Back on a cold day in January, Steve Sabo sat by his desk as the sunlight came down through the windows of the Point Breeze Community Development Corporation building at 20th and Federal streets.
“It gets pretty warm here in the afternoon with the sun beating in,” he said, smiling as he joked that it saves money on heat.
But Sabo, the executive director of the CDC since October 2014, explained that the windows, which make up most of the front of the building, serve a more subconscious purpose.
“We want our office to feel welcoming,” he said. “We’re not hiding anything. We want to help in any way that we possibly can.”
On that same day, Sabo, who moved to Point Breeze in June 2009, talked about how far the neighborhood had come in the nearly seven years since he arrived. However, he also had a laundry list of ideas for what could help continue to improve the neighborhood for years to come.
The top one was developing Point Breeze Avenue into a thriving commercial corridor, complete with amenities — primarily a grocery store — that would supply residents with everything they need, and all within the neighborhood itself.
Point Breeze has been undergoing changes for the past several years. More people are moving in, the diversity of the neighborhood has grown and residential development has become more and more frequent as a result. There have been concerns from some longtime residents that the direction the neighborhood is going in could eventually force them out.
However, residents, developers and community leaders are working and hoping for a community that will support a population, both new and old, from all walks of life.
‘A Lot Of Empty Lots’
Sabo and his wife were living in an apartment on Pine Street that he described as “basically a shoe box” they were outgrowing quickly. When looking into buying a house, they researched several different areas.
“We looked into Graduate Hospital, we looked in Pennsport, we looked in Point Breeze,” Sabo said. “And in our research, Point Breeze always came up as I guess the “up and coming” neighborhood.”
He added that early signs of development, that the money they were saving up for a home went further in Point Breeze and that the neighborhood had a personality that wasn’t quite matched by anywhere else in his eyes were all factors in what eventually led to the move there.
There was an adjustment period though.
“It was a bit of a difficult transition in that when we lived on Pine Street, just some examples, we could walk out our front door and there wasn’t a time that you would walk out and you couldn’t find a cab,” Sabo said. “Finding a cab in Point Breeze at that time was nearly impossible. The corner that we’re on now, 20th and Federal and [Point Breeze Avenue], this five-point intersection, there wasn’t much here.”
“[The Point Breeze CDC office] wasn’t here, the coffee shop across the street wasn’t here, where Breezy’s is was a shutdown bar that was around for ages called Munson Manor, but that was empty,” he added. “The only thing at this intersection was the bodega across the street, which is still here, but there were even fewer amenities at that time than there are even now.”
On top of that, Sabo recalled that open-air drug dealing was rampant at the time, and numerous vacant lots south of Federal Street left the area feeling barren and unsafe.
“It was very empty, it seemed very barren, there were a lot of empty lots and it just seemed, it just didn’t seem safe to me quite frankly,” he said. “You saw spotty development here and there. You would see a rehab here and there, and then after that you started to see more newer houses going up on empty lots. It’s hard for me to pinpoint when I noticed that exactly happening at a more rapid pace, but that certainly wasn’t the case back in 2009.”
Moira Kulik, the committeeperson for the 9th division, 36th ward, had a similar story of when she moved into Point Breeze back in September 2011, and one that came with what she saw as big improvement.
“I’m on a really small block, and there were more vacant lots than there were houses,” she said. “Now there are maybe three vacant lots and the rest are houses, which is a huge change, and in the grander scheme of things, there were a lot more vacant properties and vacant lots than there are now.”
Kulik attributed the lots getting filled in to time and also a push from developers, both big and small, taking up available properties at a point when land was extremely affordable.
At the same time, Kulik said she has also seen crime migrate its way out of Point Breeze
“Crime is overall really down in the neighborhood, it’s a lot safer than when I first moved here,” she said. “The stuff that made me nervous has kind of shifted south and west of here. It’s not gone, it’s just in another place, which is a shame. But it’s moved, and that’s a positive thing for the residents here.”
