It’s about to get personal, East Falls. You’ll love or hate our thoroughly biased run-down of local players including EFDC, EFCC and newcomer EFF, offered here in the hopes of clearing the air & opening up neighborhood discussion.
East Falls is a mullet of a neighborhood, a black and white cookie, a moped.
Urban and leafy. Students and families. “Ridge rats” and “90210.” Shiny new tech amid the bones of an old mill town. Empty storefronts, languishing historic properties. Mud-slinging between community groups that meanwhile are still working together behind the scenes (and in plain sight, too).
We offer our observations after studying & writing about East Falls history for over a year, plus about nine months of interviewing pretty much everyone who will talk to us. Seriously, if you haven’t been interviewed yet, write editor@EastFallsLocal.com so we can come over, pick your brain & snoop all over your house or office!
And by the way HUGE THANKS to everyone who took us up on such a crazy proposition, the whole lot of ya. What a colorful, diverse cast of characters we’ve had the pleasure of meeting! Which leads us to our first question…
What’s the deal with “Fallsers?”
Ahem. This issue can make people bristle but let’s keep it real — when talking about natives, East Fallsers tend to recognize two very distinct demos known as “upper” (from the green streets around PhillyU, Penn Charter, Timber/Apalogen) and “lower” (of urban rowhomes around the train station & river), each with its own stereotypical caricature, that we shall attempt to illustrate here with very scientific renderings:
A generalization, of course, but you get the picture. Makes sense given the history of the area: workers and middle management down near the factories and the owners living in posh estates “up the hill.” The Hohenadels are a perfect example, managing their family brewery and living at the bottom of Indian Queen Lane until they made enough money to move to the Timmons House (now on the campus of Penn Charter).
Traditionally, the lowers largely left local politics to the uppers — who’d been their bosses, after all — and even until recently this attitude towards community planning seemed to be the overriding status quo. “Lowers” who wanted to influence local politics tended to turn to the 38th ward (which stretches from Hunting Park Ave. all the way to Schoolhouse Lane). This allowed them to work on projects bordering Allegheny West that the “Uppers” tended to ignore in Community Council meetings.
The Times They Are A-Changing
Lately, though, seems there’s been tension growing between “lower” residents/businesses that are pushing for urban development on Ridge, Conrad, and Midvale (to name a few), and those who live in the “upper” Falls who tend to prefer leafy, quiet streets. Looks to us like the latter population (generally older & more conservative) has been struggling with how to serve their membership now so many “Lowers” — new and old residents, both — are finding their voice, and wanting in.
What’s Going On?
Two things seem to be happening: first, East Falls’ “lower” demo is changing, growing more diverse and urban as professionals from Fairmount, South Philly, Northern Liberties, etc. seem to be finding East Falls all at once. They’re lured here by our awesome greenspace, walkable streets, and convenient bike & train access — then sold on our historic rowhomes, which are far bigger and cheaper than anything you could find closer to the city.
And second, these big families who’ve lived here generations without wanting or needing much say in community council are connecting online, reading about things happening in their hometown, and getting involved!
Philadelphia Speaks, Nextdoor, Google forums, Everyblock, and Facebook groups like “I’m From East Falls” are connecting people and helping them get involved like never before. (of course East Falls Local is doing its part with a Facebook page and comments section on the site here.)
Who doesn’t love a soapbox? It makes sense that new groups would organize to make use of this new digital town square, especially if the old ones don’t or won’t.
But how many organizations does one neighborhood need?
And, what, exactly, are the ones we have now?
We tried to start with the basics, adding links that’ll help you dig further if you’d like. We’re curious bloggers offering you our best run-down as we see it, but we’re not journalists. We’re neighbors. As such, our views are colored by living here and interacting with all these people.
But ya know what? These officers listed below have major history with each other, too, going back at least a decade — except for the president of the newest group, herself a neighbor here less than half a year. We all have one thing in common: this is our home.
We all do our best to be fair & objective, but that’s kinda like asking a doctor to operate on her own son. We’re all a little too close to pretend our views aren’t biased. And that’s OK:
The better we can share and explore our wants, needs & motivations, the more effectively we’ll be able to communicate towards common goals.
Let’s review East Falls’ political landscape, now, fully shaded with our own personal insights & interactions for review & discussion. Again, we’re not professional journalists and if you notice errors, kindly point ’em out and we’ll update the site as needed, thanks.
Opposing info and viewpoints? Lay ’em on us, let’s figure stuff out. Cheers for community & transparency in the Internet Age, and for positive change and growth in East Falls.
