Resisting Gentrification Amid Historic Preservation: Society Hill, Philadelphia, and the Fight for Low-Income Housing | Francesca Russello Ammon
In the 1970s, geographer Neil Smith used Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood to examine the process of gentrification. In this 4-block by 7-block area, a combination of restoration and historically-sensitive new construction put a dramatically different physical face on urban renewal. Yet Smith showed that, as with more typical clearance-oriented approaches, renewal still displaced most existing residents and business owners. By analyzing these market dynamics at the neighborhood scale, Smith exposed the combined influence of capital and the state in realizing social and economic transformation. This model has helped shape long-standing associations between historic preservation and gentrification. The present article revisits this same neighborhood to expose the contested nature of gentrification on the ground. Through a prolonged battle, focused on the southwest corner of Society Hill, area residents mobilized government assistance and neighborhood activism in direct resistance to Smith’s market forces. The result was the construction of several new, low-income housing units. By examining the conflict over a particular site, this case offers more social and material perspectives on gentrification that neighborhood-level analyses often elide. It further demonstrates that historic preservation can also support “social preservation.” While the housing project developed was admittedly small, its realization shows the capacity to disentangle preservation and displacement if the social and political will exists to do so.
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