TempleU student reporter comes to EF seeking conflict, discovers cooperation and mild disinterest…
Editor’s Note: Edited from Lindsay’s full article at PhiladelphiaNeighborhoods.com (photos by Lindsay Hargrave & Geneva Heffernan)
East Falls, a 1.45 square mile neighborhood in Northwest Philadelphia that is home to about 9,650 residents, is served by two registered community organizations (RCO’s): East Falls Community Council (EFCC) and East Falls Forward (EFF). Members often find themselves in conflict with one another, reflecting persistent clashes around zoning and development that tend to characterize life in the neighborhood.
The primary function of an RCO is to work with the city to make decisions about zoning. Both organizations work cooperatively with East Falls Development Corporation on zoning issues. EFCC has been active since the 1960s, but some residents became frustrated with its proceedings, believing it to not be adequately transparent and overly aggressive in nature, with attendees and members regularly shouting at each other in meetings. EFF was formed in 2015 as a response.
EFF was started by younger individuals in the community who moved to the neighborhood more recently, while EFCC is largely made up of older “Fallsers,” many of whom have lived in East Falls for decades or their entire lives. This disparity in background and ideology has fueled tension from both parties in regard to how exactly the community should be developed, and even over who is allowed to speak in meetings.
Zoning Issues, Transparency Concerns
While East Falls is one of the least densely-populated neighborhoods in Philadelphia, many residents have an interest in zoning issues and regularly attend public zoning meetings. Frustration with the outcomes of certain zoning variance requests led some members of the community to feel their voices were not being heard by EFCC’s leadership.
“My experience was not easy,” said Felicite Moorman, the current chair of EFF and a five-year resident of East Falls. “Zoning in Philadelphia is difficult to begin with, and so East Falls Forward came about when some neighbors found the process in East Falls to be more onerous than it had to be.”
Moorman said she first encountered the neighborhood’s frustrating zoning process when she was moving to East Falls. In order to obtain the loan she needed to restore the historic home her family was buying, she needed a variance from the community to allow them to create an apartment over her garage. The first time she applied, she was denied. Moorman felt the process was not transparent and did not understand why the request had been turned down. “Behind closed doors, 10 or so people would vote on whether or not you get your variance. You don’t know what happens back there.”
Bill Epstein, the current president of EFCC, denied the voting process was not transparent. “I don’t remember the Community Council doing anything that was not transparent,” he said (Ed Note: In EFCC, zoning variances are not voted on by members but by a committee who convenes privately).
Still, Moorman said aside from a perceived lack of decision-making transparency, negativity and antagonism prevailed in EFCC meetings for a long time, which eventually led to a group of individuals breaking off to form EFF in response.
“I saw a couple of people not treated well at meetings,” she said. “There was a meeting where I went and presented a coed scouting troop and I was met with unabashed anger. And I simply couldn’t place it. I had no idea why.”
Two Newspapers — Sort Of
East Falls’ two newspapers, The Local and East Falls Now, are each affiliated in some degree with one of the neighborhood’s RCOs. In fact, East Fall Now is owned, written and edited by EFCC, in partnership with Chestnut Hill Local. They started printing in May 2018.
The Local (EastFallsLocal.com) by contrast is an independent publication privately owned & operated by Steve and Carolyn Fillmore since 2014. In 2016, Steve became secretary of EFF, and it was also around this time the paper began printing monthly.
The Fillmores started out on social media, recording EFCC proceedings, as well as passive-aggressive encounters with leadership on film and posting those on Facebook and Youtube. The purpose was twofold: to make the content of the meetings more accessible to the general public, as well as raise awareness of the tensions between EFCC and certain residents who felt they were not heard.
“I would never imagine a zoning meeting would be what people want to read about,” Fillmore said. “But you know why? Nobody wants to go.”
Before The Local began publishing, a more traditional, privately-published local paper served the neighborhood. “In fact, the community very much missed The Fallser,” Epstein said. “And we decided it was necessary that we print it, so we came up with the name East Falls Now.”
Though their styles, voice and coverage could not be more different, Moorman and the Fillmores took the decision by the EFCC to circulate another monthly print paper as an antagonistic act toward East Falls Local, a small community-oriented business. “Especially since we have offered numerous times to print together – we’ve even offered them a free monthly center spread, they can have the ad money, whatever,” Fillmore added, “It’s stupid to print two papers for a neighborhood just 1.5 square miles. And kinda weird they’re working with Chestnut Hill Local, and not us.”
Moorman—who is “dear friends” with the Fillmores–seemed puzzled by the EFCC’s decision to publish East Falls Now “a significant period of time since East Falls Local was established and had been serving the community.” She admitted the issue has impacted her relationship with Epstein, “I have been a huge fan of Bill’s until the newspaper, and that just kind of broke my heart because my friends are the small business owners who have the other paper. I just don’t get it.”
Both organizations said there are no controversial zoning issues being considered at the time, and the relationship between the RCOs has been relatively peaceful lately.
“I would say that the current leadership of East Falls Community Council is very welcoming,” Moorman said. “I think that their current leadership is very progressive, trying to be more transparent and trying to cooperate with multiple organizations.”
Epstein said the peaceful climate likely stems from a lack of pertinent issues in the community, “People are more likely to come out to meetings when they’re angry about something, or they disagree and they wanna complain,” he said. “I don’t mean that in a negative way, but people come out to meetings to complain and voice their opinions. And I think they have a right to do that.”
EFF meets 3rd Thursdays at Bulogics (3721 Midvale) for a free community happy hour (pictured) followed by information and discussion on neighborhood topics. Free for all w/ democratic voting (with online option).
Read the full article at PhiladelphiaNeighborhoods.com.
Lindsay Hargrave is a senior journalism student at Temple University. She is enrolled in PhiladelphiaNeighborhoods, the program’s capstone course, and has recently covered the East Falls neighborhood. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.