To appreciate the true definition of comprehensive community development, you have to see it in real life, and in real time. For 20 years, LISC has partnered with resident activists and community developers in the Eastern North neighborhood of Philadelphia. Today, the once-ravaged area is a living, breathing model for how—with the right resources, know-how and will—people can turn their struggling communities around.
It was just five pieces of paper but they weighed heavy in Faith Bartley’s hands—the pages of a criminal record that ensured she would never amount to anything more than a $6-an-hour waitress, paid under the table.
But on an autumn day, in a reclaimed storefront in Philadelphia’s Eastern North—the neighborhood where her crack addiction once flourished—Bartley tore up her rap sheet, dropped the pieces into a blender and watched as they swirled into a pulp. She was making paper at the People’s Paper Co-op, which runs a program to help ex-offenders expunge their records with guidance from Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity. Together, they turn a criminal past, quite literally, into a clean slate.
The pulp from Bartley's rap sheet dried into crisp white card stock on which she glued a Polaroid of herself, five years sober and worlds away from where she posed for her mugshot. In that moment, the paper she held in her hands wasn’t heavy anymore.
“I feel like my dreams are coming true…,” she wrote across the page. “I feel like I can do anything.”
The transformation that took place for Faith Bartley that day—not just a new start, but one carved from past struggle—is emblematic of the kind of slow and steady change happening all across Eastern North, a community once so overwhelmed by crime, poverty and decay, some called it the Badlands. The change can be seen in the neat row houses with their tidy gardens, affordable homes on lots once littered with toilets and tires. It’s there on Alder Street, where benches sculpted from heaps of garbage stand as public art. And it’s on display all over the windows and walls of the People’s Paper Co-op on Germantown Street, where Bartley now works helping dozens of formerly incarcerated people like herself turn rap sheets into the new leaves of opportunity.
Eastern North is undergoing a metamorphosis, assisted by community development groups like the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM), The Village of Arts and Humanities (which runs the People’s Paper Co-op which Bartley now leads), and their many partners. Block by block, decay is being displaced; today the neighborhood is home to nearly a thousand new housing units and lively new businesses. Employment is up, crime is down and children play in a park where drug dealers used to rule. The elementary school, once a dumping ground, is a point of neighborhood pride, with a new schoolyard in the works. And Paseo Verde is a thriving $47 million development comprising apartments, a health center, a pharmacy and a Financial Opportunity Center to help families become—and stay—stable.
These visible transformations are the result of scores of behind-the-scenes efforts over the long haul—particularly the intense commitment and complex relationship-building on the part of LISC and APM, both lead drivers of the revitalization of Eastern North. In 1989, LISC began working with APM to forge political connections at city, state and federal levels and to link the neighborhood to national and local corporate funders and banks. These connections, along with LISC’s technical support, massaged the influx of capital and helped build the capacity of local activists to orchestrate wide-ranging development initiatives. “Eastern North is a great example of how residents, community organizations and intermediaries like LISC can work in sync to revitalize neighborhoods suffering from poverty and disinvestment,” says Andrew Frishkoff, executive director of Philadelphia LISC.
In the two decades between 1990 and 2010, LISC collaborated with APM and other partners to ramp up the renewal of Eastern North with 750 homes and apartments, a supermarket and a credit union. A close study of the neighborhood by the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government documented how, as a result of those investments, the community began to stabilize in ways less obvious than new bricks and mortar. The number of blighted and abandoned lots dropped by 68 percent, for instance; median home value increased by 6.5 percent and the neighborhood’s median income rose by four percent.
But of course, none of those redevelopment successes would have been possible without the activism of neighbors and families of Eastern North who continue to believe in a community renaissance that is far from finished.
“Why would I go anywhere else? I can stay here and make a huge difference,” says Antonio Romero, 29, outreach coordinator for APM’s Sustainable Communities Initiative. His father still drives the No. 3 bus that runs right through the area APM serves. Romero used to ride the route as a boy, his dad encouraging him to get to know people from all walks of life—shopkeepers, drug addicts, police officers, prostitutes; he came away with an empathy for struggle and a belief in the power of change. Now Romero runs APM’s Community Connectors program, a dozen or so paid organizers who knock on doors and connect local people to the resources that can help them—an affordable doctor, fresh produce, day care, a safe place to exercise—a stubborn problem in many low-income neighborhoods where the people most in need are the hardest to reach.
Life wasn’t always so hard here. Once this East Coast community was the headquarters for Stetson, manufacturer of iconic cowboy hats like the one the Lone Ranger wore, and factories bustled with jobs on American Street. Then one by one the factories closed, manufacturing crashed nationwide and Eastern North, like a lot of places, was hit hard. People and businesses fled, leaving a population of mostly Puerto Rican and African American residents beset by unemployment, abandoned houses, shuttered shops and little hope.
