MacArthur Genius Fellow Majora Carter wants lower income neighborhoods like Kensington, Strawberry Mansion and other forgotten areas of Philadelphia to “self-gentrify.” That’s her word for a sweet spot between gentrification, which she believes forces too many residents out, and poverty level economic maintenance, the status quo that traps people in an environment with scant jobs, poor housing and health and storefronts for fast food, pawn shops and check cashing.    

One example she gave for self-gentrification in her native South Bronx was a coffee shop. Carter said it was something the community wanted, and rather than get backing from developers and banks, she helped finance it on her own. She said they are places that make people feel good about being in a community.

Carter, who now has her own economic consulting and planning firm, was in Philadelphia Thursday morning for an event hosted by the Arts and Business Council and Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce: “Reimagine, Redesign, Rebuild: The Civic Commons for a Greater Good.” Civic Commons PHL is an $11.4 million public-private partnership between the Knight Foundation, the William Penn Foundation and Fairmount Park Conservancy to improve rec centers, parks and libraries so they better engage the areas they serve. Billy Penn talked with Carter afterwards about some plans she has for a tech startup in Philly and why despite all the glowing press over Philadelphia’s renaissance, the city has not changed nearly enough.

The conversation has been edited lightly for brevity and clarity.

So what have you been up to in Philadelphia lately?

Over the past year, we were working with members of the Southwest Philly community through the US Green Building Council to develop an advisory board among Southwest Philly residents.

First, you have to talk to the community to understand what their needs are and their aspirations are and also what their visions of a more sustainable future would be. In that particular instance, what was great was the US Green Building Council was trying to figure out how they interact and connect with communities that are not part of their traditional working relationships, which are builders and developers.

What was the community saying?

They were telling us that a real quality of life issue was this preponderance of whether they were legal or illegal chop shops. [The chop shops] behaved as though the SW Philly community was this horrible dumping ground. So they’re working on an advocacy campaign for how can [owners] be better neighbors or how they can get them to go away if they’re not doing their job properly.  

Have you seen a lot of change in Philadelphia in the last 20 years?

In the neighborhoods with the zip codes the doctor was talking about (largely North Philly and Southwest Philly), it hasn’t changed much at all. That’s part of the problem. What I love about this particular initiative (Civic Commons PHL) they’re doing here is there is an infusion of real money, significant money, but also I think a real understanding that if you’re going to do this you have to engage a lot of different people. So people understand, ‘oh this is for me, too.’ They feel invested, and those zip codes often don’t feel any kind of positive investment. This is real.

Twenty, 30 years from now what should these underserved neighborhood be like?

Signs of progress would be if people actually walk to sustainable jobs around there. Are there places for people to interact socially and culturally, whether within walking distance or easily able to get through a transportation system? Things like that. It’s all quality of life issues, but of course your quality of life is dependent on your social, environmental and economic well-being. People like to parse them out, and, no, they’re kind of all together. The basic building blocks of any society are the quality of life. Can you put food on the table? Can you walk safely in your own community? Can you be educated in a real way? Are your health outcomes going to be utterly dictated by the environmental problems in your community or not? And there’s always room to make communities better, and they have to start where they need it the most.

This private public partnership is really quite telling. The level of investments that are being made is quite impressive.

That coffee shop in the South Bronx is one example for self-gentrification, same with your tech company Startup Box. What are some other examples?

We always look wherever we are at the economic drivers of that particular area and then focus to build so the communities in that area are able to connect to that economic driver. That’s why focusing on technology was where we thought we had to go. That’s why we built a tech company on what was formerly a very hot corner that was actually vacant for a decade or more. It was the last thing anybody ever thought would show up on this very poor commercial strip. But there it is.

And you’ll be bringing Startup Box to Philadelphia sometime in the future?

Hopefully, and many other places. It really depends on whether we can build the private-public partnership. It’s about a $1.2M investment over two years.

And that’s something you’d put in Southwest Philly or a similar underserved neighborhood?

It absolutely would go into one of those neighborhoods. It would not go into the cool tech part of Philly. It is literally meant to be a place that prompts more of that economic development. You want to expand tech ecosystems, so you don’t want to expand them where they already are. You want to expand the model of them in other places.  

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...