Hawthorne Neighborhood Faces Change

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RESIDENTS of the MLK Plaza, named for Dr. King after he gave a speech in the Hawthorne area, are feeling the effects of the gentrification as their neighborhood heads in a different direction. Photo by Eldon Graham

By Eldon Graham

Every third Monday in January, Philadelphia celebrates a national icon who courted controversy as the voice of the downtrodden. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was concerned about the rights of exploited workers, as well as those birthright citizens who were subjugated in their own skin. It didn’t matter if you were Caucasian, African American, Hispanic or Latino; he was the voice of the people and fought the fights that needed to be fought.

On more than one occasion, those fights brought him to Philadelphia, instances the city still commemorates in places like Hawthorne.

In this South Philadelphia neighborhood, just east of Broad and Christian streets, where King came and spoke in 1965 during the Freedom Rally, his ideals had one lasting effect: 1st Dist. Councilman (and founder of the Public Record) Jim Tayoun had the Hawthorne public-housing project renamed after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to honor one of King’s crucial campaign appearances for civil rights in the North as well as the South.

The city issued a plaque placed at MLK Plaza, the public-housing complex at 13th and Fitzwater streets. That project has since been demolished, but the space and the plaque endure.

It is in this section of South Philadelphia where King’s legacy is still being honored by the residents of the neighborhood: standing their ground and not quietly following the trend of being gentrified, as with other parts of the city.

Patricia Bullard, the former president of the Hawthorne Empowerment Coalition and a resident of the neighborhood, has steadily noticed a change in the area since its remodeling ended. When asked if the neighborhood has become gentrified, she said, “It most certainly has. I have been here 30 years and they raised my taxes.” Bullard mentioned how this is an unfair tactic that heavily targets the elderly.

Eminent domain – the taking of private property for the public good by the government – is another tactic Bullard says scared many residents when the neighborhood was being reconstructed – and it is still a worry today.

Because of its proximity to Center City, the neighborhood has become very attractive and gained massive interest among newcomers who want to move into the neighborhood. In this process, Bullard fears they will push many current African American residents out.

Benjamin Woodson, a Hawthorne resident, sees things changing. Some families are moving out of the neighborhood, or being forced out.

“I still live here,” Woodson said. “Me and my family, we still live down here; but the rest of the families, they’re gone. It’s only a very few families that still live here from the old days. Some of them live on Webster Street, but other than that, some of the other families moved up north, to West Philly or to Gray’s Ferry.

“The people that live in the neighborhood now are” white, he continued. “Some of them, they’re all right, but they’re trying to change things for the better – do what they want to do and how they want things done.”

Housing prices in the neighborhood are going up, he argues, to the point where low-income families can’t afford to stay. This poses a particular problem for working-class families with kids.

Talking about the young singles who are moving into Hawthorne, Woodson said, “Sooner or later, they are probably going to push us all out by the price ranges for the houses and apartments and stuff like that. It’s going to happen. You can’t stop that; that’s what they want!”

IN THE Hawthorne neighborhood of S. Phila., where Dr. King came and spoke in 1965 during the Freedom Rally, his ideals had a lasting effect, which caused its PHA housing to be named the Martin Luther King, Jr. Plaza. Photo by Eldon Graham.

The towers, which were demolished in 1999, were slowly replaced with low-rise public housing, based on “New Urbanism” ideas, thanks to the HOPE VI program. HOPE VI is the name of a grant program administered by the US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. Congress created this program after recognizing that many large inner-city housing sites were collapsing.

Bullard was a major factor in the negotiations of the process for the Hawthorne area during that period, especially as the HEC president. “I was entrusted with looking after the neighborhood,” she said. “We wanted to maintain the look.”

Bullard was mostly satisfied with how the neighborhood turned out afterward, noting there’s always going to be differences in preference among two negotiating parties. A debate over two-story housing vs three-story housing was an issue where both sides had to compromise. Bullard and her side were pushing for only two-story housing to fill up the area, whereas the PHA preferred to install three story housing.

In 2005, the Philadelphia Housing Authority used HOPE VI funds in combination with funding from both private investors and other public entities to build MLK Plaza in Hawthorne, turning it one of the most-desirable places to live in the city.

In Bullard’s time as the president of the HEC, she has tackled several issues. She was the primary advocate in building Hawthorne Park, located at 12th and Catherine streets. Getting the park in that area was a battle because it clashed with PHA’s plan to build houses in that spot. However, Bullard asserted, the placement of the park was in the original agreement. “We wanted a park where you could bring your kids, sit down, read and chat,” she said. Both longtime and new residents love their park.

One of the most important things to remember is that Hawthorne is thriving as a residential neighborhood, not as a destination for business developments. It has always been a community for families and group housing. As a neighborhood coping with gentrification, it hopes to maintain something of its original character in the process.

How would Dr. King confront this challenge today? This is a question all South Philadelphians should ask themselves. But there can be no answers unless we discover them together.

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3 Responses to Hawthorne Neighborhood Faces Change

  1. Nice shot, including the graffiti on the sign post!

    Tran Dieu
    January 17, 2017 at 12:51 pm

  2. Very well written. The article gave a history lesson of the Hawthorne area.

    Albert Hicks Jr.
    January 17, 2017 at 1:42 pm

  3. Nice article. The area must be lower in crime now,

    January 23, 2017 at 3:50 pm

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