The politics of land rights in post-colonial Lenapehoking must follow a wholesale reimagining of both cultural context and prevailing narratives. I relocated to Philadelphia, like WEB Dubois before me, to gain a deeper understanding of the cultural context within which contemporary Americans remained subject to the same quality of life concerns that Dr. DuBois spelled out in his seminal work The Philadelphia Negro (1899). One of the conclusions brought to the forefront by DuBois’ study was the need for a shift in the perception of how Americans are seen, and valued, by European groups living in America.
As the resident caretaker for the nation’s only Black Writers Museum for three years, located in the heart of Philadelphia’s 59th Ward, I had the opportunity to engage with neighbors in a manner that brought me into a deeper understanding of a neighborhood (Germantown) whose public facing persona was that of being Freedoms Backyard. This settler colonial narrative is a function of local non-profit organizations whose boards continue to be led by European families that have controlled land rights and commerce in the entire region since the rise of the Swedish Empire (c. 1611). This ‘control’ is made possible by predatory lending (or usury), speculative land development, organizational abuse of their non-profit status’ and historically biased zoning practices that target under-resourced, majority non-European, communities like Historic Germantown. The result of ongoing exploitation is a culture of resource-based fear, stress and trauma, that is traditionally followed up with sensationalized reporting.
If Philadelphians are to escape European narratives they must write our own stories.
On February 1, 2017, after fifteen years of study and practice in Brooklyn, Buffalo (NY) and Southwest Philadelphia, I was asked to lead management of the second largest commercial district in the region as its executive director. Centered at Germantown and Chelten Avenues, this opportunity allowed me to utilize the neighborhood’s history as an economic development tool; bringing more diverse narratives (and people) to the table in the community planning process. In the first season I would learn that so many relationships needed to be repaired as political as well as economic benign neglect had left deep deep trauma and economic stress in so many corners of an otherwise culturally astute community.
In 18-months time we were able to see cleaner streets, community engagement in the City of Philadelphia’s 2035 planning process, educational programming for local school youth, the engagement of area veterans in an Avenue Ambassador pilot program, movie nights, festivals and much more. As I made moves to establish the business district as a RCO (registered community organization), to ensure that development along the historic Germantown Avenue commercial corridor included a community engagement process that would preserve cultural landscapes, the largest landowners in the area and their zoning attorneys began to organize.
It seems that I had activated some sort of red flag that I didn’t know existed because it was at this point that the Zoning Czars swooped in and killed the entire restorative process, resorting then to the standard sensationalized reporting for personal economic and political gain.
This cohort of developers (and their zoning attorneys) are uniquely positioned to control land rights policy, land development, commerce and any attempts by the community to organize itself around homemade solutions that prioritize local desires, and intrinsic value, over foreign power and profit. Upon resigning from the role of executive director on August 10, 2018 I was able to study the pace and impact of the Zoning Czar’s successful campaign to erase years of intentional relationship building; instituting broad-based coercive control tactics that continue to capitalize on the long-standing insecurities and fears of the community.
Today, as I reflect and offer some suggestive ideas that center community voices in the zoning process, those same developers and their zoning attorneys are readying their budgets for the 2023 city council and mayoral races. Through economic influence over political campaigns we become subject to the same zoning policies that allowed housing development to occur on an island in the Schuylkill River. We, as a city of neighborhoods, cannot afford to continue to prioritize profit over public health, safety and environmental stewardship. The community must not be threatened, silenced and swept aside for the sake of some neo-colonial land grab.
If we deplete greenspace in Historic Germantown AND at the riverside in the East Falls and Manayunk neighborhoods we will see more intense flooding in each of those places in years to come. One suggestion that I recently shared with Councilpeople Clark, Bass and Gauthier, as they represent each of the neighborhoods where I have both lived and worked, is creating space in the municipal budget for non-political RCO’s to have access to a zoning attorney when necessary. With this public defender-esque tool we are able to strengthen the RCO, and subsequently the community engagement, process before the 2023 election cycle.
This concept was also shared with the Crosstown Coalition in hopes that we could see some movement in favor of the majority of Philadelphians left out of the development process. If we achieve some version of this concept it will be another first in the City of Philadelphia and I think it is about time that we tell a post-colonial story about freedom-in-action.