Community gardening knocks vacant buildings to the ground

Emaleigh Doley stands in the middle of a gravel field, where little remains of the former 3-story houses that loomed over her Germantown neighborhood street for 20 years. Doley is one of West Rockland Street’s three block co-captains and says the crumbling houses were an “extreme danger” to her community.

The houses were in no condition to be re-habbed after a fire totaled the properties years ago and a combination of squatters and drug activity in the vacant homes has plagued her block ever since, according to Doley.

Doley said for years contractors would illegally dump excess materials into the alley after working nearby. “Everything you could imagine was constantly being dumped.”

Even after clean up efforts by the local church and neighbors it was an uphill battle. “It was a nightmare,” she said.

Recently a dumpster appeared in the alley. Doley thought they were going to demolish the buildings.

“I thought they were going to do something, but they were just stealing,” said Doley.

Contractors striped the houses of usable material leaving a new mess behind them, she said.

Doley, a longtime resident of West Rockland Street, said once during a clean-up she and volunteers collected over 100 little bags of dog feces from an empty lot next to the abandonned homes.

Two of the property owners were the Philadelphia Housing Authority and the City of Philadelphia. The middle land parcel along Greene street is still owned by a now defunct church that owes almost $30,000 in tax liens.

Three years ago Emaleigh and her sister Aine began to lobby the city for a solution.

L&I finally told them one of the buildings would be demolished a few months ago.

Grow this block

Unsure if the blighted landscape would change anytime soon, the Doley sisters switched gears. After years of block clean ups, they wanted to do something different. Recently, the sisters partnered with local gardening organizations to contribute to a day-long planting of gardens along their street. They even grew some plants from seed themselves to contribute to the effort.

The event dubbed, “Grow this Block” garnered television crews and even a surprise visit from Mayor Nutter who was inspired by their efforts. He told them that the city wanted to work with active neighborhoods who needed an extra hand.

Doley says the gardening day was a huge success, even beyond the mayor’s visit.

“The goal was to bring resources to people so they could create something for themselves,” she said, referring to the mini-tool library residents could utilize during planting day along with the donated plants.

She said over 20 residents signed up to create their own gardens, and it wasn’t just those looking to improve their own property. “These [houses] are both rentals,” said Doley, as she pointed out two freshly planted gardens with coleus and pansies.

Demolition

Within a week of the block-wide gardening effort, demolition crews made a surprise visit to West Rockland Street with a plan to tear down both city-owned buildings as soon as possible.

“It’s kind of crazy because it all happened very, very quickly,” Doley said. And one day recently, by the time she got home from work, one of the buildings was nearly gone, she recalled.

Since then Doley said the vacant lot is taking all of her extra time, “I go to work all day then it’s this project at night,” she said, waving her hands at the empty land. “It’s almost like I had a baby, I’m getting no sleep,” she laughed.

For Emaleigh Doley the demolition of the abandoned houses finally gave her a positive experience of local government.

“I think the city is interested in working with communities that are working to help themselves,” she said. Though she admits, in the long run, there are many more issues still to tackle.

Doley knows she and her neighbors need to act quickly before the site becomes a dumping ground again. A chain link fence and beautification garden with raised beds seems to be a likely alternative in the meantime.

Doley said she has a list of volunteers in waiting. Both Doley sisters are also working with the nearby church and school officials to set up a community wide meeting to discuss long term options for the now empty site.

 

Emaleigh Doley documents her neighborhood block efforts on a blog, called http://rocklandstreet.com. See pictures of Mayor Michael Nutter’s visit to West Rockland Street. 

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