West Powelton: Bernadine Hawes Says, “We Try to Create Great Citizens of Philadelphia.”

Bernadine Hawes, Chair of the People's Emergency Center

Bernadine Hawes is a Washington D.C. native who moved to West Philadelphia in 1972 to get her master’s degree in Medical Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. She has since been a very active member of the community. Hawes is the chair of the board at the People’s Emergency Center (PEC) and also serves on the Community Development Corporation (CDC) board.

Tell us about the PEC and the goals of the organization.

We have a three-prong mission, which is to service families, revitalize neighborhoods and advocate for homeless families. As a member of the community I wanted to volunteer at this shelter for homeless women and their families. I was then invited to be on the board, so for the first 10 years, I was apart of the CDC. I looked at how we could build better affordable housing and make this a vibrant community. We try to create great citizens of Philadelphia, but they won’t stay if the community isn’t vibrant – if there isn’t a mix of stores, if there aren’t any arts and culture activities for youth to engage in, why would they stay?

Lancaster Avenue continues to develop into a vibrant corridor with support from the PEC.
Lancaster Avenue continues to develop into a vibrant corridor with support from the PEC.

Can you expand on what other services the PEC provides besides housing?

There’s a reason you’re homeless, and we want to get to the root of it and direct you to some of our partnering organizations to help you. Some of it is a lack of education, so we provide educational training services, some of it is the need to enhance your job readiness, so we provide services for that. Some of it might be health issues, so we partner with places like Penn Medicine and [Penn Presbyterian Medical Center]. We’re almost like a “total institution,” and I mean that in the sociological sense; it provides 24/7 support  for all of the needs that you have.

What do people think about these neighborhoods and what’s the reality?

I think that people see a changing neighborhood. For African-Americans, change means gentrification. For non-African-Americans, it probably means that there’s an opportunity to get in low, especially on the housing side, and there are two major institutions [Drexel University and The University of Pennsylvania] that are doing great things in helping development. What people don’t see is that for 30 years, PEC has been the catalyst for what they’re seeing today: bringing in dollars from public sources and foundational dollars to help develop, giving businesses technical assistance, and keeping it as clean as you see it.

In 10 years where do you expect and where do you hope West Philadelphia is?

When people talk about gentrification I always laugh because West Philadelphia used to be an all Jewish community, so I tend to not talk about gentrification as much as transforming a community. I don’t care who is here, it just needs to be transformed. So in 10 years I see much of the economic development that tends to be east of 40th [Street].

Construction for Drexel University student housing in Mantua
Construction for Drexel University student housing in Mantua

Is there anything in this community that is holding development back?

Philly has the triangle spots that are boundaries; they say, “Don’t go past this street because that is something different.” The issue is how do you have people leapfrog that boundary and continue the development and not look at it and say: “I can’t cross here and put a business here. I can’t cross here and buy a house. I can’t cross this street and send my kid to this school.” So I think in 10 years, the boundaries that we are seeing now: psychological, geographic, are going to be diminished and nobody is going to listen to a population that constantly talks about boundaries. They are going to listen to people who are talking about being fully integrated into the community.

– Text and images by Andrea M Iezzi and Andrew J Vlasak.

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