfounded fear – the pattern has been repeated in cities all over the country, where grandmothers who’ve owned their homes for decades must move out because they can no longer afford the property tax increases that come with gentrification. I have a friend in San Francisco who calls gentrification “The Negro Removal Plan” because it has dramatically reduced the size and density of Black neighborhoods there.
As a consequence, Johnson’s bill is seen by some as a line in the sand – protecting longtime residents from greedy developers. It is seen by others as an impediment to progress – standing in the way of legitimate business and chasing money out of the city.
Developers see money – and they should. That’s what they do, and they shouldn’t be faulted for their one-dimensional thinking. Those properties you couldn’t give away a few years ago are being sold today at a king’s ransom. They don’t see the residents as salt-of-the-earth neighbors, they don’t see the properties as hearth and home – they see people standing between them and their profits.
And last, but never least, there’s the growing racial animosity involved whenever the word gentrification comes up.
Many of my new white neighbors are distrustful, and let’s be honest – afraid – of their recently chosen environment. You can tell. While some of the new neighbors go out of their way to speak and be friendly, others walk past silently with their heads down, avoiding eye contact. They make no effort to engage, and that causes some resentment among folks who see it as either aloof or disrespectful.
There are stories floating around about some new residents’ refusal to clean up their dogs’ droppings, or who move six or eight people into a house – all of whom own cars – leaving longtime residents to park wherever they can, often blocks away. Then there are the usual neighborhood complaints – noise, trash, whatever – that are instantly multiplied and escalated when race is involved.
The sad part is that if money could be removed from the equation, there’s a chance both sides could come together to form a compromise, if not an actual community. But you can’t remove money as a factor, because money is where the issue begins and ends.
I understand the developers’ desire to reap the financial rewards of investing in a neighborhood forgotten by their real estate colleagues. But I also understand the social and human ramifications of using financial status as a wedge – slowly marginalizing the poor and disregarding them as essential to the fabric of a community.
It is a dilemma as old as the Constitution, and as American as apple pie. The problem is, most of us have come to understand that when an issue comes down to people versus profit, there’s always a clear winner.
Daryl Gale is the city editor of the Philadelphia Tribune.
Four of 40 new affordable homes in Point Breeze were open to the public last weekend in an open house sponsored by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, which hopes to revitalize an area hit hard by foreclosures.
“These homes represent an opportunity for families of average means to buy a house in a revitalizing neighborhood,” said Ed Covington, executive director of the redevelopment authority.
Construction of the houses, scattered throughout the neighborhood in five developments, was funded through a portion of $43.9 million in federal stimulus money earmarked for neighborhood development. The four model homes were in the 2000 block of Federal Street, the 1300 block of South 18th Street, the 1200 block of South 17th Street and the 1200 block of South 27th Street.
“This is a great example of how the city has used stimulus funds to strategically invest in and strengthen targeted neighborhoods like Point Breeze,” said Covington.
Most of the homes in the five developments will be available to families earning between $45,000 and $50,000 a year. Buyers do not have to be first-time home buyers.
Each property is part of the city’s 10-year tax abatement program, is Energy Star certified with energy efficient windows, doors and appliances. They range in size from two to four bedrooms, most with basements and roof decks.
“These homes will help maintain the affordability of the neighborhood,” said Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who represents the district. “I was pleased that the city targeted the homes first to residents of Point Breeze.”
Hitting the pavement, Mayor Michael Nutter and newly elected Councilman Kenyatta Johnson took a walking tour of the Point Breeze neighborhood this week, launching a larger tour as Nutter seeks to take the entire city’s pulse as he enters his second term.
“I like to see what’s going on myself,” said the mayor, who with Johnson, who now represents the 2nd Councilmanic District, and several ranking police officers took a walking tour along 21st Street near Mifflin Street on Wednesday morning. “You’d be surprised what you can learn if you keep your mouth shut and listen.”
