Developing the 2nd District, Kenyatta Johnson style
There was only one parameter for this interview: it was to be a walking tour in the 2nd District according Councilman Kenyatta Johnson.
For those just tuning in, Johnson entered office in 2012 after a narrow win over Barbara Capozzi for the open seat left by three-decade City Council veteran Anna Verna. He now faces a formidable challenger in Ori Feibush, whose similar interview with AL DÍA can be found here. It’s a heated race from every angle, one that has drawn analogies to the boxing ring, with plenty of allegations and name-calling.
AL DÍA will keep it simple here. Each candidate was asked to show us around, talk about the problems at hand, and state plainly why he’s the best fit for the job.
‘I’m a walking sense of hope’
Race and economics aside, the 2nd District is geographically diverse as well. It stretches from southwest Center City through the southwest neighborhoods, and then all the way down to the Navy Yard, the Airport, and across the Schuylkill River. Both candidates chose to meet in Point Breeze, just a few blocks apart.
Johnson set a meeting point at Reed and 22nd Streets, close to his childhood stomping grounds. We walked south, away from the developing section of the neighborhood area between Washington Avenue and Wharton Street.
For background, Johnson got his first taste of politics as the president of the student body in at Mansfield University. On his college experience as a South Philly native going to a rural liberal arts school, Johnson called it “vacation with homework.” It was “God’s country,” he said.
He returned to his hometown to attend UPenn and obtained his master’s degree in government administration and public finance. He joined Americorps, and later became a state representative in the 186th district.
In the early 90s, Johnson saw a number of his friends and relatives murdered at the height of the crack epidemic. Former Sen. Hardy Williams — father of State Sen. and mayoral candidate Anthony Williams — taught him about the art of political organizing. Johnson said he grew from “a boy to a man” by becoming an activist, organizing protests against youth gun violence.
“I say this humbly, but I’m a walking sense of hope for people in the neighborhood,” he said. “It lifts people’s spirits and hopes that their kids can go do something like that.”
People who know him as a politician call him Councilman or Kenyatta, but those who knew him growing up call him “Yat.”
Over the course of the mid-afternoon hour, Johnson got 27 shoutouts from drivers, people on foot, store owners, his local pastor, and even a few flirtatious women. To all of them, Johnson asked “How are you?” or told them “I’m blessed, I can’t complain. How about yourself?”
Two paths, same problem
When it comes to fixing the schools, Johnson and Feibush agree that more needs to be done. But walking around, they both focused our discussion on a more divisive topic — development.
In their debates, Feibush has criticized Johnson for obstructing much-needed development and, in short, keeping the neighborhood impoverished.
Johnson calls any such claims a “myth.” He cited Rx Pharmacy on Point Breeze Avenue, which opened in June 2013, as an example of a business that met very little opposition and was built with consensus. Johnson said he identified a need, consulted the community, and the business went up in no time.
But that’s just one business on a commercial corridor with dozens of empty storefronts.
“I don’t believe there should be a broad stroke when it comes to zoning and opening up businesses,” Johnson said, gesturing towards new construction on the street. “I believe the community should work in partnership with the business owner and the developer as it relates to opening up a particular business. Example A, OCF coffee shop. We worked through the process of talking with neighbors who wanted it and neighbors who didn’t want it. So that’s where the [waiting] time-frame came from.”
Johnson says he enforces community consensus for a number of reasons. He points to a PHA housing project that sits just blocks from some of Feibush’s new development.
“I don’t think you should just come in, decide what you think the development should be in a particular area. What if it’s a bunch of strip joints? Or a bunch of stop-and-go’s?”
Ultimately, he says he’d like every vacant facility to be occupied. But he believes it will take a lot of incentives for the right small businesses to come and open up. His office has considered a Business Improvement District (BID) — but the lack of businesses, let alone those willing to pay for BID services, makes it an unrealistic feat at the moment. In the meantime, Johnson has supported a city grant to sweep the streets of the Point Breeze Ave. corridor.
But where is the middle ground? Where is the line between encouraging development and obstructing it?
“In terms of the process as it is right now, the process works. In this particular case, you have a developer who has a hard time getting their projects passed based upon their interaction with the community. Other projects on Washington Avenue — a new daycare center, a new bakery, the pharmacy on Point Breeze Avenue — had no problem opening. They also sat down and negotiated with a community.”
Johnson stopped at Ralph Brooks Park on Tasker Street, where kids were playing basketball with an anti-violence mural in the background. Painted on the side of a building is a list the names: Point Breeze residents who were murdered by street violence, one of whom was Johnson’s childhood friend.
The battle for the 2nd District has been pinned as a black and white issue, both literally and figuratively. Old versus new. Market rate housing versus affordable housing. The white out-of-town developer versus the Black neighborhood incumbent.
Johnson says he has always done aggressive outreach, and will continue to do so. He holds “quality of life” meetings for both the black and white, but also the unvoiced minority communities in the neighborhood, from the large Vietnamese to the growing Mexican population.
“That’s a point that’s downplayed a lot. We could do the broad-based policy stuff, but we also want to do constituent services well,” he said.
What can residents expect from a second term with Johnson?
When asked about the three things he’s most proud of accomplishing in his first term as Councilman, Johnson gave the following list:
Affordable housing between $80,000 - $140,000, so that “regardless of your pocketbook you can still live here.” That would be one.
Investing more than $3 million in parks throughout the districts, including the Ralph Brooks Park.
Working with Councilman Bill Greenlee to find funding for 100 new beds for women victims of domestic abuse.