“I’m ecstatic, happy, pleased.”
Claudia Sherrod, longtime Point Breeze community leader and head of registered community organization South Philadelphia HOMES is delighted with the decision by her neighboring Registered Community Organization to rename itself. “It’s taken a long time to try to get our community together.”
For most people, the words “registered community organization” are snooze-worthy. The tasks theses groups take on, from sidewalk cleaning to zoning hearings to town watches, aren’t exactly thrilling. It’s hard to get an average city resident excited about their RCO.
Except in Point Breeze.
What’s in a name?
In one section of the neighborhood, the area from Broad to 18th Street to Mifflin, at least nine different RCOs overlap. Over the past decade, battles among them have been the source of much drama. Multiple meetings have ended in shouting matches, protest marches have been staged, and court cases threatened.
It’s not entirely surprising, since RCOs exert a ton of influence on development. And in Point Breeze right now, development stakes are high. Vacant lots in the the economically-depressed area are being snapped up and rebuilt with expensive new homes at a rate that could cause property taxes to soar beyond what long-time residents can afford.
(A recent Inquirer investigation discovered many of the lots were acquired in possibly improper no-bid sales orchestrated by Councilman Kenyatta Johnson in what looks like pay-to-play for campaign donations.)
But much of the public turmoil has focused less on specifics and more on identity. Specifically, the name Newbold.
“There is no Newbold section of Point Breeze,” Sherrod said.
Which is exactly why the soon-to-be-former Newbold Neighbors Association (for now, NNA) is striking it from their name. Sherrod isn’t an NNA member, but she attended the meeting where the planned name change became official.
“It was really heartening to see such a diverse crowd,” said NNA president Miguel Garces. There were 32 people present when the board put the “remove Newbold” proposal to a vote, he said. All nine non-member guests, including Sherrod, cast a courtesy vote in favor of the change. As for the votes that counted, the proposal passed by a margin of 18 to five.
“The board pushed it through,” Garces said, explaining why the decade-old organization decided to take action on the topic now. “A lot of people felt really passionate about it.”
Problematic from the start
One person who has felt passionate about it since the beginning is the man who came up with “Newbold” as a neighborhood name in the first place: John Longacre.
“I told them to change their name eight years ago,” Longacre asserted. The RCO he’s involved with and helps run, called the Newbold CDC, is much smaller than the NNA. Newbold, as Longacre sees it, runs from Tasker to Wolf, Broad to 18th.
“We created that defined perimeter to encompass West Passyunk and Snyder Avenue inside it, instead of as borders,” he said, “in order to encourage development on those commercial corridors and infill the neighborhood around amenity-based businesses.”
The NNA, in contrast, uses West Passyunk as a southern edge, and stretches all the way north to Washington Avenue.
“I told them that to declare that much of Point Breeze ‘Newbold’ would make them hated and cause problems for us, at the same time,” Longacre said. “They didn’t listen.”
Leadership of the NNA has changed frequently, but it appears those now in charge are finally ready to address the issue. The main issue being that neighborhood definitions are flexible — there are no hard and fast rules for what people call the place they live.
“If you ask Wikipedia, I think it does say Newbold goes up to Washington,” NNA president Garces said. “But we’re just not interested in being part of that debate.” (The Wikipedia boundaries could be based on the NNA’s self-defined boundaries.)
So what will the new name be? Garces and his board are collecting ideas.
“Some are more directional, like ‘Point Breeze East,’ and other people say let’s forget the neighborhood altogether,” he said. “Like the [Point Breeze] group called ‘Neighbors in Action.’ They have defined boundaries, but it’s just like, ‘we’re neighbors doing stuff.’
“The reason I joined is I knew people on my block who were involved,” continued Garces, who graduated from Penn in 2009 and moved to South Philly soon thereafter. “I thought, ‘Here’s a great organization that’s doing good work!’”
As for the other RCOs in the area, which include the vocal, anti-gentrification Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze, South Philadelphia HOMES, the Newbold CDC and several more, “We want to build our relationships with them,” Garces said.
“We should be working together, not against each other.”