By the 1960s, you didn’t need to look any further than Thomas Edison High School to understand the bleak prospects awaiting graduating boys: a street gang or the Army. “If I’m going to die,” their teachers would recall them saying, “it might as well be in a uniform.” Edison lost 64 young men to the Vietnam War, more than any other single high school in America.
More and more, Eastern North families are insisting on a better quality of life, which is why Antonio Romero’s phone rang one recent morning. A woman on Franklin Street wanted a planter for her house, part of a program to reduce storm water run-off and beautify the neighborhood. Romero hurried over with the paperwork. One planter may not seem like much, but it is an important indicator of the community pride Eastern North people are starting to feel.
“Calls like that mean more community engagement, and that’s what we want,” Romero says.
Better schools, safer streets, prettier parks, nutritious food: these are some of the things Eastern North residents never used to ask for, because they seemed so far out of reach. Now, neighbors are getting involved; the Neighborhood Advisory Committee elections that drew just 28 people last year, brought four times that number this year.
The sacrifice of the Edison 64, as they are still remembered today, was a wake-up call for a group of Puerto Rican war vets who decided something had to be done; they founded APM and where others saw decay, they saw a “fresh palette.” LISC’s partnership with APM has brought more than $55 million to the Eastern North renewal efforts, which in turn has leveraged millions more in total development. Now families who were afraid to go outside are engaging in a community whose best days, many believe, are still ahead.
Lamont Jefferson, 48, an activist and perennial volunteer who works as an organizer with APM, is one of the core people who never lost faith in his hometown. He helped jumpstart the rehabilitation of Rainbow de Colores Park, once a swath of cracked asphalt overtaken by drug dealers that is now the site of a first-class playground where kids climb and families gather. Before APM hired him, Jefferson was riding a bus 90 minutes each way to work at a McDonald’s. Now he is the neighborhood go-to man—kids ask him about everything from where to get a football to how to find an internship. He was part of the team that helped hundreds of families get health care through the Affordable Care Act and nudges municipal officials when residents register complaints about disorder in their neighborhood, like illegal dumping on city-owned lots.
A web of connectedness here is reshaping life well beyond the affordable housing shortage that once was community development’s core mission. APM, together with LISC and others partners, expanded that vision to encompass the kind of help struggling families need to meet basic needs and amenities. As more Eastern North people get a leg up, more seek to give back. Healing, it turns out, is as contagious as hardship.
Take Jennielee Ortiz, 38, a single mother of three who hit bottom a few years ago—her house burned down, her brother committed suicide, protective services took her kids. APM helped her with furniture, domestic violence counseling and legal help getting her children back. She was so grateful she spent two years as a Community Connector. The skills she learned got her a job as a community health worker at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Today she owns a home, has her GED and is aiming for a bachelor’s degree. She still volunteers for APM, knocking on doors and waking up her neighbors to the opportunities that await them, too.
“APM was there for me. They did so much for me. I decided it was time for me to give back to them,” says Ortiz. “I’m never afraid to knock on doors. I knock as hard as I can.”
The sun isn’t yet up and Bridget Palombo, 31, climbs behind the wheel of a green passenger van for one of her three monthly trips to the produce market to buy fresh fruits and vegetables for Eastern North families who put in their orders and paid up front. Lamont Jefferson and Pete Hopkins, another Community Connector, are with her. This is the Food Buying Club. Palombo helped start it in 2014 after realizing Eastern North families had limited access to fresh, healthy produce. At the produce market—a giant Costco-like warehouse—crates brimming with farm-fresh onions, tomatoes, strawberries, kale, sell for a half the supermarket price. So far, the club has brought in close to 40,000 pounds, saving Eastern North families nearly $90,000.
“When families have only so much cash, they buy food with a long shelf life. Fruits and vegetables were a luxury.” Palombo says. “They didn’t need an education about how to eat well, they just couldn’t find or afford it in their neighborhood. Now they can.”
Despite its many success stories, Eastern North is a work in progress. The crime rate, at a record low, is still too high. Sidewalks are broken, incomes are low and there aren’t enough jobs in the neighborhood. But community development is patient work; lasting change is slow and incremental. LISC, APM and The Village are here for the long haul, attracting the kinds of businesses and institutions that will build on Eastern North’s sense of place, not erase it. A credit union instead of a bank. A supermarket that is affordable and culturally conscious. Housing stock that doesn’t price out the people who worked for change. People like Jennielee Ortiz, Lamont Jefferson and Faith Bartley. A rap sheet turned clean slate. Taking what was and making space for what can be.