Gentrify Me: Bringing the Doughboy Back (Part 2)
“The day that the Doughboy came back we had a wine and cheese party down there,” Mary Dankanis said with awe. “Now you can imagine, in 1981, nobody had even heard of a wine and cheese party.”
The return of the tribute to the Riverwards fallen soldiers in the First Great War, unceremoniously dumped in the median west down Spring Garden when 5th Street was rebuilt, inspired the community to organize for collective improvements. “It was a meeting of the Neighborhood Association, someone just said, ‘let’s go get the Doughboy statue back.’ I had to go to so many meetings at the Historical Society and City Council to get it back into our neighborhood, because this is where it belonged.”
The City eventually gave them $5,000 to restore the Doughboy, now standing at the corner of 2nd and Spring Garden, back to Northern Liberties.
“And that was the rallying cry” behind which the residents of Northern Liberties galvanized to improve their community, said Dankanis.
Dankanis has lived in Northern Liberties for more than a half-century in the same house on 4th Street where her husband grew up and has lived since 1945. It was a different neighborhood when she moved in than when her husband began living there at the end of World War II.
Dankanis wrote in to The Spirit after reading Part 1 of Gentrify Me, our series on the history of gentrification in the Riverwards. She wanted to make sure that while looking at all the new development and new residents of the area, I didn’t forget the people who had stayed through various ebbs and flows in the community’s fortune.
“At one time I was the Community Coordinator here in Northern Liberties. I was heavily involved in the past. But you know, it has been passed to a new generation,” Dankanis said. She moved into her husband’s home in 1960. “At that time there was a flight to the suburbs, but we decided to stay and make it better.”
Two houses south of Dankanis, at Wallace Street, the whole block is under construction. We noted in Part 1 of this series that the pricing-up of Northern Liberties was well-progressed—in places, especially on 2nd Street between Girard and Fairmount, it is absurdly and constantly congested. Gentrification has been called “islands of renewal in seas of decay.” The section of 2nd Street by the Piazza and Liberties Walk is more like the Atlantis Bahamas resort.
“I’m happy to see all the construction that’s going on, because this neighborhood could have gone up or it could have gone way down. On almost every corner there was a bar and a church,” Dankanis said of NoLibs in the 1960s, with a fondness for the latter.
“I haven’t been that involved in the past couple years,” Dankanis told me as I admired the finish of her Schuylkill Pine floors, which she’d said they only discovered after their children moved out and they pulled up the carpets. “Now, just [involved] in things that really interest me, like the Doughboy statue or the historic church on Brown.”
Dankanis and her neighbors started the NLNA in 1976. “We were responsible for saving at least 20 houses that would have been bulldozed at that time. The mission was to make Northern Liberties a better place to live and work.” She said artists, including current head of the zoning board Larry Freedman, were just beginning to move into the neighborhood.
“We wanted to keep the people here that had lived here for a long time. A lot of them were renters and we knew at some point they were going to have to leave,” Dankanis said.
Sometimes the association’s efforts to improve the neighborhood conditions backfired. She recounted dealing with slumlord Gene Freedman. “On the 800 block of Lawrence, one landlord owned all the property. It was in terrible shape and we wanted to improve it for the lower income people who lived there. We reported him to L&I and he says ‘to heck with it, I’m not gonna fix the houses up, I’m gonna sell.’ At that time we didn’t expect something like that.”
As the land appreciated more and more it was coveted. “In 1981, this developer came in,” recalled Dankanis. At the time she was still the NLNA Community Coordinator. “He came down to my office. He says he wants to control the neighborhood—he wanted to control all of the zoning, everything that happened. He offered me $35,000 to turn the organization over to him.”
“I told him to go to hell, because Northern Liberties is not for sale.”
The developer thereafter targeted Dankanis as an “out-in-front” member of the Neighborhood Association with violent intimidation tactics. “He tried everything to get me to move out of the neighborhood—threw paint on my house, flattened the tires on my car, they broke my windshield,” she recalled, and winced, “They threatened to rape my two daughters.”