Kulik believes that Point Breeze has made a dramatic change over the last four years, and said she knows more people that are looking to move here if they haven’t already. She has also seen a community grow around making positive change.
Still, hardly anyone will disagree with the notion that there is still plenty of work to be done.
In A Position To Thrive Again
Verdene Randolph has been a resident of Point Breeze for 68 years. To her, the neighborhood is a friendly, tight-knit community, where it’s easy to strike up a conversation with anyone.
However, she said that was even more so back in the 1950s.
“Neighbors knew each other, they looked out for one another,” she said. “Hopefully that is what it will become again.”
Back then, Randolph said, Point Breeze was fitted with everything residents needed, from a clothing store to a butcher shop.
“You didn’t really have to leave your neighborhood,” she said. “This is basically how South Philly was, where every section had everything they needed.”
Claudia Sherrod, the executive director of South Philadelphia HOMES and another longtime resident of Point Breeze for more than 50 years, also remembered the scene.
“The Breeze was lit up when I was a young woman living over on the north side,” Sherrod said, recalling the drug stores, five and dime stores and other types of shops that lined up the strip.
“If you couldn’t afford to go in town, you could come and shop along the Breeze,” she added.
However, Randolph said that what Point Breeze used to be was a product of a different time, and that mindsets eventually changed.
Both her and Sherrod also realize that they can’t replicate what Point Breeze was. The neighborhood can, however, be set up to thrive like it once did under its current climate.
“You have to live within the times,” Sherrod said. “I’m older, but I don’t live back in 1940 or 1960 or 1980. I live for today.”
“I’m for change,” Sherrod added. “As long as the change is going to be positive and creative for the people who live around here.”
Ultimately, Sherrod hopes that in about five years’ time, Point Breeze will be fully developed, with the community living in harmony.
Randolph does too, and is confident that the neighborhood is heading in that direction.
“One of the things I’d like to see are some different stores come in, and see people take pride again in where they live,” Randolph said.
“I think that is the way it’s going, because there are people that want to see a clean and healthy, striving Point Breeze,” she added. “I do see that things are being put in place, or trying to be put in place to bring that back.
Getting On The Same Page
There are a lot of hopes and aspirations for Point Breeze, but there are still steps that need to be taken in order to get there.
One of the key issues is the matter of unity within the neighborhood.
However, he thinks the relationship between old and new residents still needs work.
“You have older residents and newer residents, and you hear this a thousand times a day,” Chatmon said. “It seems to be the big topic, and what happens is it tries to, from what I see, tries to be molded into a racial issue. But I see more cultural differences.”
“Understanding people’s culture more so than looking at the color of their skin, really understanding the history of Point Breeze, both positive and negative — and there are both sides of Point Breeze, especially the Point Breeze of old and the Point Breeze of new — the residents, all residents need to understand or at least have an idea of what the trajectory of Point Breeze should be or should look like collectively,” Chatmon said. “That is what I think we’re missing right now. “
Chatmon continued to explain that there needed to be “a real meeting of the minds” to sit down and figure out an actual overall plan for Point Breeze for the next five to 10 years, which is something he believes isn’t there right now.
“There is no basic strategic five-year plan other than the Temple Action Plan, which was developed two years ago,” he said. “Other than that, it’s just been spot check work without any follow up from the residents on both sides really.”
Spreading proper information is another key step. A common complaint from concerned longtime residents is a fear of property taxes continuing to increase as a result of newer and more expensive homes popping up with more frequency.
However, Sabo said that those two variables aren’t necessarily correlated.
“That is another thing that I think causes some friction,” Sabo said. “Someone sees a new house go up next to theirs, and then their taxes increase and it’s automatically linked to the fact that it’s because this house went up.
“A lot of people weren’t aware of the fact that they weren’t familiar with AVI (Actual Value Initiative), which raised taxes citywide,” he added. “Everybody was re-evaluated and taxes inevitably went up. There were areas in the city, and Point Breeze is one of them, where people were underpaying taxes for years and years and years and years, so now it’s catching up.”
