Hartranft: A Neighborhood in Transition

A family walks past trash littering the sidewalk on Park Avenue on Nov. 5. Trash pollution has significantly worsened in neighborhoods near Temple’s campus as students move further off campus into the community.

Text by Haajrah Gilani. Images by Natalie Kerr. Video by Haajrah Gilani, Natalie Kerr and Brooke Beyer.

Click here to return to the project page, where we have more stories about addressing crime in North Philadelphia.

When a developer’s house became a nesting place for rats on Park Avenue, Homer Jackson called and left notes on the door in an attempt to prevent the spread.

He never heard back.

“From that house, now, we have rat nests up and down the street and it’s pretty crazy,” said Jackson,” a Hartranft resident and film professor at Temple University. “And because trash isn’t put out properly on the day that it’s put out once a week, that creates a smorgasbord for the rats.”

Jackson, who has lived on Park Avenue for about 36 years, doesn’t view the rat epidemic as a brand new issue, but instead, as a reflection of a toxic environment that constantly tells its residents they don’t matter. 

Before the rats, there were crack dealers that stood on street corners every day until about 15 years ago. Although there was police involvement, City Council meetings and community members working to get rid of them, these efforts were mostly ineffective, he said.

Then, Jackson noticed more Temple University students moving into the off-campus neighborhoods. As developers appeared, the dealers disappeared.

When people see decrepit sidewalks, poor management of trash and developers that only focus on an area when university students decide to move in, they internalize it, Jackson said.

“No human being can survive in an environment that tells you, ‘You ain’t shit,’” Jackson added.

A TempleTown Realty sign hangs outside a home on Park Avenue near Diamond Street. Temple students renting homes in neighborhoods surrounding the university has created problems for longtime residents, like insufficient parking, trash pollution and noise disruption.

Residents on Jackson’s street fall into the 19132 ZIP code, where about 50 percent of residents live below the poverty line. This is more than double the amount of people living below the line in the entire city, according to U.S. Census data

Echoing Jackson’s sentiment, Justin Ennis values positive outlets, especially for the neighborhood’s youth.

As the executive director at After School Activities and Partnerships (ASAP) in Philadelphia, Ennis hopes that the kids from Hartranft participate in the programming in proximity to the neighborhood, like the Norris Square Neighborhood Project and the University Community Collaborative. With the intent of providing youth a positive outlet to express creative interests and improve academic skills, ASAP has about 34 clubs with around 369 children from Hartranft who participate in the programming. 

Still, however, planning programs around a particular ZIP code can limit its influence. Instead of official city lines, the known boundaries of a neighborhood are better defined by its residents, he said.

While a certain program may be a short walk or bus ride away, some residents, especially youth, may feel discouraged from venturing out of their neighborhood for varying reasons.

For example, when he was working in convenings with Hartranft schools, dismissal times had to be staggered. If kids were dismissed from different schools at the same time, it would lead to issues, he said.

“If anything, it speaks to all the things we might take for granted or other people might take for granted in a neighborhood that doesn’t have these challenges,” Ennis said, “It’s like, ‘Well, why can’t they just do this? Why can’t they just do that?’ Usually, there are real and compelling reasons why they don’t do things.”

Recently, Jackson noticed this excess caution during school dismissal time. When he was passing through the intersection of Broad and Susquehanna at 2:55 p.m., he noticed about six police officers standing at the corner.

“Every day it’s some kind of drama,” He said. “Every day. So, that’s a quality-of-life issue. You can’t go to school without potentially getting beat up. You can’t sit on the subway without some kid screaming in your ear.”

Damion and Jonathan, who are referred to by only their first names to protect their identities, know the importance of staying alert. They are 10th graders at Philadelphia Military Academy, just blocks away from Jackson’s residence.

“Shootings happen everywhere,” Damion said. “But in a big city, you’ve got to be more aware of your surroundings, the people you hang with, too.” 

On Sept. 30, the school was placed under lockdown because a student brought a firearm into the school. 

Police arrived on the scene but never found a firearm, CBS reported.

The weapon initially reported turned out to be a fake gun, Jonathan said. To him, it’s likely that the student was “trying to flex it,” to scare anyone that could potentially harm him. 

While the teens say they weren’t afraid during the lockdown, there is room for the school to become safer, like adding metal detectors or giving the security team more resources, Damion said.

Though Damion and Jonathan remain cautious of who they spend time with and what occurs around them, they don’t feel that the public perception is entirely accurate of their experiences either. They may not always feel safe at school but they still find comfort in parts of the neighborhood, like the recreational center on 12th Street at Susquehanna Avenue. 

With two acres containing a playground, basketball court and an outdoor pool, the Penrose Recreation Center welcomes adults and youth alike. Elementary school kids can take part in the after school program, where they read, create art, exercise and take field trips. 

Jamar Green lives in Wynnefield Heights but he hosts events at the Penrose Center. There and at other centers around the city, his organization, Competitive Basketball, provides shirts, shorts, bookbags and an expressive outlet for kids who may not have such opportunities otherwise.

“A lot of the youth don’t believe that they have a future,” Green stated. “A lot of them don’t get the chance to make it out of high school and become what they want to become. We don’t have a lot of adults out there that care for the youth.”

Ennis wishes there was more emphasis on the missions of people like Green. Instead, he worries that Hartranft is a neighborhood that has become too defined by its battles with poverty and crime. Media bias established these darker facts about the neighborhood, he said, but obscured all the more positive facts about the neighborhood, like the nonprofit work occurring in the area.

“It’s bringing out the best of the city to try to address all these really enormous gaps that the systems have allowed to exist,” he added.

Inside the Penrose Recreation Center, Jamie Harvey tries to be the adult she wishes she had in her life as a child.

Along with her job as a behavior specialist at Girard College, Harvey runs Unstoppable Futures at Penrose. The program aims to help youth identify and cope with trauma in their lives and communities. 

“Now they’re trying to understand ways for them to cope because they’ve been showing actions and behaviors of what trauma looks like, but never knew it was considered trauma,” she said.

It wasn’t a random decision for Harvey to start this program at Penrose. It was an attempt to give back to her neighborhood. 

Harvey grew up in Hartranft and spent years of her life at Penrose, spending one summer as a camper and another as the camp’s director. 

“I would like to give back to where I came from first,” she added, “and what brought me and made me into the individual that I am before dishing it out to everybody else.” 

She remembered a loud, family-oriented neighborhood, where Diamond Street to Dauphin Street was filled with people who all knew each other somehow. 

Now, however, she feels that it isn’t the same.

“When I was younger, it wasn’t as bad as it is now,” Harvey added. “Being younger, you could go outside without worrying about gunshots.”

Programming like Unstoppable Futures is a way to give the youth the same experiences she had as a kid, she said. 

While Jackson feels that the discussion of the neighborhood can sometimes be hyper-focused on the violence, he also believes the fear of violence does often lead to its increase.

“One of the issues with this is that when folks talk about these things, we conceive of it as a problem,” Jackson said. “But it’s actually a collage, a kaleidoscope of problems and that one solution is not the answer. There’s no silver bullet to this.”

Please email any questions or concerns about this story to: editor@philadelphianeighbors.com. 

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