*This piece was written in Spring 2014
On a warm Spring Saturday morning, the paradox of Cedar Park tucks itself away into the brightly painted porches of quaint Victorian row homes and the palms of neighbors waving friendly hellos on the sidewalk. The West Philadelphia neighborhood, which spans from 45th to 50th and Market to South Bernard Streets, is its own worst enemy. As the area becomes more desirable, more buyers and renters are drawn in, attracting more retail establishments along Baltimore Avenue and effectively driving up property taxes and rental prices in a process nebulously referred to as “gentrification.”
“My nightmare scenario is that rising costs of living will price out seniors who have lived and contributed to the neighborhood their whole lives,” President of the Cedar Park Neighbors Association Michael Froehlich said. “How unfair is it that you live here your whole life in your neighborhood, you’ve contributed to mentoring children in the neighborhood, been a voice in volunteer initiatives … then because the neighborhood is getting to be more desirable to outsiders in part because of work that you’ve done, you can no longer benefit from it.”
Technical.ly Philly reported in late March that Southwest Cedar Park experienced the greatest percentage increase in median rental prices over the past year according to data compiled by Lovely, a rental service based in San Francisco. The area experienced an 18% increase from $900 to $1100 monthly rent. Trailing just two percentage points behind is Avenue of the Arts South, at $1550/month in January 2013, and $1835/month a year later. University City, by contrast, experienced a 10% decrease in median rental prices from $1595/month to $1450/month.
Less Crack, More Buyers
Cedar Park’s drop in crime has added to its allure. According to data compiled by Axis Philly from the Philadelphia Police Department, total crimes in the neighborhood have decreased 32% from 2007 to 2012. The 2007 baseline is well after the crack epidemic of the 1980s. Sue, a resident of Cedar Park who wished to remain anonymous, was selling old clothes, books, records, and knick-knacks on her purple and yellow porch on Saturday. This is not something she would likely have done thirty years ago, as many of her neighbors who had lived in the area before she moved there in 1990 said that crack was a major issue during the preceding decade.
Sue said that in the early ’90s, she would see kids smoking marijuana on the street, and thought it was a “good sign because they were not huddled in a fucking random building smoking crack. Crackheads, they’re just like cockroaches, they’re horrible.”
Once the crack infestation declined during the economic upswing of the 1990s, she said the neighborhood became nicer, and increasingly more expensive and gentrified. When she moved in, she said that she and friends “realized we were the first wave of gentrification being a white face in a predominantly black neighborhood and we joked about it, but we knew.”
Today, many residents describe Cedar Park as economically and racially diverse. On Cedar Park resident Jessica Lowenthal’s block of about 15 households, she says six are comprised of interracial couples. Lowenthal is associate director at the Kelly Writers House of the University of Pennsylvania, and her neighbors’ occupations range from professors at various Philadelphia universities to art curator to Amtrak employee to nurse.
“It’s an interesting cross-section of people,” Lowenthal said. In this neighborhood once teeming with drugs, Lowenthal today feels comfortable letting her 4-year-old daughter, Alice, ride her bicycle in the street. Still, her upcoming elementary school enrollment causes some concern.
The Price of Public School
Cedar Park’s growing popularity doesn’t give residents a leg up in the Philadelphia public education system, but the increasing prestige of a local school is convincing many parents to stay. Henry C. Lea Elementary School on the 4700 block of Locust continues to gain support from parents as well as local volunteers who open their library to younger students a few times a week.
“When I compare sidewalks today with sidewalks when I first moved into the neighborhood [in 2005], I just see kids all the time [now],” Froehlich, whose 4-year-old daughter Zora is zoned for the school, said. “I think it’s a combination of people moving here with children and people living here who have children who are deciding to stay.”
Lowenthal’s daughter is zoned to attend the Avery D. Harrington School on the 5300 block of Baltimore. The school is 92.9% black and 79.7% receive reduced-price lunch according to the website “Great Philly Schools.” Lowenthal, whose daughter is white and would not qualify for reduced-price lunch, is concerned about sending her to a school where she would stand out in so many ways.
The Cedar Park parent is exploring the transfer process. She applied to the Penn Alexander School, an esteemed charter school that receives per-student contribution from Penn, as well as Samuel Powel Elementary in Powelton Village, and Lea Elementary.Lowenthal expressed low expectations of a spot for her daughter at Penn Alexander due to its high demand. She says that gentrification is centered on the school, since parents who can afford to live in its district do. Despite having the help of a Penn mortgage program, which grants faculty $7,500 for a down payment or home improvements if they buy within certain bounds in West Philadelphia as well as other benefits, Lowenthal could not afford to buy near the Penn Alexander school when she first moved to Cedar Park six years ago.
“For us, [buying a house in Cedar Park] was just partly about a house we could afford that was in good enough shape.” Lowenthal said. “Closer to Penn, the houses were more expensive and not in better shape.”
While she is concerned about the school her daughter is zoned to attend, she is hopeful about the other local elementary school, Lea, as well as Powel, a short distance away, noting the excellent parent involvement at Lea, and the diverse group of students at Powel.
It’s not just the people of Cedar Park who are changing, it is the buildings as well. The Croydon, an eight-story building on 49th and Locust, was renovated into apartments after sitting vacant for years, adding 127 units to Cedar Park. Apple Lofts, on the 5000 block of Baltimore Avenue, held storage units for many years, but tried to follow the Croyden by converting into apartments. The proposal received major backlash from the community, which did not want to increase the density of the area. In the end, the project fell through due to financial issues encountered by the developer.
Froehlich believes that the majority of the concerns over density arise from concerns over parking. While he does not own a car himself, he recognizes that neighbors can be protective over their parking spots. He believes the bigger issue is the price of renting in Cedar Park, and supported the Apple Lofts proposal in order to drive down prices. He hopes it will be made a reality in the future.
Still, while finding housing for renters is a high priority, Frohelich says his number one concern is figuring out a way to establish affordable senior housing to keep longtime residents in their homes.
Small Town, Big Changes
It is unclear how much and how quickly Cedar Park will change in the coming years.
“That story is not yet written. It’s not finished yet,” Froehlich said. But many residents feel that the strong sense of community and historical commitment to activism amongst its residents will ensure Cedar Park doesn’t stray too far from its roots.
“People take neighborliness on [my] block as being more than just being able to wave,” Lowenthal said. She talked about the level of comfort she feels around her neighbors who are always willing to help watch her daughter while she runs a quick errand.
“West Philadelphia can definitely feel like a small town in a lot of ways,” Cedar Park resident, Grace Ambrose, said. Ambrose lived in the neighborhood as an undergraduate at Penn before graduating in 2011, and although she briefly lived in Fishtown, she was drawn back West just six months after moving in.
“In our small town mythology, we think of people running into each other all the time,” Froehlich, who grew up in a small town in Ohio, said. “But unfortunately, small towns these days are more and more car-dependent. Small towns today are urban neighborhoods.” Sitting outside for coffee at the Gold Standard Café on the 4800 block of Baltimore Avenue, he had already said a friendly hello and held brief conversations with multiple people.
“It’s not the place to go out to a cool bar every night,” Ambrose said. She doesn’t anticipate this atmosphere changing any time soon, as “you can’t build a crazy tiki bar on the first floor of a row home.”
Ambrose is moving to California in the coming year, figuring “now’s the time to do it” while she is young and unattached to a partner or career. “I like to think I might be open enough to love it a lot and live there forever, but I expect to move back to the East Coast and probably to Philadelphia,” Ambrose said. “So long as it doesn’t change too much.”