The section of Point Breeze — part of what is sometimes known as “the box” — is notorious for crime and drug activity. Philadelphia Weekly named it one of the top ten drug areas in the city in 2007.
As he opens his second term, the mayor is visiting neighborhoods across the city to highlight key priorities — crime reduction, education and poverty.
“We have to drive our crime rates down and education rates up,” he said.
Point Breeze was chosen because it is one of the neighborhoods selected to take part in the Philly Rising Collaborative, a plan that aims to revitalize neighborhoods using resident input and participation to drive change.
“The community can only move forward … if the people participate,” Johnson said.
After a routine start, and a sit-down with several community leaders for a brief question and answer session, Nutter and Johnson took a walking tour through the neighborhood to inspect some of the alleys cleared out by Philly Rising, in one of its neighborhood improvement initiatives.
On his first of several planned neighborhood tours, Nutter got a true taste of the streets.
At a couple of houses, knots of curious residents stood on their porches, eyes following the entourage as it moved north on 21st Street. One man got into a brief confrontation with police officers after voicing concerns that the group had “pushed up on him.” Nutter kept moving. The man was quickly quieted down by police brass and ambled south on 21st Street, where he lounged at the northwest corner of McKean smoking a cigarette and talking to buddies — who kept a watchful eye on the group of officials.
Just a few steps more and Nutter ran into Michelle Burton, whose son — Stephon, 24 — was murdered Nov. 14 at 21st and Mifflin.
“Why don’t they have his murderers arrested?” she asked, her voice rising as she gave the mayor and Johnson her version of events.
According to Burton, her son was gunned down at about 7:30 p.m. by people everyone in the neighborhood knew, and his murderers were still roaming the streets. One, she said, was still attending school and going about his daily routine as if nothing had happened.
“They’re still running the streets,” Burton said, characterizing the men she suspected as ‘wannabe thugs.’ “I’m trying to get them off the streets.”
The two men listened patiently as the distraught woman talked — then Nutter quietly asked her a few questions. Were people helping police?
“People is afraid to talk,” answered Burton.
She didn’t seem convinced that it would help anyway.
“Five people died in this block, and we saw no police cars,” she said.
As he pressed on, Nutter urged Burton to talk to one of the officers accompanying him.
“One murder is too many,” he said, adding that crime in the Point Breeze section had fallen in every category over the last year. He admitted that statistics were little comfort.
“There is the numbers, and then there is how you feel,” he said.
Some residents do feel better.
“From summer to now, I see a change in the area,” said Adell Mack, a long-time resident.
The alley cleanup done by Philly Rising may seem like a small thing, she said, but it changes the feel of the neighborhood. The alleys were often a conduit for crime, providing cover for thieves and drug dealers.
In addition, Philly Rising has given residents a place to turn when they need help.
“We just needed someone to call,” she said, adding that in the past, calls to city officials were ignored. “They fell on deaf ears.”
Now, she hopes the momentum of change will help transform the character of the entire neighborhood.
“We’re looking to do more,” Mack said.
There's a lot of trouble brewing next to a coffee house in a fast-developing neighborhood.
Ori Feibush, a real estate developer, has turned a trash-strewn city-owned lot — vacant for roughly 30 years — into a welcoming spot for customers of his month-old corner cafe, where they can enjoy their fair-trade organic java and pastries from local bakeries.
It may sound like a win-win, but the now-sparkling urban respite has angered city officials. They say Feibush shouldn't have done work on a lot he doesn't own or rent, shouldn't be using taxpayer-owned property to benefit his business and should have played by the rules.
Feibush said the city has rebuffed his overtures to buy the 20-by-100-foot lot in Point Breeze, a rowhouse neighborhood southwest of downtown Philadelphia where he has lived since 2006. So he said he spent at least $20,000 to remove 40 tons of trash and to add planters, tables and landscaping to it.
"This property was in disrepair for years, decades, and the city did absolutely nothing," he said after happening upon a Friday afternoon news conference being held by city officials. "I'm going to continue to make every effort to purchase the property."
