Empathy.

As a teacher, one of the most important things I try to convey to my students is the importance of empathy. Being able to see from another’s perspective, to imagine another’s pain, not only demonstrates a deep comprehension of the material at hand, but also provides the key to being a decent human being: the ability to view other people as people.

The comments on the previous post are closed, because people lack empathy–especially people on the Internet. And so many people who lack empathy lack empathy because they were never forced to develop it due to the privilege they have always enjoyed and never examined. It is so incredibly easy to remain uncritical of power structures when those power structures have always worked for you, when your life has been relatively insulated and safe (and, yes, everyone’s life has hardships, so don’t come to me with your white tears–your race and class, at minumum, privilege is still so much greater than a huge amount of the residents of this city).

But it’s so easy for people to cry “social justice warrior” and ignore what all of this is built upon: empathy. I’m a pretty privileged person, but I think a major difference between people who have been agreeing with me and people who don’t is that those who agree work on a day to day basis with people in communities like those who were affected by Bok’s shutdown: struggling in poverty, an overzealous criminal justice system, systemic racism, and myriad other issues keeping the urban poor down. The people who disagree? They work in offices, they work from home, they do not connect to communities outside of their middle-class urban bubble. Let us have nice things, the middle-class people in those neighborhoods say. When those people will probably not send their kids to public schools, or if they do they’ll be sure it’s Meredith. When those people complain about how terrible their neighborhood is, they do nothing to change it. They believe Philadelphia exists to serve them, that they are owed something.

I, and most people who agree with me, understand that the city existed before and will exist after me. I want to leave behind the best possible city for all people, which is why I am passionate about making sure that we don’t turn important public spaces dedicated to training kids for middle-class jobs into private gentrification havens to satisfy the white neighbors who blame all trash and violence on the people struggling below the poverty line but never lift a hand to lift up their fellow human.

To anyone who disagrees with me, here is a challenge: Volunteer. Do it for a month, and work with people, not filling boxes or planting trees. Meet people in your neighborhood who have built a community, who need help. Help them. Develop empathy. Then, come to me and tell me these underserved people don’t deserve everything in the world that your privileged life has handed to you, and why this so-called “community” building should be free from criticism despite a lack of concern for the actual community adjacent to it. Explain why. Then, I’ll listen.

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Why “Le Bok Fin” Is Misguided and Wrong for the Neighborhood

The redevelopment of Bok–starting with this pop-up restaurant–is giving me a lot of feelings.

Ever since I saw that a Scannapieco, this time the offspring, had bought and was set to develop the former Bok Technical School into a “makerspace” (whatever that even is), I was on guard. This neighborhood, between booming East Passyunk and stable Pennsport, has mostly avoided gentrification, probably because of the reputation that 5th Street has. It features excellent restaurants and beautiful murals, and large communities of Asian, Mexican and African-American people. The too-violent/dirty/whatever-other-coded-language-means-too-not-white neighborhood lost its actually-decent high school, Bok, in the recent big round of Philly closures. Students were sent to the worse-performing South Philly High instead.

The school is gorgeous and huge. It housed programs wherein students could get actual skills and certifications, and put themselves on the road out of poverty (100% of the school’s students were low-income; 95% were minority). It wasn’t without problems–a cheating scandal, for one–but it was certainly superior to Southern.

I walk by Bok every day on my way to work, and for months I have seen them throwing student desks and other educational materials, piling them up outside huge dumpsters on sidewalks and in the street, and lining the whole block with no-parking-or-you’ll-be-towed signed. What a welcome to their neighbors! Literally throwing away the remains of the education their children should be getting, and refusing to let them park their cars in the usual place on top of it. This added to my fear that Scout Ltd. was taking a tone-deaf route in its quest to “redevelop” the site.

And it looks like I was right to be uneasy. “Le Bok Fin” will feature a French menu, and put the kitchen that used to train teenagers to use. I wonder how many of the neighbors will be able to afford a meal there. Even its name is a reference that most of the neighborhood won’t get–to possibly the most bourgeoisie restaurant ever in Philadelphia. I wonder how many will even have the time, as time poverty is an issue that often gets overlooked. Scannapieco got a grant for “community” use, but the dog park just smacks of trying to lure millennials east of East Passyunk and west of Pennsport. The neighbors in this community do not need a dog park. This underserved neighborhood needs affordable healthcare and childcare, ESL classes, business and finance classes in multiple languages, better jobs, living wages, technology classes, immigration services, and the such. It doesn’t need dog parks, a bus shelter for an alternate-route bus and a “living room.”

“Artisan industrial” space, retail, housing–how much of this will be geared toward the actual community? Possibly a token amount, but more likely none at all. And so Scannapieco clearly hopes to usher in gentrification with her “makerspace.” It’s a pretty easy conclusion when other Philly makerspaces are in Graduate Hospital and Kensington, both battlefronts in the gentrification war Philadelphia is currently waging again long-term residents.

Further, who are the “makers?” They’re young, white people–the sort who build start-ups and attend expensive, pointless pop-ups and don’t worry about the community that was already there. Will they invite in kids for free workshops (with meals provided)? Will they hire the community and train them for meaningful jobs, not just as janitors? Will they pay a living wage if they do? What will they do for parents and adults who are too busy to be “makers”? Is this a space for everyone, or a space for those privileged few who can afford myriad luxuries–the first of which might be the ability to be a “maker” in the first place?

Scannapieco aims to build a community, but the community already exists. Taking a building that educated their children into the middle class and instead using it to showcase the very worse of the middle- and upper-middle classes in Philadelphia is tone deaf. It’s insulting, and it’s wrong.