Fire-ravaged Thomas Edison building resonates with meanings

    The day after a four-alarm fire engulfed the former Thomas Edison High School in North Philadelphia Wednesday, several people were drawn to the abandoned building. It held very different meanings for them.

    Brendan Higgins, 17, was there.

    As firefighters contended with the still-smoldering ruins inside the building, Higgins explained that he is an “urban explorer.”

    “I go to all of these abandoned places and this was my very first one. It was my favorite one out of the places I’ve been to,” said Higgins.

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    He was in the building the day of the fire with a friend. They were making clay casts of the Gothic stone gargoyles when he saw two children run out of the attic.

    “My buddy seen smoke from the attic. Checked it out, seen the fire. By that time it was already too big to stop. We both got all of our stuff, that whole platform was gone, in flames,” said Higgins. “If I waited another minute I probably wouldn’t be talking to you right now.”

    Higgins said he entered the building through a window without any trouble. On Thursday, he walked around the cavernous school that’s been stripped of every bit of metal by scavengers and pointed out the auto and electrical shop.

    Scott Orens, the owner and developer of the site, walked in with a measuring tape to survey the damage. He and his partners, Mosaic, are planning a multimillion-dollar shopping center at this site with a grocery store, dollar store, electronics shop.

    “Really, unless someone really tries, there’s only a few points of entry that I see right now that I have to take care of. Now if someone wants to get in badly enough they will,” said Orens.

    Magnet for squatters

    Higgins introduced himself and told Orens about being in the building the day before.

    “This [window] was always open. It didn’t seem like anyone really bothered to board anything up,” said Higgins. “That window was open for the longest time. I mean, I’ve hopped in the window with cops sitting there, watching me. No one cared. There’s always someone here, there’s always someone in this area loading up something. It’s basically like a party in here.”

    The scene of homeless squatters, unsupervised minors and scavengers sounds like a developer’s worst nightmare.

    “In the past we’ve actually asked homeless people to stay in abandoned properties to watch them for us and allowed them to stay there rather than try to chase them out,” said Orens. We say, ‘Look, just stay here, just make sure nothing bad happens to the place.’ As long as we feel they’re not going to get hurt, I don’t have any big issues with it.”

    Amid broken glass, rusty nails, asbestos and shattered beams, Orens said he asks that they look for “things that would create an unsafe situation for themselves or someone else. I would like people not to be here but keeping people out is difficult. It just is.”

    Orens said the issue is money. It will cost $11 million to demolish the building and build the shopping center, but Orens said the development probably will be worth only $8 million. He said he has appealed to federal, state and local government for grants and tax breaks to fund the project and fill in the gap.

    A proud graduate

    Before the building was a site for future development, before it was Thomas Edison High or Julia de Borgus Elementary, it was the all-male Northeast High School.

    Don Hackney, an alumnus from the Class of 1958, a former Edison teacher and former president of its alumni board, was at the site Thursday. He called it “heartbreaking.”

    “I’ve been bordering on tears every time I think about what has transpired, what is behind me right now,” he said.

    His wristwatch has red and blue letters: NE. He has two of these watches, in case the battery of one runs out.

    “I think that from the moment I went to Northeast high school, I was called “Mr.” The teachers called us mister. I was Mr. Hackney. They were trying to build men,” he said. “That what this instilled in us. The principal handled us and dealt with us like were men. You are proud men of a proud school, and you need to hold your heads up high and not act simple and do what’s right and be noble.

    “You know, ‘loyal sons are we’ is part of our school song.”

    It is a song Hackney still remembers.

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