The Great Asian Gentrification of The Neighborhood I was Raised in

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Before I start, it should be known I’m far from an investigative journalist. While I’m a keen observer, capable of basic research — I’m no Walter Cronkite. However, I’ve lived in the same middle class neighborhood of Mayfair, in Northeast Philadelphia for all 31 years of my life. I’ve seen it grow, change and eventually start to decline and decay from the inside out. I know the five square mile area like the back of my hand. I know the owners of the small businesses I frequent on a first name basis. There was a time, I knew every neighbor on the street I grew up on. The street my Father still rents an apartment on — the same one he has for the last 35 years.

Mayfair used to be a primarily white, Irish-Catholic, middle class neighborhood. I’d like it understood, I’m not one of those people who “prefers it that way”. In other words, I’m not passively aggressively racist. Those are just facts about the neighborhood I grew up in. I don’t even look white, I don’t identify as Irish and I’m not religious enough to call myself a Catholic.

Roughly six years ago, I moved in with my ailing Grandmother, in order to take care of her on a full time basis because she was diagnosed with the beginning stages of Dementia/Alzheimer’s as well as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Her house was located just outside of Mayfair — in an area considered to be the Greater Northeast of Philadelphia.

It was around this time I began hearing an Uncle of mine who lived in my Grandmother’s neighborhood talk about how Asian investors with New York license plates were buying up a good bulk of the houses that went up for sale in the area. He said this concerned him because he was afraid they’d recklessly rent out homes without doing due diligence on prospective tenants — and properties once owned by proud home owners who lived there and maintained the upkeep on it would instead be rented out to whomever. People who didn’t necessarily care about the appearance of the property because they were just renting. Again, I’ve rented my entire life and those are not my views.

Sure enough, the house next door to my Grandmother’s went up for sale and was bought by Asian investors, with New York license plates. A few months later — what at first glance appeared to be a nice Spanish family, moved in. They didn’t speak a word of English, however they seemed like nice enough people.

A month later, they brought home a pet rooster. They let the rooster run loose in their yard and it cockle doodle doo’ed at will. From the crack of dawn, to around dinner time — this rooster just let loose as it pleased. This didn’t help my Grandmother’s dementia, to say the least. It woke her up in the morning and often interrupted her otherwise quiet afternoons. What was at first funny and quirky became a major problem.

I tried speaking to the neighbors about it — but didn’t get very far because they didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Spanish. Eventually, I had enough and called animal control due to the fact it’s illegal to own a rooster inside the city limits. However, nothing was done. The rooster’s onslaught continued.

It honestly got to the point I considered letting it loose or killing it. Before it ever got that far, the DEA kicked the door in and arrested three of the men who lived there for apparently trafficking narcotics. I spoke to the agents outside, as the house was being searched and was told $10,000 in cash and $25,000 worth of heroin was found inside the house. Needless to say, they weren’t our neighbors after that.

I tell this story, with it being the one negative experience I’ve had since the apparent changes started taking place in my neighborhood. Shortly thereafter, we got my Grandmother the full time professional care she needed and I moved back into the heart of Mayfair in late 2014.

Photo of where many consider to be the heart of Mayfair, the intersection of Cottman & Frankford Avenues

Though I hadn’t been gone long, the ten minute drive back into Mayfair was eye opening. It wasn’t the same neighborhood I left — not even two years earlier. My Dad’s block, which as I said was the street I grew up on was changing and not for the better. Drugs had begun to ravage the neighborhood. The opiate epidemic ran absolutely rampant through all of Northeast Philadelphia (like so many other places in America). Addiction and the tragedies and travesties that come with it gave Mayfair and the surrounding neighborhoods of Tacony, Holmesburg and Morrell Park a face lift it won’t soon forget. Unemployment, crime and overdoses became more and more common in the once quiet, middle class neighborhood I grew up in.

Then, a peculiar thing started happening. An Asian owned realty company began sinking massive amounts of money into real estate in Mayfair, as they had already been doing in the greater northeast. One in particular — Hk99 Realty — seemed to be purchasing practically any house that went on the market in the area. This made obvious by the growing number of HK99 Realty signs that started popping up on lawns.