Feibush set up a new blog Friday called pleasefixphilly.com and posted photos, emails, text messages and documents dating back more than a year that he said prove he contacted officials repeatedly about the lot.
Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority head Ed Covington said the agency had no record of those inquiries and added that Feibush cleared the space after being ordered by the city to cease work.
"Mr. Feibush himself purchased three publicly owned properties earlier this year, so he knows how the process works," authority spokesman Paul Chrystie said.
Besides Feibush, three others have expressed interest in buying the lot, which is worth more than $50,000.
A bidding process will begin for interested buyers "in the coming weeks" and in the meantime, the city would allow the lot to remain as is, Covington said.
"We are not going to take any further action with this property other than make it available for sale," he said.
Business owners in similar situations pay the city rent to use lots next to their properties, but Feibush is essentially using public property to benefit his business at taxpayers' expense, Chrystie said.
"It is not fair to either the taxpayers or the potential buyers who have played by the rules for Mr. Feibush to attempt to acquire the lot simply by occupying it," he said.
A group of nearly a dozen longtime residents stood with Feibush on Friday and applauded his efforts.
"He took a blighted situation with trees and trash and people leaving all kinds of garbage and made it into something presentable," Ernest Ligons said. "How can you argue with that?"
Commenters on Facebook and local websites also were generally supportive of Feibush's efforts, but some acknowledged the city's concerns were valid, even if it took a wrongheaded approach. Last weekend, a group of neighbors held an event at the coffee shop to celebrate what they described on Facebook as "a thriving, safe community space."
Development has been fraught with tension in recent years in Point Breeze, where a flurry of new homes continue rising on vacant lots and dilapidated buildings are being gutted and rehabbed. The changes have pitted some longtime residents fearing gentrification and higher property taxes against new neighbors whose pricey houses are raising property values.
Feibush, whose OCF Realty has built more than 150 homes in the neighborhood, has himself become a polarizing figure to some. But neighbors visiting the cleared lot Friday praised his efforts.
"I understand he intruded on a property they claim was not his to intrude on but ... as a neighbor, as a homeowner in this neighborhood, I applaud what he's doing," Ligons said. -- (AP)
In an effort to create a snapshot of the rapidly changing Point Breeze and Grays Ferry neighborhoods, Universal Companies this week received a $100,000 grant from Wells Fargo Bank to conduct a survey of the neighborhoods and draft a public report on their demographics as a first step in the development of neighborhood strategic plan.
“We’re trying to get a much more informed assessment of the condition of the housing market, existing homes, the potential market, who owns properties, how much is home ownership, how much is rental,” said Rahim Islam, president and CEO of Universal, listing a number of other items — like education and income levels — that will also be part of the survey. “It allows us to be better informed when we try to make decisions.”
According to Islam, Universal Companies will be researching the area bounded by Washington Avenue, Snyder Avenue, Broad Street and Grays Ferry Avenue. Preliminary work has already started, and Islam said he expected a report sometime this summer. In addition to a door-to-door survey, Universal will be poring over property records, tax records and school reports.
Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who represents both areas, said, “For me, this is making sure there is a mixture of affordable housing, and mixed income housing as it relates to Point Breeze and Grays Ferry,” he said. “But again, that’s only one aspect of it. It’s an overall comprehensive plan.”
Point Breeze and Grays Ferry are segments of the city that are rapidly changing.
As real estate prices in Center City and surrounding neighborhoods rise, Point Breeze and Grays Ferry have seen a growing tide of newcomers pushing south. They are more affluent than the area’s traditional residents. Also, they are often white, moving into what have historically been Black neighborhoods.
The changes have divided many residents of both sections of the city along economic and often along racial lines.
Universal, owned by music mogul Kenny Gamble, is a Black-owned company that has a history of being active in the neighborhood. That has not exempted it from criticism. It faced resistance when it took over Audenreid High School. And, critics often charge that it is an agent of gentrification.