WHO’S WHO IN LOCAL POLITICS (click on maps, to enlarge):
The largest influential organization in these parts in our estimation is the 38th Ward, which covers large parts of Allegheny West and most of East Falls. Ward Leader Mark Green lives in Allegheny West (right up from Laurel Hill) and works with Curtis Jones and Bill Greenlee and also with Rose Cooper of RAH on many projects such as St. James School’s Neighborhood Kitchen, new murals & SEPTA improvements, and also last Spring’s community clean-up (where this photo was snapped).
Full disclosure: we’ve designed some event flyers for Mark, and covered quite a few events (pro bono) — we often walk our dog into RAH, so our paths literally cross here. From what we can tell, Mark has tensions/baggage with both EFCC and EFDC, but regardless, he’s had a good deal of influence especially in the lower Falls where many residents are ward members.
At meetings, he’s agreeable and engaging — a friendly, hands-on kinda leader. He listens, takes names & notes, seems happy to help.
Next, seems to us EFDC has got some pretty big sway, thanks to grant money and influential partnerships it was created by the EF Business Association to seek out in the first place. A non-profit agency, Gina Snyder is its first and only full-time employee, who oversees the area’s two biggest events: the Bike Race Block Party and Dance on the Falls Bridge. The organization also provides community info for potential residents & businesses, and works with various city agencies to promote surveys and development projects.
The EFDC’s governing board includes by our count 21 individuals representing various community interests including Community Council, RAH, the mayor’s office, Comcast, Billy Murphy’s, National Penn Bank, etc. plus they’ve got a vacant seat waiting for Falls Ridge tenant council (when/if the housing is built).
Regardless of this wide-ranging scope of input, much local development is still often at odds with Community Council’s gauntlet of requirements for renting property or setting up shop here. EFCC’s contracts can be notoriously specific in what proprietors can and can’t do, locking them into rigid agreements that might limit hours/operations, curtail expansion or even require that a zoning variance expire when an owner sells his business (making the sale more difficult for a prospective buyer, who must apply for a variance in addition to starting up his business). Many entrepreneurs have a problem with this, and EFDC’s smack-dab in the middle.
Another bristly issue for EFDC is an on-going “border war” between East Falls and Ridge-Allegheny West. While EFDC lists no official borders in its bylaws, its agreed-upon service area is “East Falls.” Pretty general.
RCOs, however, need to be more specific to address codes & variances & such. For the last decade or so, members from both EFCC & RAH have been wrestling with which organization has say over businesses and development on & around Scotts Lane, especially as it butts up to Ridge Avenue. (Curtis Jones’ office has been often been brought into these spats.)
For some reason we have not yet been able to nail down, Gina has been a lightning rod in these skirmishes. As far as we can tell, both EFCC and RAH blame EFDC for “poaching” new businesses for “her” organization — which baffles us. What does that even mean?!
Here’s another puzzler: prominent members of both EFCC and RAH, each, have told us they know for certain that EFDC makes new businesses sign a contract before they’re “allowed” to set up shop in East Falls — the insinuation is that Gina drives a hard bargain, right? “She gets her taste, ” we’ve been told from more than one source.
Except there’s no contract. EFDC gets no “taste,” not even a little something-something, in this sense. Now, these are good folks who we cannot imagine would lie so boldly to our faces and notepads. Almost seems like somewhere, there’s deliberate misinformation going on. But from where?
Kinda looks to us like RAH & EFCC seem to enjoy having a common enemy: if you believe the rumor mill, Gina’s sneaky, cunning, loaded with cash and on a quest rule the world. The first time we met her, we came away totally mystified by how poorly our intel had prepared us.
We’re still confused, frankly, cause Gina seems to us a perfectly nice lady, and a highly-motivated neighborhood representative. We’ve dragged all kinds of people into her office, and she’s always been polite and patient, glad to share what she knows about everything from our schools to our parks to our political infrastructure.
NOTE: Although Bill Epstein was elected as president this past June, he hasn’t been sworn in yet. He’ll take over as president after the September EFCC meeting.
Ah, EFCC. The first community organization we ever encountered, showing up at dog park meetings in early 2014. We found the dog park group from a doggie costume party at Franklins in October 2013, hosted by Lizzie Charlick-Bray who by the Spring had been replaced by Claire Stilley (EFCC 2nd VP at the time) and some sort of “site committee” who would update us all at monthly meetings about where & how the dog park plans were coming.
Whatever, seemed suddenly the dog park was under EFCC’s 501c3 “umbrella” (which is actually where it started in 2012 before Lizzie picked it up after it had been abandoned). Not everyone remembered voting Lizzie out & Claire in (including Lizzie) — so right off the bat, there was rumbling. Things fell apart pretty quickly from there. The last public meeting was this passed February, where the group members split literally to separate tables, with several refusing to speak with each other.