Sabo acknowledged that even a small increase can make a huge difference for some older residents on a fixed income. He noted though, that programs like LOOP (Longtime Owner Occupants Program) are available from the city to help keep the taxes of established residents in check.
And while the prospect of higher taxes can be a cause for concern at face value, Sabo explained that there are a number of underlying advantages to it.
“Another thing that longtime residents, especially those who own their properties, sometimes don’t realize is that even though their taxes have gone up that value of their house has also gone up,” he said. “Their house is worth more money, and they actually have more that they’re sitting on.”
As an example, Sabo said, the increased value of homes in the neighborhood can give many an opportunity to qualify for a home equity loan to pay for repairs that they might not have been able to afford otherwise. He also said that new residents coming in, and the taxes being adjusted in response, can broaden the tax base of the neighborhood which would allow residents access to better services.
“One of the problems citywide, and in Point Breeze as well, is that there are schools closing, and there is less money for schools,” Sabo said. “An increased tax base creates more money for things like schools, and other services like trash collection, street repairs, things that people come to expect for paying their taxes and rightfully so.
“But an increase in your taxes, that’s really where the money comes from, and the more people that you have paying taxes, theoretically, the better the services should be for that.”
Striking A Balance
Sean Schellenger, president of the real estate firm Streamline Solutions off Washington Avenue, got his start in 2008 by rehabbing a home on Manton Street. He met his partner, who was doing another renovation a block down, and the company grew from there.
Streamline has since gained a focus in developing not just in Point Breeze, but in other neighborhoods in Philadelphia that are also going through a revitalization or gentrification process. He understands that it’s a situation that comes with a lot of complexities and realizes that “what you do today, you’ll be judged for tomorrow.”
“Everyone has their own opinion,” he said. “We have the opinion that it can become a mutually beneficial situation for the old residents and the new residents that are moving in, for the city of Philadelphia, and for the developers.”
Being socially responsible about how to develop in neighborhoods like Point Breeze is a high priority for Schellenger. He founded a non-profit called Helping Hand Philadelphia, which aims to improve the economic and educational circumstances in neighborhoods Streamline develops in.
But there is also the matter of keeping housing affordable enough for everyone that wants to live in Point Breeze while developing.
“It’s definitely one of the biggest challenges,” Schellenger said. “There are programs that city officials have incorporated, and there are different ways to control rents, and use different ways to develop affordable housing.”
“There are some tactics that can be utilized to make sure there is a sufficient amount of affordable living in the neighborhood,” he added. “But it’s ultimately up to the city officials to get involved and make sure that is happening simultaneously.”
Otherwise, Schellenger explained, building affordable housing with private money can prove difficult. He said the only way to do so is to increase density on a lot, which would offset the cost of new construction. However, most of Point Breeze’s lots are zoned RSA-5, which limits developers to building one unit per lot.
To build additional units, a developer would have to get a use variance and go through a zoning use variance process, which, Schellenger said, can take up a lot of time without any guarantee for approval.
There is a balance to strike in allowing the neighborhood to grow development-wise, while also keeping it affordable. However, part of hitting that mark goes beyond Point Breeze and up to City Hall.
Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, a lifelong resident of Point Breeze, said he has a vested interest in making sure Point Breeze is the best community it possibly can be.
“You want to make sure you have a balance in development in terms of new residents and long-term residents, affordable housing, workforce housing, senior housing,” he said prior to the 2nd Annual Point Breeze 5K Run on April 16. “Just to make sure that long-term residents can have an opportunity to stay inside the community, but also continue to build bridges with new residents as well.”
The Wheels Start Turning
It’s a Monday night in the middle of April and residents were gathered in the board room in the back of the CDC building.
A meeting was scheduled to lay out the initial plan for a community-driven food co-op in Point Breeze. Sabo, who stood before them to start things off, was thrilled to tell the group that this was actually happening.
— Text, images and video by Nick Tricome