Tiffany Green, leader of Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze, a group that has battled developers in the neighborhood could not be reached to comment on the grant or study. In the past the group has fiercely resisted change.
Islam said Universal’s approach to the dilemma of gentrification is slightly different and that a strategic plan will aid both neighborhoods as they evolve.
“The only way to combat [gentrification] is to compete, to get into the arena, buy properties, develop properties and make sure they are affordable,” he said. “This process allows to reshape this process through a much more scaled approach. If we do nothing, nothing will change.”
He would like to see more affluent Black families move into both neighborhoods.
Ultimately, Islam said, Universal’s report will help the company be competitive for a $100,000 federal Promise Neighborhood grant. Universal received a $1 million grant in 2011. The community revitalization funds are intended to help poor inner-city neighborhoods with an infusion of federal money — much of it aimed at education reform.
“This is the opportunity of a lifetime for us,” Islam said. “And, really be more informed about what our next step should be.”
Johnson said that despite the turmoil caused by the neighborhoods evolution, he felt sure residents would come together to revive the neighborhoods.
“We’re at a crossroads,” he said. “We’re making a comeback. I only see good things on the horizon as we move forward.”
Fifteen new apartments, dedicated exclusively for housing homeless veterans who need assistance with mental health or drug issues, were opened this week in the city’s Point Breeze section.
A ribbon cutting ceremony officially opening the facility, called Patriot House, was held Tuesday afternoon, June 19, with Mayor Michael Nutter, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and officials with CATCH Inc., who will operate and manage the property, in attendance.
“No one who has ever worn a uniform in the United States of America should ever find themselves homeless — should ever be without service,” Nutter said. “They served the country — we now have to serve them.”
Thirteen one-bedroom units and two efficiencies are spread across three renovated row homes in the South Philadelphia neighborhood, just two blocks west of Broad Street near Federal Street.
“Veterans, whether they’re serving now, whether they’re returning home, whether they’re retired — they should receive nothing else but the best services this country can offer,” Johnson said.
Each apartment comes equipped with central air conditioning and a washer and dryer. It also comes with supportive services provided by CATCH. They include a case manager to help residents with substance abuse, health care, budget preparation, adult literacy, stress management, job readiness, life skills and home safety. It also provides a van service for residents.
“This is a city based on redemption,” Nutter said. “It’s not how many times you get knocked down — it’s how many times you get back up. Every one of us has needed a helping hand at some point in our lives.”
While there are few reliable statistics on homeless veterans in Philadelphia, the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that, nationwide, there are 67,000 veterans sleeping on the street each night. Roughly 56 percent are Black or Hispanic. The majority of them are single, come from urban areas, and suffer from mental illness, alcohol and/or substance abuse, or co-occurring disorders. About one-third of the entire adult homeless population are veterans.
The $3 million project was made possible through a mix of federal and local funds along with private financing. CATCH is a South Philadelphia-based non-profit that has been providing behavioral health and intellectual disability services since 1979.
Freshman state Rep. Jordan Harris — in office just 32 days — has hit the ground running, already fleshing out two bills he hopes will help Philadelphia’s large population of ex-offenders.
“Philadelphia has a large population of folks who have found themselves on the wrong path and have since been on the right path,” he said, recounting the story of registered nurse he knew who was unable to get a job because of a non-violent offense she had committed more than 20 years ago. “While the good Lord may be forgiving, the criminal justice system isn’t.”
Harris would like to inject a little forgiveness into the system.
His first proposal, a bill that he has not quite finished drafting, would automatically expunge an individual’s arrest record if they were not convicted after their arrest. The second, also incomplete, would give individuals convicted of non-violent crimes the opportunity to have their records expunged after a seven-year period and an appearance before a judge who would ultimately make the decision.
