The scars left by an urban renewal process gone sour made themselves visible at the first public planning meeting for a new initiative in Eastwick on Monday night at St. Paul's AME Church in Southwest Philadelphia.
About 150 neighbors attended the meeting, the first of three to be held for a process led by Interface Studio LLC, that will plan the future of 189 acres of publicly owned land in Lower Eastwick. The property was bought back from Korman Corporation by the Redevelopment Authority in 2015, after Eastwick Friends and Neighborhood Coalition’s three-year campaign against the developer’s plans to construct a 722-apartment complex and a parking lot for more than 1,000 cars, and an expansion of the Philadelphia International Airport.
Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority’s Gregory Heller told the crowd he was committed to not building on those lands “until the community has been involved and until we have figured out what the community wants.” And after Interface Studio’s presentation about urban and environmental conditions of the land, pastor Darien Thomas took the floor to say that not all the community was being heard.
“The people who have been hurt [by the urban renewal process] are not trying to hear the process, they want to make sure that they’re part of the process,” said Thomas, pastor of Walk in the Light Ministries. As he spoke, part of the audience stood up holding colorful signs with what they wanted for Eastwick: jobs, schools, affordable housing, employment. “The pain and the anger that these people are feeling… If they’re not heard tonight, they’re going to leave here with the same pain, it’s like taking their wounds and digging in with a knife,” Thomas said.
Thomas was followed by other community members asking for schools, recreation for kids and seniors, and employment opportunities.
“We’ve had enough of people coming in this community, walking back and saying ‘guess what, this is what we’re doing for Eastwick,’ Eastwick United’s president Tyrone Beverly added. “Don’t tell me about Korman, when you’re doing what Korman’s doing,” Beverly said to PRA’s Heller, who stood up next to him. “If you want to sustain us, if you feel anything about us, then you might come with us. We tell you, you don’t tell us.”
“I want everyone to have their voice heard the way that these gentlemen did,” Heller responded. “And if at any point during this process you feel that you’re not having your voice heard, I want you to call me,”
The heated discussion ended with applause, and everyone assembled moved from the sanctuary to a big room next to the church to give input on Interface Studio’s initial research.
“That was nothing compared to what it’s been like,” said Paula Jackson, 60, in reference to the passions people bring to discussions about the future of this property in Eastwick. She’s been living in in the neighborhood for 35 years and is part of another neighborhood group with the First Baptist Church of Paschall. The church tried to buy the closed Pepper School site, which is included in the current planning process, but that sale was stopped by big part of the community, and led by Eastwick Friends & Neighbors Coalition (EFNC).
“They fought Korman, but they’re leaning on that victory to make themselves the spokesperson for this whole neighborhood,” Jackson said of Eastwick Friends & Neighbors. “And they’re not.”
Jackson, Thomas and Beverly, as many others in the community, don’t agree with the decision to have EFNC represent the neighborhood’s interests during this planning process. Or that only five of the 17 members of the steering committee are community members. Nor do they trust why part of the funding for the Eastwick planning study is coming from the Philadelphia International Airport, who has expressed interest in an expansion in the area.
Because community members are a minority voice in the steering committee, some residents think the process is stacked against their interests. “If they come up with a vote, how do you win? You never win, you never get nothing,” Beverly said. “We don’t want that process. [Councilman] Kenyatta [Johnson] has determined who will be on the steering committee, but that’s not the way you do it; he doesn't tell us who should be on the steering committee, we tell him who should be on the steering committee. We live here.”
“People who are on the steering committee have an agenda,” Thomas said. “A lot of their interest is that big corporations come in, like the airport.”
The pain and the mistrust shown in the meeting did not surprise Amy Laura Cahn, a lawyer from the Public Interest Law Center who has been representing the Eastwick community for years.
“This community has not have a planning process since 1957, and the plan in 1957 displaced over 8,000 people. And there have been many things that have happened to this community since then, without people’s consent. And you can't just say ‘trust us’ and have people believe that they won’t be hurt,” Cahn said.
John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge’s Lamar Gore agreed. “I understand the frustration, I understand the anger, and it’s hard for communities to trust government when they have bruises,” Gore said.
PRA’s Greg Heller said he also understands the mistrust towards his agency, but he hopes that his “words and actions, and those of my colleagues at the city” show that this time the process will be different.
After over two hours of conversation and discussion in the hall of the church, everyone was smiling and shaking hands.
“It was a good meeting, it’s something that’s long overdue,” Thomas said.
EFNC’s Terry Williams, chair of the steering committee, was happy with the turnout, and denied that his organization has particular special interests.
“I’ve heard the term deep democracy, and that is what you’ve experienced here. I was glad for those guys to express their opinion,” Williams said. “We’re still on the process of collecting data, the community will ultimately decide what is the absolute best development.”
Eastwick planning process is having three public roundtables on May 22nd, June 8th and 27th. EFNC urged the community to take part of them.