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Supporting Two Communities in Sustainable Growth

February 28, 2011

Two Philadelphia neighborhoods are getting special attention through unique planning and funding opportunities. Under the umbrella of the Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI), Eastern North and West Philadelphia have the chance to reinvent themselves, so that their development efforts are uniquely aligned with the priorities of residents and community leaders.

“We realized if we really wanted to have a total impact and develop truly healthy communities,” said Michael Rubinger, President and CEO of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), “we needed to take on other issues—physical revitalization, but also jobs, healthcare, education, arts and culture, and recreation. The SCI strategy is a comprehensive approach to take on all of those issues in targeted neighborhoods, with as many resources as we can gather.”

The SCI model for community development was first implemented successfully in Chicago in 2003, and has since been used around the country. Its diverse implementation in Philadelphia has reflected the very different needs of the two neighborhoods. In West Philadelphia, LISC supports four established neighborhood community development corporations (CDCs) in working collaboratively to serve their overlapping constituencies.

Eastern North Philadelphia, on the other hand, has more extreme needs. Plagued with blight and crime, the neighborhood has struggled immensely, despite efforts over the past two decades to transform the landscape and create amenities for residents. LISC has partnered with one local CDC to attack this transformation at a new level, working with residents and local leaders to shape the goals and priorities for the next ten years of neighborhood development.

 

Eastern North: Then and Now

Change had already been making its way into Eastern North Philadelphia. As recently as 1998, the neighborhood was riddled with vacant buildings and neglected lots—2,173 of them, which outnumbered occupied structures two-to-one. Since 1990, the CDC Asociación de Puertorriqueños en Marcha, Inc. (APM) has begun to turn this around, with a focus on physical development, creating hundreds of housing units. “What was lacking was a strong infrastructure—a physical presence for the families we were serving,” said Rose Gray, APM’s Vice President for Economic Community Development. More recent efforts have gone beyond stabilization to developing state-of-the-art sustainable housing.

Today, nearly two-thirds of those vacant properties had been redeveloped or substantially improved (Source: Vacant Property Reclamation through Strategic Investment in Eastern North Philadelphia, 1998-2010, by John Kromer and Christopher Kingsley, Fels Institute of Government, University of Pennsylvania). Todd Baylson, Land Manager for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), points out that “this neighborhood has some of the most mature clean and green land in the entire city, because PHS has worked with APM for so long. Studies reflect increased property values, improved health, and reduced crime.”

APM has also stepped in to fill a number of critical voids for neighborhood residents, such as housing counseling services and a retail plaza with a supermarket and a credit union at the corner of Berks Street and Germantown Avenue. The SCI partnership builds on these comprehensive efforts, to launch a thriving community that will serve the residents’ diverse needs.

“This is my neighborhood,” said City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez at a June event in Eastern North. “I work nearby, and I shop here. SCI and APM have the vision to believe in what they see. Their community development here doesn’t displace people. They bring low- and moderate-income, market value, and even home ownership opportunities.”

 

Building Momentum for Change

The SCI team launched a massive Quality-of-Life (QoL) planning effort in the summer of 2010.  They reached out to some 80 community leaders—both established and emerging—to gather opinions about the neighborhood’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT). This first phase of the year-long QoL planning process, entitled Our Community, Our Ideas, gave community organizers a chance to hear directly from key constituents.

On September 16, LISC and APM joined these community leaders for a “Report Back” event, to share ideas and concerns that had been gathered to date. “At a time when many neighborhoods like ours are lacking in resources, this one is about to receive a lot of financial and technical assistance,” noted said LISC Advisory Committee Co-Chair William Smith, who is Vice President and Regional Manager for Community Investment for Citizens Bank. “We can’t make this a success without input and support from all of you.”

It became clear that, although there was strong leadership within both the African American and Latino communities that comprise the majority of this neighborhood, the two rarely worked together in the past.  New allegiances would be a critical component of success moving forward.

“Because violence in this area has become normalized and accepted, many leaders cited this as the most critical issue for change and improvement,” said Erika Tapp, Program Coordinator for South Kensington Neighborhood Advisory Council (NAC). “Trainings such as Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPED) enable our concerned neighbors to come together and act on their convictions about what is needed in and around the blocks where they live.”