“But now he’s gone and I’m still here.”
Given the meteoric rise in land value since 1981, $35,000 for control of new development would have been the best deal since William Penn gave the land north of the original city of Philadelphia away for free to anyone who had purchased land in the city limits—hence the Northern Liberties.
“The Piazza is what instigated the second renaissance,” a ruminant Dankanis said and smiled.
“We thought we had brought it to a level that we liked. But then Bart Blatstein came in and took control of most of the neighborhood,” she said, referring to the developer of the Piazza, who has now sold his stakes in Northern Liberties and turned his eyes on South Broad.
“I really like the people that have moved in here, they’re really nice,” says Dankanis, “and really committed to the neighborhood. But what makes me a little angry is they think they discovered Northern Liberties.”
The mass development and migration back to NoLibs did have other negative side effects.
“Our taxes went up just terribly—like from $700 to $3,000 or something.”
She and her husband have taken advantage of the Longterm Occupant (LOOP) exemption to the Actual Value Initiative (AVI) tax for their home but have been hit with a heavy tax bill for rental properties—which she agrees no one should feel sorry for her over. “We invested in a couple of houses before we knew what was going to happen, we just did it because we had four children.” She says they tore down the old buildings and erected a 40 foot by 40 foot garage.
“And now,” she says, “we haven’t been able to get into our garage in four months,” as a result of the extended construction on neighboring Wallace Street. The garage occasionally houses Wallace’s cobblestones when utility work is being done—the Dankanises monitor the historic street to make sure the artifacts are preserved and faithfully replaced.
Dankanis loves the neighborhood, and has nurtured, almost nursed it. But she says she and other residents are afraid that their perceived influence makes them a more likely target of crime.
“Like Willy Sutton said: ‘Why do you rob a bank? It’s where the money is.”
There are others buying property when the prices are dirt cheap—developers with enough money and the right business structure to hold that land undeveloped until it is more profitable.
Seven years after Dankanis arrived in the neighborhood the Delaware Expressway of I-95 was completed, severing not just Northern Liberties but Port Richmond and Fishtown from the river as well, and making of NoLibs a “Forgotten Triangle,” isolated from the rest of the city.
Carolina’s family moved to the area in 1965 when she was a very little girl. She was told her father had fought but not died in Vietnam, but she did not remember and she never met him. They moved to the Forgotten Triangle from near Washington Avenue.
“It must have been cheap, we were poor, but Mama didn’t talk about money,” Carolina told me in an interview in South Jersey, where she now lives. She asked me not to use her last name.
“I do know that before I graduated from high school we had moved three times, and not by choice.” An eviction from Northern Liberties in the early 1980s led her mother and two daughters to South Kensington, where rising rents pushed them further and further north. “Mama had a cousin in Jersey and was terrified for us up north. We didn’t graduate from Philly schools.”
Federal “urban renewal” programs, notably those administered by Mayor Rizzo, were notoriously corrupt locally and as a whole known to be a mechanism of massive displacement of communities. The Latinos and people of color of Northern Liberties and other gentrified areas resettled north into Kensington, clustering around 5th Street with the highest concentration near 5th and Lehigh.
South and Olde Kensington have seen revitalization for years but the heart of Kensington in the region of Lehigh and Somerset is well-known no-man’s land—mile after mile of vacant lots and boarded-up homes along an abandoned freight rail line.
This zone has been targeted for redevelopment by the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC), and recent land sales and a major housing development announcement promise to extend the horizon of both livability and profit further north and west. The city just auctioned more than one hundred properties in Councilman Mark Squilla’s district, many along Frankford Avenue near Lehigh and on Somerset.
Development firm Shift Capital announced it will be turning two warehouses near the Tioga El stop into studio apartments, targeted at the New York City artistic set and priced starting at $300. For the next moves to gentrify, we’ll turn our eyes on the most unwelcome environments of Kensington.
The subject of Part Three will be the Future of Gentrification in the Riverwards, and we need your input. Share your experiences or concerns about changes to your community with the author by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org