The Equity Factor

There’s More to This Philadelphia Block Than a House Collapse

A well-nurtured Philadelphia garden grows where a trash-filled lot used to be. (Photo: Cassie Owens)

The 2600 block of North Myrtlewood in the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philadelphia has been known in recent months as the place where “the whole jawn came down.” The quote, captured by the Daily News, came from a man who was injured by falling debris after a house on the corner partially collapsed in March.

I headed to Myrtlewood last week for the block’s fourth-annual Memorial Day party. L.T.D.’s “Love Ballad” played on the speakers as I walked, through the smell of sausage on the grill and past the kids blowing bubbles, from the now empty corner to the other end, and counted 10 other empty lots and another three that have been sealed by the city Licenses and Inspections department.

Nina Williams elected to stay inside that day. She’s been far too busy preparing for her grandson’s baby shower even to consider cooking for the block party. Besides, she explained, “this is cold weather for me.”

After a decrepit house partially collapsed in March, at this site, the city of Philadelphia demolished the structure. (Photo: Cassie Owens)

Williams — her neighbors respectfully call her “Miss Nina” — maintains an overall nonchalance on most matters, but there are about three things she cares about these days. One would be her family; two would be the slots (preferably in Atlantic City, but if she doesn’t feel like making the trip, she’ll settle for Philly’s Sugarhouse); and three would be the garden she tends next door to her house. “That’s my heart right there,” says Williams.

Miss Nina’s garden feels a little like a tiny park waiting for a bench. The city donated two trees per Williams’ request, which she has surrounded with flowers that will bloom in autumn.

Williams, 76, had followed her father to Philadelphia from Sandersville, Georgia in 1964. In 1970, she settled into the rowhouse she lives in today.

“We didn’t lock no doors or nothing,” Williams recalls when asked how the neighborhood used to be. “It was nice. Now the people that’s here, they don’t care about nobody but just them. Myrtlewood Street ain’t changed. It’s the people that moved to Myrtlewood Street that changed the block. But it don’t bother me because I don’t bother with them.”

She’s made her garden from two tax-delinquent vacant lots. According to the city revenue department website, the long-departed owners owe a combined total of roughly $13,300 in back taxes.

The first lot, 2600 Myrtlewood, was once a community corner store, but city records show that it has been vacant since at least the late ’70s. Williams started to clean it up with the help of a friend in the ’80s.

“See, I’m from down South. And we don’t like that. We lived in the country, and we cleaned up stuff.”

Other longtime residents have a similar story. Dorothy Clapps, who turned her back porch into a mini-greenhouse and has placed plants up and down the stoop of boarded-up houses, pointed to her upbringing in Rock Hill, South Carolina as the source of her hobby. Eunice Dennis, who also hails from South Carolina, took charge of two abandoned lots. She said the hostas she added were the same as the ones she use to grow in her hometown. (I didn’t know I had relatives on Myrtlewood, but when I started reporting, I soon reconnected with Dennis’ family. Dennis is my grandmother’s cousin.) With the help of her daughter, Mary Felder, the block captain, Dennis has put up a peach tree and holly bushes, planted flowers and raised vegetables since the early 2000s.

Vacant lots on a street tightly packed with rowhomes can lend the feeling of missing teeth. In spring, when everything’s blooming, the 2600 block doesn’t really give that impression.

A neighbor dressed up a sealed house on Myrtlewood Street with plants. (Photo: Cassie Owens)

Felder, the block captain, says she called repeatedly about the house at 2650 before the partial collapse and continues to call about the three boarded-up properties that remain. Her complaints are sadly ordinary. Carlton Williams, the city’s L&I commissioner, shared with the Daily News that he had recently spoken to a block captain who had waited 20 years after her first complaint before seeing a building demolished.

When Felder called 311 (Philly’s citizen complaint hotline), she says they told her, “Oh, well, we want to save the houses because if you tear it down, it’s going to shift the other houses.”