That was weird. But unfortunately not an isolated event — we’ve had similarly “WTF?” experiences with Mifflin and the Historical Society, as well as baffling personal interactions. Related? No idea. No one will talk to us.
Which is really the problem — not just for us personally, but for all the different demographics and special interests of East Falls, who need to be heard with fairness and respect. We’ve yet to witness healthy conflict resolution here, seems if you’re on the unpopular side of an issue: BAM! You’re frozen out or jumped on.
In the 9 months we’ve been attending EFCC meetings, we’ve seen people yelled at, talked down to, mocked and even called names by “regulars” who should know better. Leadership does nothing, and in fact has participated.
Protocol for EFCC meetings seems to encourage “group think” and deference to authority. First, we gather in a church, of all places. Executive members sit up front, with the council “regulars” fanning out thru the center pews from there. Meetings start with an address by the President, and then each executive member stands to read their report, followed by a back & forth with the audience that’s usually kinda negative and not terribly productive. Meetings can run on for hours this way (or maybe it just seems like it, ha).
To many GenX/Millennial minds, this hierarchical model is outdated and even offensive — grassroots efforts seek consensus, now, with modern response times and participation of the whole group, not just committees. If EFCC is to attract a younger, more diverse & active membership, the organization will need to learn to play nice with all demos, and stop excusing other members for unwelcoming behavior at meetings, or when speaking to neighbors as a committee representative.
Our neighbors, RAH, with whom we share a border along Scotts Lane — our very own local “contested area,” where two community organizations weigh in on all matters of business & zoning (disagreements are settled by Councilman Curtis Jones).
This past year, we attended a few RAH meetings — what a difference from EFCC’s! Held in St. James School’s cafeteria, everyone sits at round, low tables. Rose Cooper, president of the Civic Association, leads an open, inviting discussion with lots of straw polls and chiming in from the audience. Members seemed relaxed, comfortable, interested.
Rose has also been a fantastic guide to her neighborhood, introducing us to St. James School, Mural Arts projects, and the good people of Forgotten Park off Ridge Avenue (who she’s helping to organize into their own community group).
Historically, there’s been a lot of racial tension between RAH and East Falls — ask a local about two Halloweens here not long ago, or about Schuylkill Falls projects. Though RAH is understandably guarded towards East Falls, we believe they’re ready to hit the reset button for any community organization who truly wants to work together, and isn’t just looking to create another committee doing god-knows-what in their neighborhood.
Speaking of — Rose told us she’s personally optimistic about East Falls Forward’s desire to support open communication between our two organizations, as long as they’re serious about transparency. And they stay clear of Scotts Lane, which seems to be a real sticking point.
Last and least, as well, actually — as in, this organization has settled on the very least required to be recognized as an RCO in Philadelphia. They haven’t even voted on their boundaries yet.
Seems the ones presented at their first (and only other) public meeting did not create a sufficiently enclosed area for the City Planning Commission, so whoever was filing EFF”s application on that end suggested comically big borders that the membership has yet to vote on. To this end, EFF is currently revamping its online forum to provide seamless registration, voting and accountability.
Since so much remains to be seen with EFF, we’re happy to provide some background. Full disclosure: we had ring-side seats! We’re members, and have been friends with a lot of these guys, and oh how we’ve brainstormed this past year. Socially — nothing official. Usually over wine, beers, coffee, dog walks… We’ve helped with research & admin, but so has everyone else. EFF has been a group effort, with neighbors pitching in as needed.
No, we are not all puppets of Gina Snyder/EFDC.
In fact, despite what John Gillespie carelessly put down in print next to his own name: EFF is not an extension/creation/arm of EFDC, nor is EFDC “actively recruiting” for EFF.
Totally false. Whoops. Not that we’re sticklers for facts or anything but wow, that’s a big one to get so wrong.
Still — EFF’s not kidding about wanting to work with other local organizations. There’s a development survey circulating in EFF’s forum right now, posted by a PhillyU grad student working with an EFDC intern.
The week after that first meeting, EFF’s officers met informally with council members from RAH, EFDC and EFCC in an effort to extend olive branches all around. Right now, the group’s executive council posted a “Nothing to See Here” message on EFF’s homepage, while volunteers tighten up tech and try to enjoy their Summer.
Fingers crossed for East Falls Forward, it could really become something cool if enough people get involved. Seems to us East Falls could use a good goose! Hoping a fresh start with this totally new cast of characters’ll be just the thing to clear the air around here, and stimulate new projects we can all benefit from.
UPDATE 11-13-15: Welp, that was fast. No new officers will be elected for December, apparently the existing officers have decided to dissolve the organization (as far as we can tell), citing extreme business and communication issues. Subversive upstarts, however, might be picking up the ball in 2016. Stay tuned…