Moving Maps: Puerto Ricans Struggle for Their Place in Philadelphia

Nov 30, 2020
4:29 PM
Originally published at Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

A mural at the Providence Center, located on 5th Street in Fairhill, Philadelphia. (Photo by Joel Cintrón Arbasetti)

By Joel Cintrón Arbasetti

Versión en español aquí.

On a drive from Kensington, a northeast Philadelphia neighborhood, the word Gilberto González used the most was: “was.”

“We’re going to Spring Garden. That was basically the largest neighborhood for boricuas, the largest neighborhood for decades for boricuas. And now there are few left,” he says, his mouth and nose covered with a face mask, dark glasses and a black cap.

He points out his car window at a tall building on the right.

“This is where they want to develop a commercial and apartment building that’s going to be like 10 stories high. I have pictures of this place, of all of this when buildings here were in ruins, abandoned. And look at all the buildings they’re putting up there. But all that area, all this here, was 100% Puerto Rican.”

It’s almost 10 a.m. and the sky is clear on a Friday in the fall in Philadelphia, the biggest city in Pennsylvania, a state that is home to more than 12 million people. Of those, 1.5 million live in Philadelphia from which about 135,000 are Puerto Ricans. It is the second city with the largest Puerto Rican population, surpassed only by its neighbor New York. They arrived early in the 20th century as migrants looking for work in the tobacco industry. In the 1950s, when the government of Puerto Rico abandoned the agricultural industry and promoted mass migration to the United States, the community was consolidated in Spring Garden, where Gilberto —a descendant of Puerto Rican parents— was born and raised.

“All this, picture it, all this was from boricuas.”

“These Philadelphia Housing Authority homes are basically owned by the ‘Puerto Ricans on the Move’ Association [APM in Spanish], but most of the people they rent to aren’t Puerto Ricans. And this, all this, was a Latino neighborhood.”

“There are few left, they’re in the so called pockets, pockets of boricuas, but they have pushed most of them out.”

Now Fairhill is the neighborhood with the highest Puerto Rican concentration in Philadelphia. It is to the northeast. Fairhill is also the area with the highest poverty rate in the city: 55%. This makes it the opposite pole of the wealthiest   side, Center City, where, in 2018, the median income per household was $101,834, while in Fairhill it was $18,722.

Fairhill is nearly six miles from downtown, more than an hour on foot. The distance from downtown Philadelphia, with its mix of department stores, boutiques, fast food and fine dining restaurants, modern skyscrapers and colonial buildings, makes it harder to get to work, shopping, access transportation and services. The distance from Spring Garden, the old Puerto Rican neighborhood, to downtown is shorter, it can be done in less than half an hour walking.

While driving, Gilberto remembers what Spring Garden was like before the Puerto Rican community moved northeast because there were racial riots after the companies that provided jobs left because of the crack and cocaine epidemic, because of the constant police harassment, because home prices went up, because it was encouraged by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

“After this point is 64 North Broad Street, that’s expensive housing, but that was American Bell Company and other companies.”

“There was a company that made hats, there were many different companies there and most of the workers were Puerto Rican.”

“And that was another caps manufacturer that became a condominium, my father worked there when he was young and now, it’s houses.”

“I would get my hair cut in this building on the corner. That was the entrance to the barbershop, there; and the owner was boricua.”

“That was a boricua bodega; they’re apartments now.”

“That was another store there.”

“Did you see how big the buildings are? It was all housing above the warehouses. All boricuas.”

A mural in the Fairhill section of Philadelphia (Photo by Joel Cintrón Arbasetti)

Gilberto continues to immerse himself in his old neighborhood as if traveling back in time, tearing the surface off buildings to reveal his past. Gilberto’s father, Teófilo González, a native of Aibonito, arrived in Philadelphia in 1950, after working in the fields in Wilmington, in the neighboring state of Delaware.

Then his mother, a native of Coamo, arrived.

“My mother worked at 640 North Broad, which is a building that used to be a factory but is now a condominium. She made belts. She became a supervisor and her name was Amelia González.”

Gilberto González as a young boy, with his godparemts (Photo provided by Gilberto González)

Why did they move to Spring Garden?

