Debris has been flying at the Mt. Vernon Manor Apartments, located around 33rd and Wallace streets, since construction began on this much-anticipated revitalization project over a month ago. Most residents have been relocated and the apartments are being stripped in phase one of this large scale project. The rehabilitation of these apartments is central to the Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant that was awarded to the Mt. Vernon Manor Board of Directors in 2010.
The Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant was one of only 17 grants awarded nationwide by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Obama administration’s new Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. It was the only application awarded in Pennsylvania.
Mold and mildew problems, leaking roofs, damaged gutters and downspouts, as well as outdated heating and cooling systems are just a few of the issues that will be addressed with this grant. Mt. Vernon Manor was built in 1978 as an affordable housing development and has been deteriorating in the last 35 years.
The Mt. Vernon Manor Board of Directors, We Are Mantua!, Philadelphia’s chapter of the Local Initiatives Support Corp., Drexel University and local residents have been collaborating on this project. Everyone is pleased to see progress on the apartment complex, but the construction is just one piece of a much larger Transformative Plan to improve the neighborhood.
“We are really pleased about this project. It has really been something that we felt bad about how the project had deteriorated over time,” said Gwen Morris, a neighbor of Mt. Vernon Manor. “We were really excited about the whole HUD choice opportunity, and we’ve had a lot of community input. People came out to really voice their opinions about things that they thought would change the entire community, not only in terms of this housing development but in terms of issues of safety and health and wellness.”
In order to organize the residents, Philadelphia LISC brought on Donna Griffin, a We Are Mantua! consultant to work on the ground level. Jamie Gauthier, Philadelphia LISC program officer, credited Griffin with being “a piece of the central infrastructure for residents to voice their opinions and their vision.”
The resident voice has been crucial in creating change. The construction may be the most visible representation of the progress ushered in by the grant, but there has been a lot of action in the neighborhood over the last two years.
“As we were participating in the planning process, one of the things we heard come up again and again was that the residents felt the need to have a civic association in the neighborhood,” said Gauthier. “LISC brought on another consultant, Urban Ventures Group, to work with a group of residents to shape the idea for the civic association, to put together draft bylaws, to put together a draft vision mission statement and to put together job descriptions for the board members.”
In the long term, LISC and Drexel University have partnered to formulate a lasting Transformative Plan. This plan aims to improve education, recreation and safety, promote economics and health, expand housing, improve access to retail, revitalize the physical environment and bolster civic engagement in Mantua.
“The planning process resulted in a Transformation Plan that was the result of many months of community meetings,” said Lucy Kerman, vice provost of university and community partnerships at Drexel University. “From Drexel’s perspective, that gives us a set of community defined priorities that we can support. Our commitment is to work with the Mantua community and with the leadership to help realize the priorities that the community has identified.”
Everyone involved with the Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant and the Transformative Plan hope these changes will improve the quality of life for Mantua residents and allow this challenged neighborhood to capitalize on its prime location. It is bordered by Drexel, the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Zoo.
“I think neighborhoods that are organized are more successful at dealing with crime, and more successful in supporting their schools, and more successful for advocating for the kinds of services that the neighborhood needs,” said Kerman.
When it comes to building a stronger neighborhood, residents are the key. Community members have been speaking up, taking charge, and as a result have become an invaluable resource in the redevelopment surrounding the grant.
“It’s their home and they should have input,” said Joe Walker, assistant treasurer at the Mt. Vernon Manor Board of Directors. “Some of them have lived there for 10 or 15 years in those apartments so it’s very important that they are a part of making it better.”
Longtime residents like Morris are happy to be involved with this development plan. It was the neighborhood activism that kept her here for over two decades, and she hopes to impart that active mindset to the next generation of Mantua residents.
“You have these long term activists, activists ’til they die,” said Morris. “Many of the people who are taking leadership roles around this transformation have been doing that work for many years. It’s about how do you really support and engage the younger generation to take on the activists’ roles cause we’re all sort of getting a little old. I think this change is going to make a difference in reinvigorating folk around looking at things that are going to improve the community.”
The partners are quick to give the residents respect for the active role they have taken.
“A lot of the success of the project you have to credit directly to the spirit of the residents,” said Gauthier, “and the fact that they were so engaged and enthusiast, that they were so committed in sharing their ideas and shaping the vision for the neighborhood.”
The partners and residents are committed to remaining at the table and continuing improvements in the long term. Phase one of construction will hopefully wrap up in summer of 2013. Phase two will begin in the winter of 2014.