“Kids need mentors,” said Tyree “TopDollar” Dumas, who is Director of the Teen Center at the Cookman United Methodist Church at 12th and Lehigh, as well as founder of the North Philly youth group and dance team the DollarBoyz. “The young people in this neighborhood are intelligent—they have dreams and they have potential,” Dumas said, “but we don’t offer enough resources and support systems for them to be able to pursue their dreams.”

“I’m glad to see you all talking about ways that City Hall can provide support for you, rather than us dictating to you what should happen,” said Fifth District Councilman Darrell Clark at the evening’s end. “This is the way it should work.”

 

Creating a Unified Vision

In November 2010, LISC and APM invited residents to share their vision for the community at the inspiring new Kensington Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) High School. This Community Visioning Event captured a wide range of resident voices and brought consensus about priorities and individual responsibilities.  In total, almost 200 residents, stakeholders, and community leaders came to share their dreams.

“People are what make this neighborhood unique,” said Bishop Dwayne Royster, the founding Pastor of Living Water United Church of Christ.  “What if we were to develop our own creative partnerships, right here? We want to own our own neighborhood, and need to control our own destinies.”

The event was facilitated by James Capraro, a veteran of the visioning process and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Comprehensive Community Development in Washington, D.C. Mr. Capraro asked that, instead of listing problems, the participants imagine the absolute best-case scenario for the Eastern North community ten years from now. “Creating a vision is about looking at where you’d like to be,” he said, “not at what’s keeping you from getting there.” The vision that residents shared that day will serve as the roadmap that SCI partners and residents will put into action.

Residents worked in teams to generate ideas and then shared their collective visions with the larger group. Mia Romero, age 11, said that she envisioned “a community like a big family, where people have respect and care for each other.” Sarita Broadnax, a member of the Women’s Community Revitalization Project (WCRP), said she was “interested in building the neighborhood up—in creating housing that people can afford to own instead of rent.” Ideas touched on all aspects of neighborhood life, from transportation and education to social services and streetscapes that were transformed by dedicated, engaged residents.

Mr. Capraro concluded the day by observing, “Even though you don’t all look alike, or even speak the same language, it’s clear that you can work together for one common future.”

Making the Vision a Reality

While planners and a Steering Committee use this feedback to create a working QoL plan, in a series of planning meetings over the winter and early spring of 2011, LISC will partner with the City, local organizations, and other stakeholders to recruit sponsors to take ownership of concrete actions within the plan. Residents will be invited to celebrate the kickoff of Eastern North’s transformation in late spring 2011. Together with LISC and APM, the community will deliver goals and early action projects to the City and elected officials.

 

Leveraging Partnerships in West Philadelphia

SCI-West was the pilot site for Philadelphia LISC’s Sustainable Communities Initiative, This roughly 250 block-area includes Walnut Hill and Mantua. Over the past 3 years, SCI-West has fostered community empowerment in areas that make this neighborhood great, by successfully integrating the efforts and resources of four local CDCs: the People’s Emergency Center (PEC), The Enterprise Center (TEC) CDC, The Partnership CDC, and University City District.

The function of SCI-West has been to pull together the working collaboration of the four Community Development Corporations (CDCs) that already existed in this area and build upon the complementary skills of each. SCI-West created working groups with members of each CDC, to determine benefits that were not available when these organizations were working independently. To date LISC has invested $2 million in this area, and SCI West has raised another $5 million for related projects.

Back in 2007, LISC met with representatives from each of the four CDCs to determine common priorities among them and devise a strategy to support their respective efforts through collaboration. LISC continues to support SCI-West on how best to advance these priorities. The SCI West team interviewed 50 leaders from all aspects of the community in the “SCI Listening Tour,” to gather ideas about the best approaches moving forward.

Signature SCI-West Projects

Initially SCI-West completed a series of early action projects, to meet community needs and raise awareness about its objectives. Now a series of seven more intensive signature projects are underway.

The Center for Culinary Enterprises, at 48th and Pine Streets will house three commercial kitchens for use by local entrepreneurs in the food and catering industries. The Center will also offer business development services, a community garden, and a restaurant run by local youths. “In planning the Center, LISC was one of our earliest funding sources, allowing us to do predevelopment work,” said Greg Heller, Managing Director of Economic Growth and Community Revitalization, The Enterprise Center (TEC). “They provided access to technical assistance and helped to catalyze additional investments.”