“For many reasons. First, there was La Milagrosa, the oldest [Spanish-speaking Catholic] church. It was founded by a lady who came from Mexico. But there was also another evangelical church for Latinos. And for work, there were many factories nearby. And in between the factories there were apartment homes.”

Gilberto was born in 1964.

“There was a man named Pete the Greek. There was also Mr. Sam, a Jew, and Mr. Schaeffer, and a lot of people who owned the buildings. My dad was the one who ran them. When many Puerto Ricans arrived from the island, they would go to my father to ask about apartments,” recalls Gilberto, who helped his father with the tasks of putting up newly arrived Puerto Ricans. The buildings were three, four or five stories high. There could be three families in three different apartments in one building, Gilberto says.

“Aaaallll of this was Puerto Rican. You know, you can imagine, when I was young, so many people, so many people on the street, there were so many people. Everyone, hanging out and, you know, drinking, cooking, living their very happy life.”

Nostalgia, however, doesn’t let Gilberto forget the hard life of a migrant, ostracized, minority community; in a predominantly white area, with other minority, relegated groups, in a police state and systemic racism. There were gangs, black and white. The Puerto Ricans had theirs. They were called the G-20. One of their main duties was to stand watch on street corners to make sure that Puerto Ricans were not assaulted when they left work with their checks or cash. That’s how gang veterans tell it in a documentary that Gilberto filmed.

Miguel Piñero, a Nuyorican poet born in Gurabo, a central mountainous town on the island, portrays the tone of this neighborhood in the ’70s in three lines of his poem “Spring Garden:”

Police car has circled this barrio 5 times screaming birth has been heard in apt 3 silent death has visited next door … O. D. (Overdose)

“This was a bar owned by a cousin of mine, now it’s a fancy little restaurant.”

“This was Faño’s store, he sold candy and beer. Now it’s expensive, an apartment, I think, starts at $200,000. And the rent is expensive.”

“And that there was a Puerto Rican bar, this was where it started, when they talk about the riots, that was the bar where the fight started.”

The Fight

On the night of July 17, 1953, there was a fight between Puerto Ricans and white people from Spring Garden that unleashed a street brawl. The fight began at a Mount Vernon bar on 16th Street. A white man named Charles Brooks was stabbed by someone he could not identify but assumed to be Puerto Rican. After the altercation, around midnight, a group of 15 white men invaded the home of a Puerto Rican family and began beating its residents. Carmen Teresa Whalen recounts the story in her book “From Puerto Rico to Philadelphia: Puerto Ricans Workers and Postwar Economies.”

A man identified by a woman as one of various who had entered her home through a back door, began kicking the window of a police car when they tried to intervene with him. Thereafter, a riot broke out in which knives, bottles and bricks flew. The fight spanned two blocks and lasted two hours. More than 40 police officers intervened, three were injured. There were 15 arrests. During the week, there were four nights of street fights over a five-block radius.

“The street fighting revealed the tensions surrounding Puerto Rican settlement and forced the city’s policy makers and social services agencies to address the Puerto Rican migrants in their midst,” Teresa Whalen stated.

“Although it was fairly evident that racist attitudes of white neighbors led to the conflict, the city’s newly created Human Relations Commission treated the matter as a conflict and lack of understanding between old established [white] residents and the newly arrived Puerto Rican [foreign] neighbors. The incident prompted the first study of the Puerto Rican community by a city agency and led to the creation of the Puerto Rican Affairs Committee of the Health and Welfare Council, made up primarily of leaders of the Puerto Rican community and city officials.”

“The bar where the fight started is now apartments,” says Gilberto, pointing from his car at the red brick structure that has a white sign above a door that says, “Chatham Row Condominiums.”

Today, the typical rental price for a 483-square-foot studio starts —like condos and similar homes nearby— at $1,702. It can go as high as $4,183. A four-bedroom apartment can cost $8,290 a month.

