Harvey Figgs has lived in the same Philadelphia neighborhood for nearly 48 years.
He moved to Brewerytown in 1969, when he was 9, just a few years after race riots ravaged African American neighborhoods across Philadelphia. Broken glass dotted Brewerytown's streets back then, Figgs remembers, as did abandoned cars, shells of homes, and rusting factories. During his teenage years, white flight accelerated. Joblessness grew. And by the time he was 30, one in four homes there sat vacant.
Yet there was a silver lining to Brewerytown's blight: Properties were dirt cheap. In 2000, Figgs purchased a modest 1,200-square-foot house on the 1500 block of North 27th Street valued at $2,000, with plans to pour money into it to make it livable.
Before long, developers had the same idea, too.
Like many communities across the region, Brewerytown is experiencing growing pains. Once defined by industrial abandonment and poverty, the neighborhood of less than a square mile is classified today as one of Philadelphia’s up-and-coming areas — “Fairmount’s cheaper, slightly cooler sibling,” according to one real estate franchise.
Within the last decade, Brewerytown blocks have sprouted sleek townhouses with roof decks. A rack of blue Indego bikes perches on the corner of a neighborhood park, ready for public use. A stretch of Girard Avenue once home to hardware stores and stop-and-go shops now boasts craft beer and gourmet sandwich restaurants. Even a cat cafe.
Meanwhile, residents such as Figgs, a neighborhood contractor, have been trying to find that delicate balance between clinging to the place they have called home for decades and welcoming a long-overdue vibrancy.
“I’ve got mixed feelings about it,” said Figgs, who is now 57. “As a long-standing citizen, I know all the people, their kids, their grandkids, and I know they are going to lose their properties because of all the development and the taxes.
“But on the other hand," he said, "I make a lot of money from work the developers bring to me, and it’s increasing the value of my property,” now valued at nearly $65,000. “But not everyone has these kinds of properties that they can hold on to.”
Nationwide, gentrification has become an unsettling term. As disturbing tales of unaffordability and displacement have poured out of other cities, many Brewerytown residents have viewed the development near them with unease, fearful that property taxes could skyrocket as home values increase, or that renters could be pushed out. Others have embraced it, though, hoping that construction, wealthier residents, and more investment might diminish crime, boost city services, and increase their own property values.
“It’s a balance: You need money to have a neighborhood thrive,” said Darnetta Arce, executive director of the Brewerytown-Sharswood Community Civic Association. “... Yet a lot of homeowners in this area are seniors, they have a fixed income, so they just can’t afford” for taxes to escalate.
Developers also have faced a balancing act. In neighborhoods such as Brewerytown, investors can purchase properties for as little $50,000, offering huge opportunity for maximizing profit. Eliminating low-cost housing can come with bad publicity, however, and developers must be sure the demand for more expensive homes actually exists.
At the same time, developers realize that they have to act fast, while still moving at a pace that won't spook residents. Prices of vacant land in gentrifying neighborhoods can rocket quickly — Fishtown being a foremost example.
"For now, things are under control, but I think when we build out this block, you're going to see $50,000 for land escalate to $80,000 overnight," said Vince Viney, president of V2 Properties, a developer of single-family homes going for about $325,000 in the neighborhood. "So my prices have to jump. Do I stop building, or do I continue to pursue the mission of transforming blighted neighborhoods that I started?"
Little recent, reliable data exists to track how Brewerytown's demographics have changed in recent years. But developers and residents say newcomers have largely been white millennials, many seeking newly constructed townhouses, apartments, and single-family homes. Middle-class African Americans also have begun to return to the neighborhood, observers say.
The influx of new residents has had a substantial effect on home prices, according to an analysis of Philadelphia sales data by Kevin Gillen, senior research fellow at Drexel University's Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation. Using the boundaries of Cecil B. Moore Avenue to Parrish Street, North 25th Street to Fairmount Park, Gillen found that the median home price has jumped 77 percent in the last five years, from $59,000 to $105,000 in 2016. At the same time, the volume of properties sold has spiked 187 percent, from 86 to 247.
Only a little more than two miles from Center City, near major highways and SEPTA bus routes, Brewerytown — named for the industrial breweries that were concentrated there in the late 19th century — is an ideal candidate for gentrification. Located just beyond Fairmount, now one of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods, Brewerytown has started to see the spillover of investors and others hungry for cheaper properties.
Its fortunes began to turn around about a decade ago with the opening of Brewerytown Square, a 144-unit townhouse community near 31st Street and Girard Avenue constructed by Westrum Development Co. of Fort Washington. Priced about $275,000, Westrum’s homes were an unexpected hit: The first dozen sold within a day.
Since then, the neighborhood has seen a swell of developers. MM Partners, which has been in Brewerytown since the early 2000s, has transformed multiple abandoned properties in the neighborhood, developing nearly 130 units, with a focus mostly on redevelopment, rather than new construction. The group also has focused on adding commercial tenants, including well-known restaurant Rybrew.
Most recently, MM Partners acquired for $1.3 million the blighted yet prominent Pyramid Electric Building, which it plans to convert into 46 units. The development group has emphasized that it wants to incorporate the history of the building, and the graffiti within it, in the renovation. Amenities will include a gym, a dog park, and a secure parking lot. Prices will start at $950 for a studio and will be capped at $2,400 for a two-bedroom corner unit.
“The big thing for is us building the right way and doing work that adds to the community and maintains the character,” said David Glassner, who assists with leasing and marketing for MM Partners. “One thing that MM focuses on is adaptive reuse, so we try to do justice with the building and do it the right way.”
For now, Figgs said, longtime residents seem to be standing their ground, with few driven out yet. Those who have left, he said, have been enticed by investors to sell.
"These people, they know their parents might have paid $10,000 for the house and now they have someone coming in offering $60,000," Figgs said. "But they can't go no place else and buy for $60,000 today.
"The neighborhood they're moving to is much worse than where they came from," he said. "They already lived through the worst of their neighborhood. They should stay."