Strawberry Mansion: CDC President Tonetta Graham Talks About Empowering Her Community and Preserving Its History

Tonetta Graham grew up in Strawberry Mansion at a time, she says, when community and togetherness were emphasized in the neighborhood. She remembers scrubbing the white marble steps outside her home every Saturday, which she said was known as Mansion’s “cleaning day.” The steps were usually the girls’ responsibility, while the boys would take out the trash, rake leaves and sweep the street. When she returned to the neighborhood after going to college in Washington, D.C., she bought a house (with marble steps she still has to clean) down the street from her mother’s, which was next to her grandmother’s. Now the president of Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation (SMCDC), Graham continues to promote community and culture in the neighborhood.

What does the CDC actually do?

The CDC is a grassroots organization that was formed by several community-conscious individuals who saw the need for the neighborhood residents’ concerns and issues to be represented. Part of our mission involves advocating on behalf of the residents when it comes to residential and commercial development and vacant land management.

We are here to help preserve our neighborhood and make sure that we empower our residents, especially our homeowners. It’s not only advocacy, it’s education and neighborhood planning.

Has the CDC made any efforts to educate residents about redevelopment and gentrification?

The CDC works to make sure that our neighborhood stays connected and our homeowners understand that there are forces doing things illegally. Every day, some of our residents get a stack of solicitations that say, “I’ll buy your home, I’ll buy your home!” And they’re like, “What? I don’t even have a ‘for sale’ sign up!” Unfortunately, though, some of our residents are susceptible to that. It may be a situation where they are in family-owned structures where there was no estate or will at the time of death and the name of the deed is the original home owner, which might have been their grandmother or grandfather who passed away, but the house still has residents or relatives in it.

Ultimately, we understand that we’re in between two neighborhoods, Brewerytown on our southern end and East Falls on our northern end, that have been gentrified, so to speak, and that we’ll be touched by the effects of that. It is imperative that our residents understand the power of homeownership and the responsibility that comes with it.

What CDC accomplishment are you most proud of having led or being a part of?

I’m proud of all of them. I know that sounds generic, but it’s truly an honor to be a part of this organization.

We have a lot of victories under our belt. We’ve had homeownership projects which have been very successful, which a lot of people thought may or may not have worked in our neighborhood. There are people who now qualify for these first-time homeownership projects, we have people who can afford a mortgage, we have working poor here who have affordable housing units.

What I love about Strawberry Mansion is that you can’t paint us with one brush, which unfortunately for them, a lot of people try to do. We have folks who don’t have jobs, folks who do have jobs, folks who are middle income, but all of us are here because it’s a community.

There are tons of projects I’m proud of. I have several shovels that I love getting, but it’s a matter of seeing people who are still here and families that have been here for years and continue to raise their children here. That’s one of the sweetest things to see.

If you had to choose one adjective to describe the Strawberry Mansion community, what would it be and why?

I’d say resilient, because you think that we’re down and out at times. There might be a lull in activity where you think that the response should be quick and it’s not. But there is a response and it grows and it’s like a loud burst, like, “I’m here, I’m up.”

We’ve seen a lot. Our neighborhood has been through so many transitions, starting with white flight in the ‘60s, then uprisings in various neighborhoods, then we had the crack era and then NTI (Neighborhood Transformation Initiative) came and took a lot of the houses and cleaned up a lot of the abandoned cars, but it left so much empty space and people still stayed.

They were like, “This is my house, I’m not going anywhere.” We’ve seen resources come into the community, we’ve seen them get taken out of the community and we still know our next door neighbors. Those are things that to me encompass the resilience of a community. You’ve seen so much, you’ve been through so much but you’re still here, vibrant and raising the next generation.

Do you have a 5 or 10 year vision for the neighborhood?

Yes. I’d like to see more public spaces that are catered to the norms of our culture. How are we actually using our community now and in what ways can we enhance those things?

I know there is space for development in the neighborhood, I’d just like that change to be managed well. I wanna see those bustling commercial corners that I saw as a young person where folks didn’t have to go downtown to go shopping for a pair of shoes, you could go right on the avenue. You didn’t have to go to the supermarket to get quality foods, goods and services, you could get them right here.

My 5-10-year plan would be to have a good number of African-Americans still in the neighborhood, flourishing with jobs and opportunities and taking advantage of some of the changes and revitalization that will happen. Revitalization doesn’t have to mean displacements if it’s done with the community in mind.

How much of it is feasible?

They’re going to happen whether I’m at the helm of the CDC or not. Just given our location, it’s very ideal for development. We have so much open space because of past demolition and past industry and it’s always been a place of tranquility and adventure. Our public transportation system is close to the city and we have attractive amenities and access.

The goal is to make sure that community knows what’s going on and has a plan to engage developers and market itself. So, maybe you have a plan to put a building up with 17 condos, but at the base of the building we get a bank since there isn’t one. So that development, when it happens, benefits everyone.

How could the city better support Strawberry Mansion?

We’re in the 5th council district. Our city council person, Darrell Clarke, is from the neighborhood, so he’s familiar with the needs and history of the ‘hood. So that’s always a good position to be in.

In terms of city services, we need to recognize that there are taxpayers everywhere. Just because you have a certain group of taxpayers, their services shouldn’t be better than another group’s. A lot of that also is about citizens raising their voices to get better services. We would like that city services are responsive when citizens do raise their voice in Strawberry Mansion.

We talk about streets and illegal dumping, and all those issues that overburden our neighborhood. Block captains can sweep and clean up leaves and stuff, but when someone dumps a stove or a mattress or some cinder blocks, what can we do? We know we need help from the police department when we talk about crime and trying to address those things.
So all of those things are ways that we can engage city and government agencies to ensure that we are preserving our communities and keeping it healthy and safe for us all.

Why is it important to preserve the neighborhood’s history?

It’s important because I think of some of us who are here now, like our senior or seasoned residents, they have a wealth of knowledge and some of them are so willing to share what their community was like for them. This is important that young people know and can have a sense of pride in where they live and don’t have to live under this “North Philly stigma” that some people fall into. And when you talk to people, and as I’m getting older I’m becoming one of those people, who can remember the way that you talked to your neighbor and engaged your community, I think that component is part of the narrative of a neighborhood you have to maintain so that young folks will know that, “Yes, I see on the news that someone got shot or maybe a store got broken into, but that’s not all that’s here.”

That’s why it’s important for us to preserve those events, those happenings and our culture, so that our young folks can have pride and be empowered in where they come from and want to engage it themselves.

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