In G-Ho, the pendulum swings again

Workers in February demolished the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church at 20th and Fitzwater streets. (Laura Blanchard / For the Daily News)

This story is part of a series on the changing face of Philadelphia as reflected in the new 2010 census figures.

IT WAS a cold and sunny February morning this year when the Rev. Clarence Martin Sr. returned to the site of his Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, at 20th and Fitzwater streets, and saw the historic building already partly demolished, its red bricks caved in by a backhoe.

Martin didn't want to see its destruction. But he had to visit a congregation member who lived across the street.

"It was very painful," he said last week. "That's why I didn't really want to go down there."

Now on the site, in this gentrifying neighborhood south of the former Graduate Hospital, nicknamed G-Ho, the wooden framework for new three-story town houses with rooftop decks and parking garages is already up.

The demolition of the African-American church and the building of new town houses is a stark symbol of the dramatic changes that have swept this neighborhood.

The area - also known as Southwest Center City, or South of South, bounded by South Street and Washington Avenue, Broad Street and the Schuylkill - is one of the areas in the city that saw a huge decline in its black population from 2000 to 2010.

According to census data, the neighborhood witnessed a drop of about 4,000 black residents, replaced by that many white residents. There was also a small increase of about 600 Latino and Asian residents. Overall, the area grew by 1,000 people.

In 2000, black residents comprised the majority, or 72 percent of the population. Ten years later, whites make up the majority, at 55 percent.

Remembering yesteryear

Other areas of the city also have seen large declines in the black population while witnessing huge increases in white residents, such as around Baltimore Avenue from 45th to 50th streets, in West Philly, where Penn professors and students have been moving; and in North Philly, around Temple University, where students from the suburbs have flocked.

But nowhere is the population shift between black and white residents as dramatic as that in the former Graduate Hospital area. And signs of gentrification are hard to miss.

The average household income in G-Ho, including the new, walled Naval Square condo-and-townhouse complex by the Schuylkill, jumped 56 percent, from $43,000 to $67,000, over the decade, according to census estimates.

Housing prices have doubled. Half-million-dollar homes are common. town houses have been built, or rowhouses rehabbed, and trendy restaurants and coffee shops pepper the area.

Martin, 65, grew up in the neighborhood and started attending Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in 1953, when he was 8.

In 1965, when he left the church to go into the military, it was thriving with almost 300 members, he said. By the time he was assigned to be pastor of the church in 2004, membership had dwindled to just over 100. During his time there, it became difficult for congregants to find parking, he said, especially with many new homes in the area taking up spaces with their own garages. Metropolitan A.M.E. Church has since moved to Lansdowne, in Delaware County, where it began having services over a year ago for a congregation of about 70.

Martin, who lives in a senior-citizen complex in Delaware County, said that the Graduate Hospital neighborhood's black population declined "because when they redo the houses, the houses are not affordable to those people."

When developers "offered them the small amounts of money [for their properties], they took it and went on about their business," he said. People sold their homes "because they couldn't afford the taxes."

They moved to places like Mount Airy, Southwest Philadelphia, West Oak Lane and Germantown. Some moved out of the city to Delaware County, he said. And in some cases, while parents stayed, children didn't return.

Walter Brown, 77, who lived on Christian Street near 22nd for 40 years, said that most of his African-American counterparts in the neighborhood had died in the past 20 years. He's also known of families who have moved south to North Carolina or Florida.

He gets calls "almost every other day" from real-estate agents or developers looking to buy his house. "I just hang up," he said. "I ain't going nowhere."

That constant sales pitch has echoes of the dramatic racial turnover of the 1950s and '60s. But instead of the insidious block-busting by unscrupulous real-estate agents - who boosted their commissions and helped stoke white flight by flooding neighborhoods with rumors that a black family had bought a place around the corner - now agents buy old properties on the cheap and improve them.

