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Le Bok Fin: The columbusing of community

The plan for a rooftop restaurant and a makerspace reclaimed from the old Bok school in South Philly seems to be shaping itself to a far different community…


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“Gentrification is just the fin above the water. Below is the rest of the shark.”

— Rebecca Solnit

Writer and San Francisco resident

People don’t like the word gentrification. So much so, in fact, that when Next City sponsored a panel on equitable development  in Philadelphia in December 2014, only two of the panelists consistently chose to use the word. As it happens, those panelists were the people of color on the panel. And that is no coincidence.

There is no way to examine or truly talk about urban development in the 21st century without examining the impact of recurrent patterns of expansion on communities of color.  

Equitable development purports to take this into account when advancing plans for economic corridors or new housing in housing-scarce markets — but very often those engaged in equitable development planning are white, affluent and almost certainly not members of the community most likely to be  displaced by the development. 

But what about the early indicators of incipient gentrification? The ones that don’t immediately displace residents? Shouldn’t they be assessed by what they intend to offer, not what they portend? 

The latest conversation involving just those questions is centered on Le Bok Fin (a pop-up members-only rooftop restaurant) and Scout’s development of the former technical school building in South Philadelphia into the Bok — a makerspace catering to creatives, nonprofits and entrepreneurs. 

Kayla Conklin, a teacher at Esperanza Academy Charter School, wrote in her blog (and was further amplified by about her feeling that the huge space could be better used in ways that would serve the existing community. Her post was almost immediately swamped by disgruntled millennials, and even prompted a blog response by candidate-for-Sheriff Christopher Sawyer, in which he called Conklin an SJW (Social Justice Warrior) — an internet term of derision popularized by Gamergate. 

Irrespective of any other argument Sawyer may have with Conklin’s piece, she is absolutely spot-on when she talks about how this plan seems to be shaping itself to a different community than the actual one, which is constituted of Black, Cambodian, Thai, Chinese and Mexican immigrants, in addition to white residents.

Scout has said, on its website for Bok, that it will provide affordable spaces for organizations that provide services for those communities, including “affordable daycare and financial literacy services.” That is a trend that organizations like PHA and individuals like City Council president Darrell Clarke have spoken about in roundtables with AL DÍA, and it is certainly fine. 

But offering affordable spaces to organizations catering to the existing communities is not the same thing as making affordable spaces available to members of that community. 

Immigrants are among the  most entrepreneurial of all U.S. residents — how forward-thinking and radically rooted in community it would have been if Scout had committed to providing truly affordable shared space for Kiva-style micro-loaned micro-enterprises generated from within the community, rather than from without.

There is something elegiac in Scout’s “community” planning for the Bok, which Conklin clearly picks up on and Sawyer doesn’t.  Scout intends to partner with StoryCorps to collect stories about the neighborhood from existing community members. 

As it happens, we love the StoryCorps pieces we hear on NPR, but they are in past tense for a reason. They are most often memories and recollections of people and places long gone — that people want to make sure will be recorded so they’re not forgotten. 

It is emblematic — this well-intentioned, utterly tone-deaf proposal — because it seems to be prepping residents to say goodbye and fade silently into history.  

But we can’t help but applaud and root for those who refuse to “go gentle into  that good night,” and who won’t trade existing communities for dining with a view.


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