Kenyatta Ori PB (1)

$600,000 for a City Council race: Feibush, Johnson wage political war over a changing Point Breeze

Correction appended

Ralanda King, a Point Breeze lifer and a Democratic Committee person there, can tell you almost everything about her neighborhood. How, decades ago, the grandfather of La Salle star and NBA player Rasual Butler ran an ice cream shop on Point Breeze Avenue just past Federal Street. How, in the ’80s and ’90s, she says the police would rarely come south of Washington and she stood up to drug dealers on her own. She’s seen Point Breeze ebb and flow, the way neighborhoods do.

“As a kid, this was a corridor where you shopped,” she says, looking out at Point Breeze Avenue. “Now we have buildings that are not being utilized. I’m looking forward to seeing this development in Point Breeze.”

King’s neighborhood, as much as any in Philly, has been linked with change for the last several years. These changes are at the heart of the race for the 2nd Council District between Ori Feibush and incumbent Kenyatta Johnson, in which Point Breeze will likely play a major role. Has the 2nd District changed enough in four years to sweep a newcomer into office? And are longtime residents embracing the new businesses and people, or fearing they’re getting pushed out?

Sure, there’s nuance. But let’s just say Feibush and Johnson are emblematic of new and old Philadelphia. Feibush is a sometimes-controversial developer responsible for many of Point Breeze’s and Graduate Hospital’s new residences and businesses. Johnson grew up on 18th and Dickinson in Point Breeze. There’s no secret about the image he wishes to put forward to voters for his 2015 campaign: He’s the neighborhood’s guy. Feibush is the outsider. At a rally Johnson held in Point Breeze last month, Mayor Michael Nutter got on stage and referred to Feibush as the “little jerk with a big checkbook.” Ed Rendell hailed Johnson as the “man who cares about neighborhoods, more than anyone else in City Council.”

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Their competition for the 2nd District has rivaled the mayoral race in terms of intrigue and cash. Feibush contributed more than $250,000 of his own money, doubling contribution limits, and reported that he has raised $326,000 so far. Johnson reported having raised $330,398.

In 2011, Johnson defeated challenger Barbara Capozzi by a mere 40 votes in what was by far the closest Council race. He was buoyed by his domination in Point Breeze. In the 36th Ward, which encompasses Point Breeze and is the second-largest of the 2nd District’s seven wards, Johnson earned 2,517 of the 3,818 votes.

Since then, his home neighborhood and the entirety of the 2nd District has gotten more populous, younger, whiter and in some ways wealthier, differentiating from or outpacing Philadelphia as a whole.

Point Breeze By the Numbers

Billy Penn used census tracts from Census American Community Survey data that comprise nearly all of the 2nd District (we didn’t include tracts that overlapped between the 2nd District and another district) to compare the last election year of 2011 to the most recent data, from 2013. In that time, the 2nd District has grown from 145,922 people to 146,739 with people aged 20 to 34 increasing 8 percent from 39,095 to 42,254. The white population has increased by 3 percent, and the Hispanic population by 9 percent, while the black population has declined by 4 percent. The number of households making $50,000 or more has declined 6 percent, but the those making $75,000 or more has increased by 1 percent. Project these numbers to 2015 using the same rates of change as from 2011 to 2013, and this is what it looks like in the 2nd District.

Point Breeze, using the Census tracts comprising nearly all of the neighborhood, has changed even more since 2011, including a 29.4 percent jump in people aged 20 to 34 from 3,619 to 4,683. The white population has increased by 26.4 percent and the Hispanic population by 25 percent, while the black population has decreased by 9 percent. The area is getting wealthier, too, with 23 percent more households making $50,000 or more and 47 percent more households making $75,000 or more (the median home value has also jumped from $77,300 in May 2011 to a projected $115,000 this May, according to Zillow). If the demographic changes have accelerated at the same rate these last two years, this is what Point Breeze looks like in terms of overall population, population between 20-34, income and race compared to the 2011 election.

But even with all that math seemingly changing the electoral equation, Feibush tells Billy Penn his chances really aren’t affected.

“I don’t think it’s easy to paint with a broad brush here,” he says.

Feibush says two of the main points of his campaign are proposing improvements to education and rezoning certain parts of distressed neighborhoods to stimulate better job growth.

“Yes, I happen to have a development background and a small business background, but I say that helps me because that is especially what’s needed to move those commercial corridors in the right direction,” he says. “Residents who emphatically want to jump on board with me know that right now it’s not working…. Businesses are not flourishing and our schools continue to fall into decline here. It is specifically in the poorest parts of town that I’m speaking a language they understand.”

 

The Ori Factor

It’s no secret in Point Breeze and in the 2nd District not everyone sees Feibush or the new developments that way. Steve Sabo, executive director of Point Breeze’s Development Corporation, estimates the number of new or redeveloped properties in Point Breeze has increased by 25 percent since he moved there six years ago.

Some people like King welcome the new people and business and plenty of others see it as a threat to the neighborhood they know, not to mention their property taxes. On Point Breeze Avenue, there used to be a bar called Hoagie Town (kind of a misnomer; it didn’t sell hoagies). Mike Addison, June Jackson and Trey Maxwell would drink at Hoagie Town and hang outside in front of it. Hoagie Town is now a beer store called Beertown and no longer a bar. They still hang around outside but say cops harass them.

“This is not Point Breeze anymore,” Maxwell says.

Perhaps the best litmus test of whether the 2nd District might be open to a candidate like Feibush occurred last year during the primary elections for Democratic Committee spots in the 30th Ward (largely Graduate Hospital) and the 36th Ward. Thirteen of 34 new challengers won in the 30th. They mostly failed in the 36th, though. Sabo was one of the unsuccessful challengers. So was Michael Parker. He moved to Point Breeze in 2009 and also ran for one of the Democratic Committee spots, losing to Johnson’s wife, Dawn Chavous. He says he will probably vote for Feibush in May.

“This might just be my own personality but if the entire political structure is banding against a guy,” he says, “that makes me like him more because this city is broken.”

Some longterm residents are as ready for change, just not from Feibush. In an example of how crazy the 2nd District race could get, there’s already a Twitter account (Kenyatta vs Ori) closely following the race, supporting Johnson and usually criticizing Feibush. The person who runs that account, requesting to remain anonymous, says over email he respected Feibush for clearing and redeveloping vacant lots and “putting a spotlight on how the city is failing its residents.” But he says he and his circle of friends don’t like Feibush’s confrontational personality, citing Feibush’s domain squatting as the most recent example.

“Ori excels at being a dick,” he says.

Johnson’s campaign did not respond to Billy Penn‘s interview requests. He described himself as “pro-development” as long as it’s “smart development” at his big rally in Point Breeze last month, and he’s also counting on people who want to protect their neighborhoods from changes happening too quickly. Many union members attended his rally and described Johnson as being part of “the team.” Brandon Washington and Eileen O’Brien, who have both lived Graduate Hospital for more than 20 years say they trust Johnson because of his ties to the area.

“You can’t fight the market, but you have to make sure people aren’t kicked out of their homes,” O’Brien says.

The numerous politicians who stumped for Johnson that day stayed away from messages about changes in the 2nd District or the newcomers who have moved there. They continued to bring up the longtime traditions of the 2nd District and how Johnson fit in.

“There are forces that are trying to get rid of him because he cares about us and not special interests,” Rendell told the crowd. “Are we going to let that happen? No. Because this is South Philadelphia.”

Update: This article has been corrected to properly calculate the population and demographics of the 2nd District. In an earlier version of the article, the 40th Ward was left out. Billy Penn regrets the error.

 

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