In West Philadelphia, a neighborhood group is using feces in a battle against gentrification — and right now, they appear to be winning the fight.
Developer Meir Gelley had permits in place to begin construction on a new 76-unit apartment building, which was set to be built on a vacant lot, once used as a dog park. But before Gelley could break ground, he ran into organized resistance from the neighbors in the community who opposed the construction of what they claimed threatened to gentrify the neighborhood and displace longtime Black residents.
In March 2021, West Philly United Neighbors sent a letter to the people living near the planned development, asking them to help block the construction of the new building. The weapon they chose to fight back with? Their own shit.
“We understand you may be concerned about the development at 48th and Chester Ave. (the dog park and adjacent lots),” the letter read. “To fight gentrification, we are collaborating with biomedical researchers to investigate if the development would adversely affect the neighbors’ microbiata and increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer.”
That update was followed by a strange and unexpected call to action. “Could you please donate your fecal sample (a fingernail size)?”
Once Twitter got a hold of the story, many pointed out that the letter also used the late actor Chadwick Boseman as an example of the threat colorectal cancer poses for the people of Philadelphia.
West Philadelphia Councilmember Jamie Gauthier told the Philly Press Review that her office was overwhelmed by the community response to the proposed development, and after hearing from her constituents, she put out a statement expressing her opposition to the current proposal. However, she also pointed out that the proposed development’s affordable housing units — of the proposed 76 units, 15 would offer reduced rent — called for the two sides to come together and find common ground.
The development is now on hold after a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge ruled that “the city’s zoning board had failed to provide evidence to support its conclusion that the property owner faced a hardship in developing his property at 48th Street and Chester Avenue that would justify zoning exceptions that the city granted in June,” according to the Inquirer. Which means that Gelley will have to go before the zoning board once more and relitigate his case in order to move forward.
Neighborhood resistance, however, is unlikely to change; at the March 2021 meeting for the zoning board, all but five of the 69 neighbors who live within 250 feet of the proposed development showed up to express their opposition, and a petition against the project had been signed by hundreds of others.
Gelley’s lawyer, Brett D. Feldman, called the latest court order, “more of a temporary delay to allow some additional fact-finding to occur.” He later added, “We remain absolutely committed to developing this project, which we think is a great project.” Feldman also praised the opposition for helping his client to prepare a stronger case for plans: “This project is light-years better than it was when we first presented the first plan back in December. We got so much great feedback, so much intelligent feedback, from neighbors, from city officials, from city planning, from community groups. It was better because of some of the yelling that we got. It was better because the people who live right there, they know the site better than anyone.”
Councilmember Gauthier appears to at least agree on the latter part. “I continue to believe deeply in residents’ right to have a strong say in the vision for their neighborhoods,” she reiterated.
The message from what is now known as the “poop building” is clear: If you want to raise attention around a threat of gentrification, ask your neighbors for some fecal samples. Community action around zoning board meetings can be a tough sell, but that doesn’t mean people don’t give a shit.