Section of Lower Northeast Sees Money Erosion

By Michael Matza and John Duchneskie
Inquirer Staff Writers

Awake at 4 a.m., Rodney Walker dressed for a bitter-cold morning and scrambled to be first in line at Feast of Justice, the free food cupboard inside St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Lower Northeast.

Exhausted by the stress of needing handouts to feed his family, the 57-year-old part-time security guard set his cell phone to chirp every hour so he wouldn’t fall into deep sleep in line. By the time the doors opened at 9 on a recent day, more than 150 unemployed, retired, or working-poor residents of the brick rowhouse neighborhoods near the church were assembled behind him, enveloped in clouds of frozen breath.

To be sure, there are much poorer parts of Philadelphia. Average household income here is about $50,000. In Fairhill, Philadelphia’s poorest section, about five miles southwest, average annual income is just under $18,000.

But the Oxford Circle/Castor-Tacony/Wissinoming-Mayfair swath of the Lower Northeast, formerly one of the city’s most stable sections, had the greatest increase in the percentage of people living in poverty over the last decade – up a whopping 110 percent since 1999, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released in December.

In 1999, 10,323 people in the swath lived in poverty, out of a total population of 99,011; in 2009, 21,695 people lived in poverty out of a total population of 114,287. Under federal guidelines, a family of four is living in poverty if household income is less than $22,050. For a family of eight, the figure is $37,010.

Sociologists, community-development officials, and those who organize feeding programs say the surge is driven by at least six factors:

An influx of comparatively poor Latinos and African Americans who are replacing a predominantly white middle class.

Elderly people, albeit a decreasing share of the total population, moving from work to the fixed incomes of pensions and Social Security.

A significant rise in residents 21 and younger, many of whom are school-age African American and Latino children, who do not have jobs.

An economic base more dependent on low-wage service-industry employment, both inside and outside these neighborhoods, which once offered manufacturing jobs.

An unemployment rate that more than doubled – from 5.6 percent in 1999 to 12.8 percent today. In 1999, unemployment in the Lower Northeast was about half the citywide average; today, it is half a point higher than the city average.

People with jobs being forced to work reduced hours.

Walker, who is African American, knows the story firsthand. He is a Vietnam War veteran who worked for three years as a Philadelphia police officer – too briefly to earn a pension. He says he quit the force after being traumatized by the confrontation between police and the MOVE Organization in 1985.

He moved to the Lower Northeast five years ago from North Philadelphia. He lives on Cottman Avenue in a rowhouse owned by his wife, Charlleen, who works nights as an office cleaner. Also at home are her 14-year-old son, Anthony, and 19-year-old daughter, Kelly, both in high school.

After he left the Police Department, Walker did odd jobs for a few years, then worked for a company that provides game-day security at Lincoln Financial Field and other sports venues. About two years ago, the company downsized and Walker was reduced to about one day a week. He estimated the family income at under $25,000.

“Between the children and the rising cost of everything,” he said, “we are barely making ends meet.”

The Christmas turkey and bag of groceries he received at the church that morning – potatoes, canned carrots, honey cake, corn muffin mix, and Stove Top Stuffing – was to serve as the family’s holiday meal.

David Bartelt, of Temple University’s Department of Geography and Urban Studies, is an expert on the demographics of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.

“What you are seeing,” he said, is “fixed incomes and declining wages” coming together. He called it “a recipe for sliding down further.”

In the 2000 census, said Reese Hartey, board chairman of the Mayfair Community Development Corp., Mayfair was identified as having the largest senior population in the city.

“That skews the count” of economically disadvantaged people, he said, “because a lot of seniors, unfortunately, live below the poverty line.”

The surge in poverty has other sources, too.

“We have professionals who are middle-aged who were hit by this financial crisis and are in trouble,” Hartey said. “We have a segment of our population that moved here . . . because they did not have the means to remain in gentrifying neighborhoods. You can get a very large house in Mayfair for a reasonable price. These new members of our community are not as well off as those who lived here in the past.”

The racial makeup of the Oxford Circle-Tacony-Mayfair swath has changed, too.

In 2000, 82 percent of the population was white; today it is 59 percent white. The Hispanic population nearly doubled – from 7 to 13 percent.

“That’s a pretty striking jump,” Bartelt said. “And we know from other data that Philadelphia’s Hispanic population has tended to track poorly in terms of income.”

Izzy Colon, director of the Mayor’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, said the influx of Latinos into the Lower Northeast was “a natural migratory phenomenon . . . a modest working class moving north and east, and lower-wage workers settling in.”

Two forces driving that, he said, are “established Hispanics looking for more stable communities, where there may be less crime and better social offerings, like libraries and rec centers. The other is foreign-born Hispanics.

“We are seeing more minorities moving in, which is nice for the diversity of the neighborhood,” Hartey said, although he acknowledged it has had economic consequences.

At Solomon Solis-Cohen Elementary, a school for kindergarten through sixth grade on Horrocks Street, across Roosevelt Boulevard from the church, African Americans, Asians, and Latinos make up about 76 percent of the population of 1,100 students. Seventy-three percent of the student body is categorized as “economically disadvantaged,” another way to say poor.

“We know there are a lot of people out there hurting,” said Larry Thum, volunteer food coordinator for Feast of Justice, which serves 400 to 600 families a month. Thum, born in Tacony, is a chef at the Dining Car restaurant, a Northeast Philadelphia institution. His father worked his whole career – 30 years – as a supermarket butcher.

The houses on Thum’s street in Tacony used to be owner-occupied. Since 2000, at least six of them have become rentals, he said, bringing more turnover.

Manufacturing and public-service jobs used to be mainstays of the area when it was home to many police officers, firefighters and blue-collar laborers with stable union jobs.

“Now, it’s a rapidly changing neighborhood,” Thum said, “bringing in people who don’t have the job security and incomes of the people who left.”

Julie Zaebst, policy-center manager for the 10-year-old Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said the changes were particularly hard on longtime residents in proud neighborhoods.

“We are seeing more people unemployed over the long term, and the consequences of that on family finances. Primary breadwinners are forced to take jobs that just don’t support their families at the level they need to. More and more folks who haven’t sought [food cupboard] assistance in the past are needing it now,” she said.

“It’s an explosion of need,” she said, in an area still better off than much of the city.

‘Feast of Justice’ is a  Flag Agency of Philabundance

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