The Made in America dust-up that embroiled hip-hop mogul Jay-Z mounted in a public relations war against the Kenney administration was about much more than the festival being held on the Ben Franklin Parkway. It was about the ongoing fights that are driven by gentrification, race, and class.
In communities across the city and the nation, black residents who lack Jay-Z's media influence or economic power are losing fights over how public space is used. While Jay-Z can call a big-city mayor to task and win the privilege of having his festival in the city's most high-profile public space, most people of color aren't so fortunate.
So while I'm pleased that a black-owned hip-hop festival will remain in Philadelphia's premiere event space after the Kenney administration came to terms with Jay-Z's Roc Nation, I'm more concerned about the wealthy Parkway neighbors whose complaints led the city to try to move the event. Perhaps more important, I'm concerned about the everyday people of color who are being pushed out of public spaces such as the Parkway every day.
Of course, the Ben Franklin Parkway wasn't always hallowed ground. Before the mid-1980s, Center City as a whole was peppered with questionable and even dangerous spaces. But four decades of positive change — beginning with the Goode administration's decision to allow developers to build skyscrapers taller than City Hall — have resulted in replacing old industrial structures with gleaming buildings.
However, that development has come with a social price.
Rising prices in downtown communities and surrounding areas have priced out black and brown residents, businesses, and institutions. And when price could not force them out, other methods were used to do so.
Such simple changes as placing shorter limits on parking have helped to put pressure on black churches in gentrifying communities. When parishioners can no longer park for an entire church service without being ticketed, the church cannot survive. Blacks are also stopped at a much greater rate in downtown areas of Philadelphia, according to an Inquirer and Daily News study of police stops. This is especially true in indoor spaces — a fact that was hammered home by the controversial arrests in April of two black men who were profiled at a Rittenhouse Square Starbucks for "waiting while black."
That's why, when the city sought to move the Made in America festival, and Jay-Z complained that the city was attempting to move one of the only black-owned festivals of its kind off of the Parkway, the barb was especially poignant.
Philadelphia, under both black and white leadership, has often claimed to be a city that welcomes diversity. Yet our city has too often enabled richer, whiter residents to use city services, zoning changes, and parking rules to push out people of color.
This is true in gentrifying communities such as Northern Liberties and the Graduate Hospital area, where increasing property values have forced black and brown people to move out. But it's also true in neighborhoods adjacent to the Ben Franklin Parkway, where moneyed white residents have been replaced with even wealthier ones.
Between 2000 and 2014, inflation-adjusted median income was up by 33 percent in Center City Northwest, and 27 percent in Logan Square North, according to a 2016 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Both neighborhoods are adjacent to the Ben Franklin Parkway, and both also saw a tremendous increase in property values over the same time period.
"The median home price increased 83 percent in Logan Square North … ," the report, called "Philadelphia's Changing Neighborhoods: Gentrification and Other Shifts Since 2000," says. "In Center City Northwest, the median rose from $200,000 to $612,500, the highest values of all 15 tracts at both the start and the end of the period."
I'm puzzled, though. These wealthy residents have long complained about noise from Parkway events. We know these residents had to understand that the Parkway has long been home to the city's biggest public happenings. So why buy property there if you saw that as a problem?
But that is the nature of gentrification. It is fraught with an arrogance that leads one to believe that money can erase those who don't share one's skin color or income bracket. It is grounded in the belief that changing the name of a place can nullify its history. (For example, the Black Bottom was renamed University City after urban renewal in the 1960s.) It is shaped by the knowledge that political influence can bend the rules to one's will.
The city now says it will work with Jay-Z's company to address the neighbors' concerns. But make no mistake. Jay-Z won this round. Perhaps that will make Philadelphia's gentry think twice the next time they try to push people of color out of a public space. But sadly, I suspect it will just make them try harder.