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Mantua is a neighborhood in the West Philadelphia section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is located north of Spring Garden Street, east of 40th Street, south of Mantua Avenue, and west of 31st Street. The neighborhood's northern and western reaches are predominantly working-class and African American, although its southern border with Powelton Village has seen recent gentrification and an influx of Drexel University student renters.
Prior to the 1940s, Mantua was a predominately white, Lutheran neighborhood. However, these decades mark the time when black families began moving into the area’s boundaries. The 1950s are what is seen as the peak of the neighborhood, which boasted a stunning commercial district on Haverford Avenue.
Beginning in the early- to mid-1960s, the 19,000 neighborhood residents started seeing the beginnings of gang warfare. Despite the prevalence of crime and violence on the streets, community activists like Herman Wrice and Andrew Jenkins came together to form the Young Great Society and the Mantua Community Planners.
These committees held community functions almost daily. Functions included arts and crafts, vocal groups, day trips, and tutoring sessions. As Police Commissioner, Frank Rizzo gave Mantua community leaders access to local police stations. If a local kid was arrested due to gang-related activities, community leaders would post bail and safely escort these residents home. In return, these activists would work with police to help deter kids from future participation in street life. Although these committees were ultimately trying to keep young residents off the streets, Mantua was one of the most crime-laden neighborhoods in Philadelphia.
Over the course of the decade, six major gangs called the 10.5 block area of Mantua their home. Between 1960 and 1969, Mantua recorded about 10% of total city gang killings. Mantua became one of the worst areas of the 16th precinct, and the Philadelphia Police Department often assigned patrols in Mantua to officers as punishment.
Andrew Jenkins and the Mantua Community Planners began working with the city to build a recreation center in Mantua. However, gang violence continuously delayed these efforts. The neighborhood’s first recreation center finally opened on what is now 34th Street and Haverford Avenue. In addition to the playgrounds, ball courts, and offices featured at most recreation centers, this one also housed a free library, and holding a library card was a requirement for entrance to the play centers.
Despite the crime, Wrice's Young Great Society and Jenkins' Mantua Community Planners fought to incorporate urban renewal programs, such as the planting of trees and building of housing units. Mt. Vernon Manor, a collection of apartment buildings, was once such development project.
Andrew Jenkins began an eight-year stint as Deputy Mayor, and in 1988 Herman Wrice formed Mantua Against Drugs (MAD). Wrice led community marches against drugs and put up wanted posters of the drug dealers that operated freely on the corners.
Despite Wrice’s efforts, infighting between community leaders prevented a lot of potential progress. According to Jenkins, “The lowest point of the neighborhood was in the late 80s. The biggest failure of the Mantua Community was the jealousy of the leaders who were not successful; they attacked the leaders that were. They put rumors and stigmas on active leaders – that’s what destroyed the neighborhood.”
Although the drug trade began winding down in the 1990s, the community was feeling its lasting effects. The number of residents in the community fluttered around 6,000 most of the decade, and several hundred vacant lots dotted the streets. The movie theaters, retail outlets, and galleries that resided in Mantua during the 1950s were replaced by small delis and grab-and-go beer stores.
In the late-1990s, many of the abandoned lots and buildings were bought, renovated, and put on the market for rent. The neighborhood saw an influx of college students from Drexel University, among other institutions, move into the area in search of affordable housing.
It is estimated that between 500 and 1000 college-aged students are living in Mantua. This growing number of students has brought renewed interest to the Mantua community from the expanding university system to the south, consisting mainly of Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania.
In 2002, Rick Young formed the Mantua Community Improvement Committee (MCIC) in part to collaborate the goals of Mantua residents with the goals of its neighbors and the City of Philadelphia. In addition to working with local institutions, the MCIC also has initiatives in place, such as the Mantua Neighborhood Special Service District, to attract commercial investors and homebuyers to the neighborhood.
Mantua is currently undergoing revitalization, in part to the organizational leadership provided by the MCIC and services provided by the city and university systems.
In 2005 the formation of Mantua Cares by community residents including the family of the former community activist Herman Wrice was launched to address the youth perspective on developing the community. Since its inception Mantua Cares has been able to launch youth programs rooted in entrepreneurship, place students in internships and provide jobs after school to Mantua's youth with the sole intent of engaging them in the community. Their unique approach with the inclusion of youth involvement to develop and maintain programs has been successful. Under the direction of E. Darnell Ryans III, the organization has won several local and city awards for their commitment to this community.