“Folks, in my opinion, deserve a second chance after they’ve proven themselves,” he said. “This is not a Black issue. It’s not a white issue. It’s not a male issue. It’s not a female issue. It’s an issue that affects lots of Pennsylvanians.”
Harris sat down with the Tribune to discuss his agenda for the upcoming term.
A freshman, elected in November to represent the 186th Legislative District, Harris, who took his seat last month, said he plans to be very active in his inaugural session.
The 186th is made up of Point Breeze, Gray’s Ferry and a large swath of Southwest Philadelphia, several of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods. The area is plagued by drugs, crime and unemployment. Solving those deeply entrenched problems will take time and a nuanced approach on many policy issues, Harris said.
“They’re all intertwined,” he said. “I think we need to take a smarter approach on how we address things.”
But, he’s dug in, and hopes the two bills he’s working on will help. Beyond those two initiatives, Harris was reluctant to discuss specifics except to say that he has plans for more legislation.
Among them is a bill that would ensure that parents are permanently represented on the School Reform Commission.
“Their voice needs to be more permanent — a parental voice — it shouldn’t be happenstance,” he said.
Also in the works are several proposals, Harris hoped would be “revenue generators” for the city.
Working, even briefly, as a state legislator has forced Harris to consider a broader perspective as he works in and for his native city.
“Relationships are key. To be an effective legislator you have to be able to get somebody from a different part of the state, sometimes from a different party, whose district has different circumstances to see why it’s important to give you a vote,” he said. “And to do that you have learn issues that don’t necessarily affect your community. Anybody that wants to affective in Harrisburg, they have to be able to do that.”
The freshman representative recently opened a district office on Point Breeze Avenue at Wharton Street. He has plans for two more.
Harris succeeded former state Rep. Harold James who represented the 186th from 1989 to 2008. James was replaced by city Councilman Kenyatta Johnson but then retook the seat after Johnson resigned to take his place on council.
Harris and Johnson, whose districts overlap in many areas, are closely tied to state Sen. Anthony Williams, a political mentor, whose district in many areas overlaps theirs. Prior to his election to the state House, Harris served as the city’s youth commissioner.
South Philadelphia HOMES Inc. (SPHINC) is a non-profit community service organization that aims to improve quality of life and provide affordable homes to the residents of the Point Breeze section of South Philadelphia.
South Philadelphia native Claudia Sherrod, executive director, feels SPHINC truly assists underprivileged people of South Philadelphia with getting back on their feet.
In 1967, a group of residents who were disturbed by the living conditions in the community chartered SPHINC. The group analyzed the area from Washington Avenue to Mifflin Street and west of Broad Street to 25th Street. and felt there was a lot of work to be done.
The members of SPHINC, located at 1444 Point Breeze Ave., work to engage the community with providing computer and literacy skills, health safety information and welfare programs that serve families.
“We have built 24 houses within 30 years and most recently completed a project with Community Ventures to build more houses,” Sherrod said. “Once people learn about what we have done and learn of our services—they are excited and delighted.”
Last spring, SPHINC partnered with Community Ventures, a non-profit developer of affordable housing in Philadelphia, to build 11 new construction homes at 17th and Federal Sts., that provided affordable home ownership opportunities.
SPHINC works to keep the community informed by giving out forms and applications for home ownership opportunities, engaging in community town watches and offering free counseling.
The SPHINC also provides classes on computers, credit information, resume writing and nutrition. Sherrod feels these services are what the community needs and will improve the quality of life for many people.
“As a young mother, I had an interest in helping my community,” she said. “I was ushered into this organization by some of my peers.”
Currently, the SPHINC is working to develop a senior center for seniors who want to stay in the Point Breeze section of the neighborhood. They are also developing a childcare center with an educational component.
In an effort to continue the fight of affordable housing, the SPHINC is currently looking to fill seats in their council, to advocate for the organization.
SPHINC is looking for candidates that are willing to help with fundraising efforts and to make sure the people in the community are served.