One of the many hats I wear, is one of a general laborer for contracting and home remodeling companies. I have friends who flip houses for a living and often pickup work through them, fixing up investment properties and getting them ready to put on the market. I’ve done so since I was a teenager and while I’m no Grant Cardone, I know a thing or two about a thing or two when it comes to real estate.

That being said, as I noticed HK99 realty and a handful of other primarily Asian owned and operated real estate investment companies and private investors snatching property in the area up left and right, I advised those friends to start buying investment properties in Mayfair and one listened.

It took us roughly a month to fix up — and Asian investors grabbed it off the market a little over a week after it went up for sale.

During this time, My father’s next door neighbor of 30 years put her house up for sale. An Asian family moved in less than three weeks later. I don’t even recall seeing a for sale sign go up. They spent a ridiculous amount of time gutting the house and renovating it — from what I assume to be top to bottom. As I said, I’m more than familiar with the process, it should have taken them about a third of the time it did to renovate it. In fact, they’ve been there well over a year now and you can still hear power tools being used regularly.

While I don’t understand what they could possibly still be doing, I’m sure they’ve turned it into an absolutely beautiful home. Judging by the amount of time they’ve spent working on it and the money it must’ve cost them — I’d imagine it’s close to immaculate. Though there’s not much room for communication being they don’t speak much English, they’re very friendly and despite the power tools being used at random early in the morning — they’re by no means bad neighbors. They’re respectful and stick to themselves.

As an effect of all I’ve mentioned, property values in the area have gone up a comical amount in just under two years time. Homes that were beginning to dip under $100,000.00 are selling for close to twice that — in a fraction of the time. It’s not just homes either — they’re buying up the commercial real estate as well, opening businesses and renting out the buildings where they’re not. Asian supermarkets and marketplaces have become more and more common. I’m referring to ones to which I can’t even read the sign out front — because they’re not in English.

Though I used the word gentrification, in many ways it feels like more of a revitalization. However, one not initiated by Mayfair residents themselves and is no doubt raising the cost of rent and property values in the area, forcing some residents to look elsewhere. The textbook definition of gentrification.

And let it be understood — though I may be alone in feeling this way, I think it’s absolutely wonderful.

What I mean by that is while in a way it’s sad to see the neighborhood changing from what it once was, it’s better than losing it to the likes of crime and drugs. You’ll frequently see elder Asians collecting bags and bags of aluminum cans out of recycling bins in the neighborhood on trash day. I assume this is for the resale value. Typically when you’ll see this, is before the crack of dawn. I see them doing so when I head out for my morning run, on days the recycling truck is scheduled to come around for pickup.

To me, that just demonstrates work ethic. It’s preferred over the homeless addicts and alcoholics who ask me for change as I leave local convenient stores — a once common occurrence that’s seemingly miraculously decreasing, in my direct area. I can’t help but feel this is a direct result of who is buying all the real estate in the area. While I’ll admit it’s a bit puzzling, I’m of the belief it is what this area needed and better than the alternatives — ones that once looked inevitable.

Listen, I’m not basing this off one or two houses or realty companies. Ninety percent of my friends who reside and rent in the area now have Asian landlords. They own a large majority of the houses on the block I grew up on and just recently purchased two more properties on the next block over as well. I know this from seeing it with my own eyes. The New York License plates on the high end luxury cars parked out back and the immediate renovations that ensue after they pull up. It’s obvious to anyone with eyes.

Now, after thirty five years — my Father’s landlord has decided to sell. While I can’t say this for sure, I’m assuming it’s because of the recent rise in property values. One I’m certain the various Asian investors are almost solely responsible for and I’m in many ways grateful for. To watch the neighborhood I was born and raised crash and burn would be devastating. While it could very much still happen, it’s certainly not the direction it’s been trending.

Also, I apologize for referring to the investors as Asian, as opposed to their specific Country of descent or where they’re originally from. While it could be assumed the letters HK in HK99 Realty stand for Hong Kong, I didn’t want to ignorantly do so. As I’ve said, the large majority of them stick to themselves and don’t speak much English, if any at all. I’ve never asked where they’re from — frankly it’s not my business. I also think it matters very little where they’re from, if it’s good for the neighborhood overall. While I’m of the belief it is, I suppose only time will truly tell.



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Brian Brewington

Writing About the Human Condition, via My Thoughts, Observations, Experiences, and Opinions — Founder of Journal of Journeys and BRB INC ©