A Tale of Two Cities: Rittenhouse Square vs Southwest Philly
Imbalances driven by discrimination, inadequate financing, and a lack of compassion for human life create poor living conditions in Philadelphia and across the U.S.. Resources such as full-service grocery stores, strong public schools, well-maintained parks, and clean streets are reserved for higher income areas and elite neighborhoods, leaving little financial support or successful city planning for neighborhoods which are Black, brown, immigrant, and working class. What can a close examination of Southwest Philadelphia and Rittenhouse Square reveal to us about the reality of our city?
The median household income in Southwest Philly is $27,433. In Philadelphia’s low income neighborhoods, including Southwest, rent prices and taxes are unstable and residents cannot afford the constant changes. Even with the CDC’s extension of the eviction ban through June, tenants struggle to meet the necessary guidelines and risk merciless landlords: the federal order does not stop rent from accruing and renters must prove that they cannot pay because of pandemic-related issues. Tenants must also have proof that they’ve applied for government rental assistance. These bureaucratic barriers often prevent people from getting any help at all. Conditions become increasingly worse for those who cannot find gainful employment. Mass unemployment in Southwest fosters violence, food insecurity, extreme poverty, and houselessness. The pandemic, meager public transportation, and a lack of economic development in the neighborhood exacerbates this problem.
Southwest Philadelphia has a long history of being overlooked and ignored by the city of Philadelphia. From destroying homes in the name of cost-effective investing to not removing hazardous waste, working class people who care about their neighborhood are given very little support from the city. Historically speaking, because of the bogs and meadows in Southwest, central Philadelphia was considered more cost-effective for industrial development than Southwest. Later, projects including the Pennsylvania Railroad Southwest Station were abandoned because investors pulled their funding, hurting the masses of working people in Southwest who need and deserve better public transit.
When the Philadelphia City Planning Commission deemed hundreds of acres in Southwest a blighted section of the city in the 1950’s, this land became the I-95 highway and a transportation hub for the Philadelphia Airport. While residents resisted this because of the obvious negative environmental effects, still later in the 60’s homes were demolished to make way for the Southwest Sewage Plant. The City Commission office clearly did not consider the people who lived there: the focus was on profit and profit alone–we never see highways and sewage plants being built in rich neighborhoods. And of course these decisions made living in Southwest even harder. Today, hazardous and illegal dumping sites are still found. In the summer of 2019 an oil refinery exploded — caused by poor infrastructure and old piping. About 800 employees lost their jobs and 3,000 pounds of deadly chemicals were released into the air. This is how the city treats its poor residents. Let’s look at how the city treats the rich.
In Rittenhouse Square, the median income is $83,870 — 10% of Rittenhouse residents make over $200,000 annually. Rittenhouse Square has been inhabited by the extraordinarily wealthy for over a century, WHYY reports that “in 1913, stately mansions surrounded the park, and their fabulously wealthy residents paid Paul Phillipe Cret to redesign Rittenhouse Square in the fashion of the finest French gardens”. Today, Rittenhouse Square is a hub for expensive cafes, hotels, and condos. An incredible amount of city resources has been poured into what is a miniscule section of the city.
Rittenhouse is also organized: residents associations fight for the perceived beauty and significance of the park and surrounding area. Beginning in 1979, Friends of Rittenhouse Square, a non-profit, has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to “address the increasing gap between available city funding and the maintenance needs of Rittenhouse Square”. Addressing this gap, according to the non-profit, means “graffiti removal, holiday lights, a dedicated park ranger, and various trash removal services”. It takes bloated, privatized funding to ensure that Rittenhouse is continuously beautified and up to residents’ standard. This non-profit works in a “public-private partnership” with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation to maintain this absurdly wealthy and small neighborhood. Private spending in cooperation with city spending has been one part of why large and densely-populated areas like Southwest get left behind. What if instead of all that private and public funding going to the elite of Rittenhouse Square, that money went to fund the development of neighborhoods like Southwest?
We need real economic justice. The annual income gap between some of the richest and poorest neighborhoods in Philly is $60,000. How is this fair? While a tiny fraction of Philly’s population lives in vast wealth and luxury, the majority struggle to make ends meet. This is capitalism: a system where wealthy people hoard resources while poor, working people struggle. We need a new system, a socialist system, built by and for working class people, with guaranteed jobs, housing, healthcare, safe streets, good education programs, and well-built infrastructure.