Nicholas Brown, 25, who is not related to Walter Brown, was more blunt about why he thought that the neighborhood declined in its black population. "From what I'm gathering," he said, "I guess too many Caucasian people moved in, and threw off the natural balance of things."

He said that now more police patrol the area, because with "more white people" they "got to protect their investment." Brown, who is African-American, complained that he gets harassed by police when he's just hanging out on steps on his block, on Christian Street near 24th.

His friend, Niesha Dupree, 23, who lives on the same block, added that with the large influx of white residents, there are "too many goddamn dogs around here. It's like every person needs a dog, like it protects you. . . . They [dogs] be everywhere. I love dogs, but why do every white person have to have a dog?"

Once grittier, now trendy

Brittney Bahlman doesn't have a dog. But she would love to get a furry friend and thinks the neighborhood is a great fit for one.

She and her boyfriend, Brandon Chamberlin, rent a two-bedroom, two-living-room duplex near 20th and Fitzwater for $1,300 a month. He moved there in November 2009; she, earlier this year.

The "price was right, and that's pretty much it," said Chamberlin, 25, who had moved to Philly to work on Dan Onorato's campaign for governor and now plans to go to law school. Plus, the neighborhood's "convenient to Center City" and "on-street parking is easy, though it seems to have gotten harder."

Bahlman, 23, said that she likes the small shops in the area, particularly the Beauty Shop Cafe coffeeshop. Plus, "we're young and we like to go out, but when we come home, it's quiet," in a good way.

Temple University students Lauren Hughes and Tim Johnson were in the area last week looking for a house that they could rent with other roommates who want to move away from Temple.

"I feel a little safer here" compared to where she now lives, near Susquehanna Avenue, west of Broad Street, said Hughes, 21, from Bloomsburg, 45 miles southwest of Wilkes-Barre.

Johnson, 20, of Landenberg, Chester County, who lives near Broad and Diamond streets, said that thugs knocked on his door last fall and broke their way in after he and his roommates cracked open the door. The men rushed in with guns and stole laptops, money and cellphones, though no one was hurt.

G-Ho's safer environs are likely one reason that housing values in the neighborhood have doubled. Meg Kajino, 38, bought a home on Bainbridge Street for $250,000 in 2003. In four years, the value jumped to $500,000, she said, though it has come down a little.

Coldwell Banker Preferred Realtor Maria Quattrone knows how hot the neighborhood is. She was the broker for the sale of the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church and is now working with the developer of the townhomes being built.

She said that two of the six town houses, which cost about $700,000, are basically already sold. "It's an amazing area in close proximity to Rittenhouse Square and Center City proper," she said. "What you can't afford in Rittenhouse, you can afford in Graduate for a fraction."

With the changing population mix, Andrew Dalzell, 26, program coordinator at the South of South Neighborhood Association, noted how the area has swung back and forth, like a pendulum. The Metropolitan A.M.E. Church building first housed the Southwestern Presbyterian Church from 1861 to 1916, a time when the neighborhood and that church's congregation were mostly white, he said.

By 1940, the neighborhood was majority black, he said, and now it's swung back to mostly white.

Laura Blanchard and her husband moved into a "beautiful Victorian house," on Christian Street near 20th, in 1996. The neighborhood, then still mostly African-American, was "very welcoming and embracing," she said.

Over the years, Blanchard, 62, who is white, said that she saw "a number of long-term, lower-income residents," mostly renters, driven out of their properties.

"Certainly, I don't miss the crime, I don't miss the gunfire, I don't miss the litter," she said. But, as the area becomes more gentrified, she sometimes misses "the colorful street life."

She emphasized that long-term residents already had banded together to fight drug crime and abandoned properties. Now, new and old residents work together in clean-up efforts, community gardening and in livening up area parks like Julian Abele Park.

And she doesn't see the neighborhood in terms of old vs. new, black vs. white.

There's a "wonderful amount of civic engagement here," she said, and a lot of "positive energy that unites long-term and old-term residents."