“We have had so many people come in and get on their feet, “ Sherrod said. “We do not operate like an assembly line, we do one on one personal social service.”
Kenyatta Johnson — technically a freshman city councilman, but holding a long political pedigree that includes stints as state representative and deputy whip — has placed at the top of his agenda two issues crucial to Philadelphians: education and the creation of more affordable housing.
Johnson, who represents the second district, had last Wednesday convened an educational town hall meeting with newly-hired Philadelphia School District Superintendent Dr. William Hite Sr., but that public meeting had to be postponed due to inclement weather. Johnson has said he will reschedule that meeting, which is designed to allow citizens to hear Hite’s vision, and for Hite to touch base with community groups, members and other stakeholders.
That the meeting was postponed hasn’t softened Johnson’s enthusiastic support of Hite. Tentatively, Johnson rescheduled the town hall meeting for November 21 at John Bartram High School.
“We have a new superintendent, and he is in a position where we have to right some of the things that were wrong. You’ve got the dropout rate, the Master Facilities Plan that will shut down schools, and the issue of public safety,” Johnson said. “He’s new. He’s the first African-American male superintendent, and comes from a background in Baltimore [Hite served as Superintendent of the Prince Gorges County Public Schools system] that has a school district twice the size of Philadelphia.
“The town hall meeting is for him to come lay out what his vision is for the school district, and let parents and stakeholders engage in a conversation with him.”
Johnson said he hopes the meeting serves as the start of a community-district partnership. Johnson, who has attended several School Reform Commission meetings, said he was most impressed with Hite’s children-first agenda.
“What was most impressive about Hite was his talk of putting the responsibility for the children first. It’s not about adults, it’s not about politics, it’s about the children, and that’s refreshing,” Johnson said. “Because a lot of times, we get caught up in competing interests between unions, principals and it’s not often that parents in the community have a stake in that conversation…part of it is, we can’t do politics on the backs of this city’s children.”
That Hite is African-American, Johnson believes, will provide Hite with a certain insight in reaching the students, particularly young African-American males. According to the data provided by the school district, more than 56 percent of its student population – some 82,000 – is African-American.
“He has children, and because he has children in the public school system, he has an idea of what it’s like to have a child go through the system,” Johnson said. “Of the key issues we and the school district deal with is the Black male crisis. A significant number of African-American males engage in truancy, crime and violence. Hite talked about the different curriculums that address particular behavioral components of dealing with kids inside the classroom.
“And to be frank, because he’s an African-American male, he may see things from a different perspective,” Johnson continued. “Especially when it comes to dealing with African-American young men.”
As excited as Johnson is about the school district’s future with Hite at the helm, he couldn’t mask the excitement involving the mixed-income residences he’s having built in his native Point Breeze neighborhood. Johnson is facilitating the construction of several dozen mixed-income homes through City Ordinance Bill 120755 – also known as the Point Breeze Urban Renewal Project. The bill authorizes the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority to acquire 43 vacant properties and lots and convert them into affordable housing units. Point Breeze joins the Nicetown and Mantua communities as the three neighborhoods to receive the federal stimulus funds for neighborhood revitalization.
“There is a place for affordable housing in Point Breeze,” Johnson said, noting that he is working on several initiatives to spur development, including building as many as 15 such units through the use of the Qualified Revenue Bonds, which is part of the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. “These are primarily in Point Breeze neighborhoods where the houses are appreciating at a rapid pace. [Bill 120755] will focus on developing a level of mixed-income housing in the area. Right now, we are looking at 30 units as of date, and sole purpose is to make sure we stabilize the area, so that as neighborhood gentrifies, we have a level of housing for everyone.
“My focus is to make sure they are intertwined with market-rate housing, so we don’t have segregated housing of affordable housing only in one particular area and market rate in one particular area,” Johnson continued. “The plan right now is make sure they are mixed within the area. Everyone should have the ability to buy a home in Point Breeze.”