by Manuel McDonnell Smith, Special Correspondent
With a bold declaration that the nation has “cleared away the rubble of crisis” during his fifth State of the Union address, President Obama pledged to refocus his second term efforts on the middle-class and “expanding opportunity for every American and every community willing to do the work to lift themselves up.” He used the rest of the speech to unveil several several initiatives that he plans to use to deliver on that commitment, including the much publicized Promise Zone Initiative.
The initiative, intended to deliver on the President’s promise of a “better bargain for the middle class” pledges investment in partnerships with business and community organizations in twenty designated areas in the nation by 2016. The first five zones were announced by the President just before the State of the Union, one of which is West Philadelphia. There are no specific federal dollars allotted to the execution of the program, but many specific benefits were promised to the area in a White House press release including job training for adults, loans for resident-owned businesses, investment in education, and a focus on the prevention and reduction of crime “in order to attract new residents and long term investment” through hot spot policing and foot patrols.
Quite naturally, interest around federal attention and potential investment directed towards our neighborhood sparked a lot of interest among neighbors when news of the new Promise Zone designation began leaking out, prompting meetings among community leaders and major area institutions about what long-term strategies could be supported by the new plan. But the excitement quickly turned to confusion, and disappointment once maps of the new Promise Zone were released. While the Zone does cover much of West Philadelphia from 30th Street to 47th Street going east and west, and from Market Street to the South, it comes to a halt at Girard Avenue, almost specifically leaving out Parkside and many of the neighborhoods that residents have been working for years to maintain, support, and redevelop.
Given the area’s historical overwhelming support of the President and the area’s federal elected leadership in Washington, The Parkside Journal began looking for answers. We quickly hopped on an opportunity to meet with our local Congressman Chaka Fatta, who was bound to have answers about the Promise Zone and the lack of Parkside’s inclusion in it as a Senior Member of the House’s Appropriations Committee and as lead Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and related agencies.
Parkside Journal (PJ): Congressman, thanks for meeting with us. What exactly is a “Promise Zone”?
Fattah: “One of the things the President asked, last year, for us to do is Promise Zones. The commitment was to do twenty of them, and the first five have been announced. Philadelphia got one of the five nationwide. …..We got one. It is just what is says. A promise zone is around collaboration and creating opportunities around educational attainment for the long term residents of that community.
PJ: And who was it designed to include?
Fattah: It’s everybody from the People’s Emergency Center through Drexel and others who made a commitment to work in this regard, and a lot of work has already happened for at least the last five years. Everything [has been included] from embracing a number of schools there for STEM education purposes.
PJ: Some here in Parkside have feel “left out” of this Promise.
Fattah: With five promise zones in the nation, it dosen’t include everybody. And it doesn’t even include everybody in West Philadelphia. And it wont even benefit everybody in Mantua. It will benefit young people in Mantua, and children in Mantua. It will interrupt the generational cycle of poverty, and hopefully it will create some models that we can use in other places.
PJ: Does that mean that the zone could be expanded to include us?
Fattah: This is in some ways kind of like history repeating itself. You talk about Parkside Avenue. When I started in Congress, we won one of five empowerment zones in the country. We won it for West Parkside. And in what used to be an industrial tract, there now is a major shopping center. It’s got the highest grossing supermarket in the nation, its got a whole set of resources about 400 jobs for people in the neighborhood.
PJ: But this grant specifically targets Mantua. Is your commitment to Parkside still a top priority?
Fattah: I walked along Parkside Avenue 20 years ago when all of those Parkside Mansions were vacant and abandoned. I could show you the pictures on the covers of some publications in Philadelphia, and I said that we were going to re-do [the area]. All of those mansion have been redone, and on the back streets major rehab has been done. You take the Microsoft High School and you go all the way up through to the new Carousel House, The Please Touch Museum which we funded, to the new transportation [center] at the zoo. I could show you that whole area and major transformation has taken place, and at that point Mantua was left out.
PJ: So you’re saying that this time, the attention needs to be focused on another part of the neighborhood?
Fattah: These choices are based on a set of dynamics, and the dynamic here is that for the city to win one of these, we had to make our best case for a neighborhood that life chances were less than they needed to be. Mantua has got a set of challenges, and we were able to make a case that here was palace that the country wanted to indicate that the American Dream, the promise of it, could be made real. And we wanted a very challenging place to make that statement and Mantua fit the bill.
PJ: Congressman, thank you for your time.
Fattah: It has been my pleasure.