The Spring Garden Sweep

In late May 1985, Officer Thomas Trench was killed with a firearm. His body was found in his police car, at 17th Street and Spring Garden. The police investigation into this murder included a steady practice of stalking, tracing, searches, arrests and interrogations while handcuffed and with no probable cause, reasonable suspicion or a court order. More than 100 Puerto Ricans were arrested and beaten by police in one week, according to a court memorandum in the civil lawsuit Spring Garden United v. City of Philadelphia.

“All of those picked up were of Puerto Rican origin, none were charged with a crime at any time, none had any material information bearing on Officer Trench’s death, and all were eventually released after a photograph and attached statement were taken… This practice can only be described as a “sweep” of the Spring Garden neighborhood,” reads the memorandum.

(Photo by Joel Cintrón Arbasetti)

The Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania decided in favor of the Puerto Rican community of Spring Garden, in what is considered one of the largest cases of police abuse in the United States.

The Reminders That Remain

“And this is the mural that was spared,” says Gilberto, now facing the side wall of a building where there is a painting of the Statue of Liberty with the Puerto Rican flag on its forehead. The mural precedes activist Tito Kayak’s protest in 2000, when he climbed the Statue of Liberty in New York and placed a Puerto Rican flag on its forehead. The mural, titled “Puerto Rican Statue of Liberty,” was painted in 1984 by Dietrich Adonis, Carlos Vásquez, Glenn Hill, and Jane Golden.

“Now I’m going to take you by La Milagrosa. Again, all of this was Puerto Rican territory,” Gilberto stressed.

La Milagrosa, a Catholic church founded in 1912, was one of the Puerto Ricans’ hubs in Spring Garden, according to Professor Vázquez. In 2013, a group of priests from Barcelona decided to sell it. Now it’s an apartment building.

“The importance of Spring Garden is that it was there where the first Hispanic church in Philadelphia, La Milagrosa, was established on Spring Garden Street with 19th Street. I belonged to that chapel,” says Vázquez in a phone conversation from Florida.

The Statue of Liberty mural in Spring Garden (Photo by Joel Cintrón Arbasetti)

“The façade is the same, but they removed the religious symbols, they removed the large wooden doors. They took out all the stained glass, took it out and sold it. Look, look, you can see a little of it, it says ´Spanish,´ in the glass above. This was the foundation, the town route. This was the entrance, look, look, rectory, that was where you went to have coffee. They left that. You would go downstairs through here, there was the office and after service you would go for coffee,” says Gilberto, standing in front of the structure, before returning to Kensington.

From Spring Garden to Kensington

At age 16, Gilberto got a gift from his father: an Olympus camera.

“I wasn’t going down the right path, I had had two fights in which my head was smashed with a pipe and a rock. And then I had a drug overdose. And my dad said, ‘Look, you’re going to die on the street, they’re going to kill you, or something is going to happen to you.’ He bought me a camera and said, ‘Here’. I started taking photos. I have the camera. I still have it. So, I’ve been taking photos since then. I’ve been documenting gentrification since I was 16 years old.”

By that time, Gilberto and his family moved from Spring Garden to Kensington.

It was 1980. The start of President Ronald Reagan’s era. An era marked by the aftermath of the shift from industry to a service economy that displaced the industrial workforce and transformed factory areas into abandoned blocks. Philadelphia had just emerged from mayor Frank Rizzo, an enemy of public housing, a proponent of racial segregation in schools, and a promoter of patterns of police brutality.

Gilberto works as a graphic designer at the Philadelphia Community College. When he was disabled for a year due to heart problems, he started to paint in oil pastels. In his apartment and studio on Howard Street, Kensington, in the northeast area of Philadelphia, more than an hour’s walk from downtown and his native Spring Garden, he has a painting of red hues based on one of his photographs. It represents a factory on fire: the burning of houses and buildings, he says, was one of the strategies used to open up the land to new high-cost construction in his current neighborhood.

“This was an industrial area, there were many factories and they burned them down on purpose to start what they’re doing now, to have land available for gentrification,” says Gilberto, while the noise of a construction site just in front of his apartment comes through the window.