The Public Safety Initiative (UCD) aims to reduce crime through the creation of partnerships between West Philadelphia CDCs and the 16th and 18th police districts. Looking at a year of crime data, they identified local hotspots and now train residents in targeted prevention strategies. Philadelphia Police Department’s Lt. George Kappe says, “LISC understands that it’s not just the CDCs, but the police and all of the other community organizations that help to create cooperation, in order to fulfill the mission of keeping these neighborhoods safe.”

PEC’s Digital Inclusion program provides residents with refurbished computers, wireless Internet access for $5/month, and capability training. “We’re proud to see how Digital Inclusion has grown, from serving a relatively small geographical area that addressed the needs of a specific constituency of PEC residents, to now serving the entire West Philadelphia SCI target area,” said Iola Harper, Executive Director of SCI-West.

Led by TEC, The Education Initiative supports CDCs and area education institutions working together to improve education in the SCI-West target area. To date the Initiative has pioneered an active Parents Council for local schools, has identified more than 20 worksites for summer interns from West Philadelphia High School, organized an Education Stakeholders Forum, and taught a Leaders for Change enrichment program at University City High School.

The Healthy Homes Initiative, run by TEC and The Partnership CDC, teaches families to identify and alleviate unsafe environmental contaminants within their homes. The target is families whose children attend West Philadelphia schools in the target area.

The West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (carried out by University City District) provides a career path for young adults in the SCI-West target area through apprenticeships at local medical institutions as well as tuition support at the Community College of Philadelphia.

After a pilot in the spring of 2009, The Partnership CDC has launched its Green and Healthy Neighborhood Initiative. Green Professionals Training Program. the centerpiece of this initiative, prepares of local individuals to become certified to install green and cool roofs. “I’ve been certified as a Green roof professional through The Partnerships CDC,” says West Philadelphia resident Michelle McMillan. “I’m also a single mom, and less than three years ago I was a first-time home buyer. I realized that, if I learn about roofing, I can not only resolve my own issue, but I can also help my neighbors.”

“I love the way that LISC thinks about neighborhoods in Philadelphia,” said Jane Golden, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, who partnered with SCI-West to create the city’s first “green wall” at the corner of 38th and Powelton. “They have a global vision—they are looking at education, public safety, and community development. They understand inherently the role that art plays in all of that, and they have brought us into this process so we can further impact these neighborhoods.”

 

Support at the Ground Level

A community grant award in 2009 drew upon a $60,000 pool of funding, giving $3K to 20 different grass-roots and resident organizations for small projects that embody the SCI principles of education, housing, physical improvements, and public safety. This was such a success that in August of 2010, LISC launched a second round of funding for similar initiatives, and 20 additional organizations received grants at an award ceremony on November 19, 2010.

The ceremony showcased a wide range of programs— from community garden revitalization, art and dance programs for children to a one-day event devoted to fiscal and physical fitness, tool libraries for residents, and more. Each grant recipient is affiliated with one of the four SCI-West CDCs, which will partner in implementing the program in 2011.

“SCI West is about collaboration,” said Iola Harper at the November grant ceremony. “This grant program is an example of how that philosophy spills into the community, because all of our grantees are collaborating on these projects. That’s how programs and communities remain healthy and sustainable.”

 

The Big Picture of SCI

Individuals with long-term involvement with LISC have offered a big-picture perspective on how the efforts of SCI have had an impact on West Philadelphia and Eastern North.

“In West Philly we’re really seeing the evolution from where we began, as separate linked initiatives, to more of a shared sense of potential for where this can go,” said LISC Board Member Tom Burns, Ph.D., who is Managing Director of Urban Ventures Group, Inc. “We’re better positioned to do that now in Eastern North, to attract other partners—institutions and the city—into heftier partnerships that can change the entire neighborhood identity.”

Kevin Dow, Chief Operating Officer for the Philadelphia Department of Commerce, observed in June: “It’s our job to create an environment so that businesses are able to move here, stay here, and hire people within the neighborhoods. Physical improvements enable us to do that, and we’re proud to be a partner with LISC for all they do in this regard. It’s a relationship that shows collaboration, creativity, and that when we bring our resources together and convene stakeholders, we can leverage everybody’s efforts—and everybody’s money—to create sustainable communities in our city.”

“We’ve made enormous progress in different ways, both in West Philadelphia, which is very crowded, in Eastern North, which was extremely devastated,” said LISC President and CEO, Michael Rubinger. “We will continue to do what ever we can to provide financial and technical resources to make this initiative a success.” If the initiative proves successful in these first two sites, LISC plans to replicate the model in other Philadelphia neighborhoods.

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