Public safety isn’t the only concern. A boarded-up building might attract illegal activity; thieves might target it to steal piping, which then can lead to flooding or fumes seeping into adjoining homes.

Down the block, a light green building has bricks visibly protruding from the exterior and appears slightly sunken. I asked Cassandra Tart, who lives next door, if she’s ever complained. “For what?” she replied. “They don’t do nothing.”

The 2600 block of North Myrtlewood celebrates Memorial Day. (Photo: Cassie Owens)

The day I visit Williams’ L&I office, he’s responding to a complaint personally. A woman believes that the contractors L&I hired damaged her house when they demolished the property adjacent to hers. The contractor has been back twice, but she insists the damage still hasn’t been fixed.

The bureaucratic slog for tearing down an imminently dangerous home is also a cautious one. At multiple steps in the process — from sending the violations to the right owners, to giving them the chance to comply and raze buildings on their own, to the final demolition — the owners can appeal, file damages or sue. Then, after demolitions, there might be calls from the neighbors. The commissioner assures the woman someone will be out to visit a third time that week.

The list of buildings that L&I has deemed imminently dangerous is 568 deep. Of course there’s the matter of having a puny $6 million annual demolition budget. (Next fiscal year, there will be an extra $3 million, but we’ll see about the year after.) Scott Mulderig, L&I’s director of emergency services, emphasizes that the heart of the issue is honoring a proprietor’s civil rights — the stakes rise if an owner alleges his or her property was razed precipitously or in error and decides to hash it out in court.

“In our program, if I take your building, I can’t give it back. It’s gone,” he says. “We have to do our due diligence and give everybody their due process.”

How does L&I decide which buildings to strike off the list first? Mulderig and Williams say the department focuses on corners, which pose a greater risk to walkways, and properties close to playgrounds and other spaces where children might be at play. That of course means that deteriorating houses sandwiched on the inside of the block have to wait longer, becoming more dangerous.

When pressed about the size of the budget versus the magnitude of the problem, the commissioner had this to say: “Ten years ago, the city of Philadelphia floated $300 million to address vacant properties, and I’m still dealing with vacants today. So what does that tell you?”

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By the early 2000s, Miss Nina had been looking after the lot on the corner of Myrtlewood and Huntington for years. The next lot over, 2602 Myrtlewood, was falling apart. L&I inspection logs from then report loose bricks, cracked walls and a partially collapsed roof. Astoundingly, a tree grew inside the property that caused a wall to bulge and fracture further.

“A limb [from another tree outside] fell up there on the wire. Me and my granddaughter were getting ready to go downtown. The nectar went through the transformer,” Williams recalls. “And when me and my granddaughter got ready to walk out the door, I said, ‘where’d this smoke come from?’ I don’t know how long it had been burning. But then all the windows blew out.”

An L&I inspector noted the fire damage in August 2004. The building was finally demolished 13 months later.

After 2602 went down, Williams filled out all the paperwork with the city to look after that lot too. She paid out of pocket to remove leftover brick and replace the soil with arable dirt.

“I couldn’t have lived with it like that. [Then] people come by with the trash and the cups,” she says as she swats with disdain.

Williams says the fact that empty lots often turn into “trash receptacles” is one reason the city should be more wary of demolition-happy initiatives.

What should be done with properties like 2602 Myrtlewood? It was vacant, listed as unsafe and degraded to a point where it was no longer a workable space. “What I’m trying to state is,” Williams says, “we need to get it before the tree starts to grow.”

On Memorial Day, Dorothy Clapps decided to skip the block party too. She’s not much for the smell of barbecue. In her house, the plants don’t just stay in her back porch greenhouse. They make up a “curtain” for a parlor window and are scattered throughout the home. She says she started placing plants outside of a sealed-up house on the block for two reasons: Men were starting to smoke on it, and the house looked awful.

“We’re just trying to make our neighborhood better,” Clapps states. “It’ll make the place look good, and that’s what we’re about.”

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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