Gilberto González in front of the construction next to his house (Photo by Joel Cintrón Arbasetti)

“As soon as we bought this house, less than a year later, they started building houses all over the place. In empty lots. They knocked down entire blocks of old houses. Where Puerto Ricans lived, what the Philadelphia Housing Authority did was let the houses deteriorate and then tear them down, they didn’t want to fix them. So, it’s like that’s how they keep people poor. Why don’t they fix the houses? You know, help them be close to where the jobs are. But no, that doesn’t happen. I have photos of that, and I have photos of how it is now.”

Nichole L. Tillman, Communications Executive Vicepresident of the  Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) said that “PHA is not intentionally neglecting any properties. PHA receives all of its funding from the federal government. Unfortunately, over the years, the funding has decreased and PHA is not receiving enough money to maintain all of its properties.”

She added that “the city of Philadelphia is not exempt from the affordable housing crisis that the entire country is experiencing. PHA still cannot solve the lack of affordable housing alone. PHA collaborates with like-minded organizations to help create more affordable housing opportunities.” In November, the PHA and a group of nonprofits working with Puerto Rican and latino communities, such as CEIBA, HACE, Esperanza, Norris Square Community Alliance and the Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha, announced that they identified 240 lots that include vacant structures to expand the amount of affordable housing.

In the new building they built next to his house, apartment prices start at $500,000. Down the street there are others that start at $600,000. On the street behind his, they start at $699,000. His dad, Teófilo, bought a house in the same area for $23,000 in the 1980s.

When Gilberto arrived in Kensington back then there were very few Latinos.

“Puerto Ricans were on one side, and the whites on the other,” he recalls.

The limit was marked by North Front Street, where the Market-Frankfurt line train passes. It’s a dusky strip because of the shadow cast by the train track, which rises above the length of the street where there are bars, cafes, mechanic shops, warehouses, a pawn shop with neon lights and a security guard with a rifle in front of the door, a pizzeria, a school, homeless people, abandoned buildings, beauty salons and used articles sold on tables on the sidewalk.

“There was a time when Puerto Ricans started moving out of Spring Garden to Kensington, through a process of gentrification, in the 1950s and 1960s. But there was a street called Front that was like the border that Puerto Ricans could not cross. There were Puerto Ricans who had to go to public school on the other side and there are many stories of people who chased them out. That happened until more Puerto Ricans started moving in. In the 1960s, that became an area of conflict between whites, who were too poor to move, and Puerto Ricans who moved there,” says Professor Víctor Vázquez.

“When I moved, I had a lot of fights with the americanos. I remember one when three of them were going to beat me up and I had a small radio in my hand, and when I saw that they were going to come at me I hit them with it, I hit them in the face. My sister, who I think had never said a bad word in her life, told them ‘motherfucker, don’t you see that my little brother is really small and skinny and you’re big.’ It was the early eighties,” Gilberto remembers laughing.

The racial tension between that cultural border of the North Front is still palpable in 2020. On one side of the tracks, by the working-class houses of E. Dauphin Street and York, the area is predominantly white and blue collar: construction workers, electricians, mechanics. On one street, a flag that says “TRUMP” waves from a second-story window, right next to the rainbow flag of the LGBTTIQA+ community. In another house you can see a “Blue Lives Matter” flag, that features a black US symbol with a blue stripe that identifies right-wing groups that defend the use of police violence.

“These developers are coming here, and they knock on your door and say ‘I’m going to give you $100,000 in cash right now for your house…’ These people who come are very arrogant, very reckless. Many come from New York,” says Gilberto of the new residents arriving in the area.

It’s a typical tactic of the process known as gentrification: when higher-income people move to low-cost areas, they rent, buy and rehabilitate properties, increasing their value, causing the displacement of their original lower-income residents.

Gilberto’s street, like other parts of Kensington and areas near Fairhill (the boricua neighborhood), are within the territories designated as “Opportunity Zones.” In Philadelphia, as in Puerto Rico, this federal law seeks to encourage development in low-income communities through tax reduction to investment funds in designated areas. In Philadelphia there are 82 areas designated as Opportunity Zones, or 27% of Pennsylvania’s Opportunity Zones.

Gilberto’s street is part of District 7 and its representative on the Philadelphia Municipal Council is María Quiñones Sánchez, who is Puerto Rican. When asked about the effect that the Opportunity Zones have had on her District, Quiñones Sánchez, a Democrat, said: “Horrible.”

“The City had only a week to review the state’s recommendations, because it was the governor [of Pennsylvania] who established them. They gave me 48 hours to review the list [of places that were to be designated as Opportunity Zones[. And I objected to many things on the list. But obviously, they’re not local, but state decisions. I’ve tried to talk to the people who represent those [mutual] funds and who have bought in my district to make sure that there’s fairness in what’s going to be done. But at the end of the day, the greatest power a district councilor has is land use. But I can’t stop it, all I can do is shape it. The decisions were made in the Governor’s office,” Quiñones Sánchez said in a telephone interview.

“Moving north, from Spring Garden up to Girard, what they affectionately call El Barrio, all of it is in the process of gentrification,” says Professor Vázquez.

Fairhill: The Surviving Neighborhood

On the ground, it’s hard to define where Fairhill —the main Puerto Rican neighborhood in Philadelphia— begins and ends.

“The map has changed,” says Charo Morales, a Puerto Rican-born community organizer who has been in Philadelphia for 24 years.

“The zip codes were changed. I’m in District 25 but if I cross the street, and here, talking to you, I’m in District 26. When my colleagues from the Taller Puertorriqueño cross the street, they have to call different numbers for different agencies and I have to call other numbers from different agencies for the same problem, even though we’re on the same street, facing each other,” says Morales.

She’s at her office at the Providence Center, a nonprofit organization that has served the Puerto Rican and Latino community in Fairhill since 1993. Across the street is the Taller Puertorriqueño, another of several organizations through which the diaspora has tried to strengthen its presence to survive in Philadelphia.

A mural in the Fairhill section of Philadelphia (Photo by Joel Cintrón Arbasetti)

The Providence Center is in a two-story structure that stands out on 5th Street  —considered the heart of El Barrio— for its mosaics of Taino symbols. A side mural by Betsy Casañas and Ian “Ekeko” Pierce covers an entire wall with the face of a woman looking straight ahead. She has a copper-toned Afro covered with African, Latin and Asian symbols, crowned with a ribbon that reads El Barrio. The name of the mural is “Sanctuary City, Sanctuary Neighborhood,” in reference to Philadelphia’s designation as “Sanctuary City,” an area where local governments protect immigrants from deportations by  federal authorities.

The Puerto Rican community in Philadelphia is not in danger of deportation because of its U.S. citizenship status. But they have always been haunted by racist discrimination and the threat of expulsion from their neighborhoods due to gentrification, which is why they occupy the city, not as a sanctuary, but rather as a battlefield.

“Back then, neither you nor I as Puerto Ricans could be where I’m sitting and where you’re walking, because we would be murdered, we would be run down and we were perceived as the nasty ones. Obviously, because this was an Italian and German community and you couldn’t come here, El Barrio didn’t exist and neither did what’s now known as Fairhill,” says Morales.

Now the Latino and Puerto Rican presence is palpable in the atmosphere of this neighborhood that has emblematic institutions such as the Taller Puertorriqueño, the Providence Center, the Julia de Burgos elementary school, the Lillian Marrero Library, Latin music stores, restaurants and empty lots with abandoned buildings. In Philadelphia, one of the cities with the highest segregation in the United States, Fairhill or El Barrio, which has a section known as El Bloque de Oro (The Golden Block) is its own world: it’s connected but at the same time isolated from the rest of the city.

On the same 5th Street where the Providence Center is, there is a row house, the typical red brick working class house. The first floor seems inhabited, but the rest looks abandoned. Worn Puerto Rican flags cover two windowless frames that look out onto the street from the second floor. The lateral wall of the three-story structure features a large mural of the face of Puerto Rican nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos.

There’s a house nearby with an added concrete balcony with steel gratings and it looks like a house in Santurce, a San Juan neighborhood. It has a cardboard sign that says, “Limbers For Sale,” the typical Puerto Rican frozen treat flavored with pineapple, coconut milk and peaches. Along the street you can hear people speaking Spanish, with the clink of hydraulic hammers from buildings in the background. Trap or bachata rhythms blast from the cars. Every now and then the air is charged with the aroma of cannabis.

It is a Wednesday in late August at noon, the heat of summer is still felt, but winter is coming soon. A man approaches and asks where he can get a new blanket. To the right there’s a bus stop and a mural that says: “The Golden Block begins here.”

Proposals to Protect Communities Failed

Puerto Rican representative Quiñones Sánchez was the main proponent of the Banco de Terrenos (Land Bank), a central agency created in 2013 with the power to buy vacant land and property with tax liens, whether public or private. The properties that the agency controls are then transferred to private companies or community groups for development.

“It was to give back the property to the people who had cared for it for years,” says Quiñones Sánchez, a councilman since 2007, in a telephone interview.

What was the outcome of the Land Bank?

“Horrible, horrible, horrible,” she answered.

“It has been inefficient because there are people in government who think that a poor community shouldn’t get these properties. They prefer to sell it to developers and ‘gentrifiers’ than to communities because that’s what’s going to bring them the most money.”

In January 2019, Quiñones Sánchez introduced legislation for better transparency and oversight to the Land Bank, after it was revealed that the City sold lots at below market prices to buyers politically connected.

Block Party Against Gentrification

Acitvist Puchi de Jesús speaks at the “Kill the Bill” block party in the Kensington section of Philadelphia (Photo by Joel Cintrón Arbasetti)

On September 5, there was a demonstration in South Kensington against a measure submitted by Quiñones Sánchez. At 3:45, with the temperature at 79 degrees and clear skies, the mood on Lawrence Street was that of a block party. The crowd was a mix of different races and ethinicities: Black, white, and Latino. The murmurs that came from under the antiviral masks were a mixture of English and Spanish. The music that played between speeches was by reggaetoneros Héctor el Father, Ozuna and J. Balvin.

The party was called “Kill the Bill,” in reference to Quiñones Sánchez’s measure that proposes the construction of a 20-story tower, where 20% must be affordable housing, based on the median income. The tower would be in vacant lots on North American Street, a 7-minute walk from the street where the demonstration was taking place.

The César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden, named in honor of the Ponce-born journalist and union leader, is on that street. The demonstration was called from that community garden’s Facebook page, a garden draped with a cloth sign that said in big letters, “Kill the bill — Matar la propuesta.”

At the height of the event —where there was a street cart selling tacos and burritos, the smell of sage and copal incense wafted through the air, a woman with Mexican ‘catrina’ clothing and makeup posing for photos, boys and girls on skateboards, or riding a horse led by teenage neighborhood residents— the news arrived that Quiñones Sánchez had temporarily withdrawn the measure.

Puchi de Jesús, a 25-year-old activist who is part of Philly Boricuas, an organization that emerged from the protests of the diaspora in the Summer of 2019 that ended with the resignation of then-Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, took a turn on a small wooden podium that was placed at the entrance to the César Andreu Iglesias garden.

(Photo by Joel Cintrón Arbasetti)

“Just because the bill has been killed, doesn’t mean that the fight is over. We are not fighting against affordable housing, we are fighting against these sneaky ways that they threaten us out of the communities. When they say affordable housing, the bill says 20% affordable housing and it depends on the average median income. And maybe in the beginning it’s gonna be on the average median income. But most of the housing is going to be luxury and unaffordable. And so, who is gonna be living in that housing? It’s gonna be all these people coming in, it’s gonna extend from Fishtown onto this neighborhood, all these people coming in from other parts of town, mostly rich withe people coming in. And they’re gonna start raising the median income, it’s gonna go up. So that low income housing and affordable housing is gonna mean shit. Because the price is gonna go up eventually, that median income isn’t gonna mean anything. And already we see how things are changing, people are buying up property, redoing, remodeling it and a house that would go for a $100,000 tomorrow is gonna be $400,000, $500,000 and you are living there trying to get your feet on the ground and maybe you wanna buy a house and you find yourself you can’t afford it. And that’s what’s gonna happen. So just because the bill has been killed doesn’t mean that the fight stops. We need to keep fighting.”