Kensington: By cleaning vacant lots, neighbors help redefine a troubled community

Article originally posted to Philadelphia Neighborhoods on April 16th 2011 by John Paul Titlow

If Juan Marrero had his way, the City of Philadelphia would tear down the fence in front of that trash-strewn vacant lot down the street from his house. If the City just did that, Marrero insists that he and his neighbors could take care of the rest – keeping that vacant lot clean.

Marrero, who serves as the block captain of the 1800 block of Huntingdon Street in Kensington, knows all too well the damning costs that can come with abandoned lots in this neighborhood.

Just around the corner from the house Marrero has owned for 17 years stands a makeshift memorial to Nicole Piacentini, a 35-year-old woman whose body was found last November next to an abandoned building at Jasper and Cumberland streets. Piacentini, like two other victims of a killer dubbed the “Kensington Strangler,” was found dead on grounds of an abandoned property, a vacant lot that was overrun by weeds and other foliage.

After Piacentini’s body was recovered, the city cut down the overgrown foliage, demolished the abandoned house and cleaned up the lot. After that clean-out members of the community then erected the memorial for Piacentini that stands there today.

“It takes somebody to die for the lots to be cleaned,” Marrero said in disgust. “It’s crazy. But that’s what happens in poorer neighborhoods like this.”

Not content to wait for more tragic circumstances to inspire action, Marrero and his neighbors have decided to clean up the abandoned lots on their street one-by-one.

Philadelphia is home to over 40,000 vacant parcels of land, about 75 percent of which are privately owned, according to a report commissioned late last year by the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Philadelphia (RDA) and the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations (PACDC).

These parcels, most of which are abandoned lots, are estimated to contribute to $3.6 billion in lost household wealth due to their blighting effect on the neighborhoods where they are located. Meanwhile, maintaining these vacant lots costs more than $20 million per year and deprives the City of about $2 million in uncollected property taxes per year. Much of the estimated $70 million owed in back property taxes is uncollectable, according to the report.

For the neighborhood of Kensington, the costs go far beyond those monetary figures.

“To know what the impact of the abandoned lots is, you need to know the history of the neighborhood,” said Sandy Salzman, the executive director of the New Kensington Community Development Corp. (NKCDC). Salzman traces the history of today’s abandoned lots back to the Industrial Revolution when Kensington was an international hub of manufacturing. “Many of the buildings that were built in the neighborhood were these large five-story textile factories. The owners of the building would build the houses around the factory for the workers.”

These houses were often built with salmon brick, which easily erodes over time, especially once the hardened outer coating wears away. Normally, eroding bricks wouldn’t be such a significant problem on their own, but when coupled with the processes of post-war deindustrialization that affected many urban enclaves like Kensington, the impact can be somewhat severe.

In the 1950s, many of the large businesses that supported the economy of Philadelphia–such as Kensington’s textile factories –began moving away or otherwise shutting down, leaving hordes of jobless residents behind. Those displaced workers who could left the city in droves. Other businesses moved to the rapidly developing suburbs. Many of the city’s middle- and upper-class citizens followed the flight to the suburbs thanks in part to the advent of the interstate highway system in the mid-1950s.

“The people that were left here were mostly poor people and older people,” Salzman said. When those older residents died their houses often fell into disrepair especially since many of their children were living in houses of much higher value in the suburbs. In time, the structures in Kensington either stood vacant or were demolished leaving behind the lots that are so prevalent throughout the neighborhood today.

One of Juan Marrero’s neighbors, Buddy Kamp, lives directly across the street from an abandoned textile factory at Kensington Avenue and Huntingdon Street. Once a symbol of the neighborhood’s industrial might structures like that factory now stand as hollowed-out symbols of some of its worst problems; blight, unemployment and some of the highest rates of criminal activity in the entire city. The owner of that building, who Kamp said is trying to sell it, also owns a few parcels of land nearby, one of which became an eyesore in recent years.

After a few row homes near the factory were demolished in the 1980s the lot sat unattended for years eventually becoming a magnet for weeds, debris and drug addicts. Frequently, addicts used the lot as a spot to shoot heroin. Some addicts even made that lot their home camping out on an old mattress under a tree that was shrouded by the overgrown weeds.

Last September, Kamp, Marrero and a few other neighbors on the block decided to clean the lot, pulling out mountains of trash, dirt and other debris, and cutting down the overgrown foliage.

“We found hundreds of needles in here,”  Buddy Kamp said, standing on the now-spotless lot. “We had to be very careful picking them up.”

Wearing surgical masks to shield themselves from the odor of human waste and garbage, residents of the block collected hypodermic needles and other refuse, which was then hauled away to be properly disposed of. The poison ivy breakouts cleaners sustained and other mysterious illnesses that followed the clean-out were, in the end, a price they considered worth paying.

These efforts serve as an example of how Kensington is slowly turning itself around. That RDA report on Philadelphia’s vacant land problem singled Kensington out as a model example of how a community can optimize vacant land and in the process reduce blight plus helping make the neighborhood more ripe for further development.

For evidence of how dramatically the rehabilitation of vacant land can benefit a community, look no further than Frankford Avenue, particularly the stretch of it between Girard Avenue and York Street. That corridor is is now considered the heart of Fishtown’s arts district.

“The neighborhood looked horrible,” said NKCDC’s Sandy Salzman about the area that by the 1990s contained some of the most infamous lots in the city. “Nobody traveled on Frankford Avenue because Frankford Avenue was the pits. And it just brought the whole neighborhood down.”

Decades after Fishtown and Kensington’s abandoned houses started crumbling and being demolished, the resulting lots ended up serving as miniature trash dumps for local contractors who often didn’t earn enough money from jobs they performed to pay to have their debris disposed of properly. This practice of short dumping became commonplace in the neighborhood which by then had a wide array of abandoned lots easily available for derelict dumpers.

“We were in this downward spiral for years and this was making it even worse,” said Salzman.

Over the last several years, the NKCDC has worked with community leaders to not only clean up the lots along Frankford Avenue, but also turn many of them into gardens and other public spaces. Sometimes they’re able to get permission from the property’s owner to clean it up, but not always.

“We’re breaking the law when we clean these lots,” Salzman said. “Because it’s so important to our neighborhood, we decided that we would trespass. But if they’ve got a fence up around them, there’s no way that we can trespass, so we don’t.”

A walk down Frankford Avenue’s sidewalk, which was repaved last year, reveals at least one structure-less lot per block. But the heaps of garbage Salzman once saw overwhelming the area are nowhere to be seen. Some of the lots are spotless and fenced-off and many of them contain flowers, public art installations and newly-planted trees.

“Today, there are thousands of people mingling around on First Friday going to all of the galleries and the coffee shops,” said Salzman. “That’s something that didn’t happen five or six years ago. It’s amazing.”

Now that much of the vacant land in Fishtown and East Kensington is stabilized and the community is attracting young new residents and businesses, the NKCDC is beginning to look north and west to the 19134 zip code for potential redevelopment projects.

The area is grittier and plagued by problems more complex and serious than dirty lots, as Juan Marrero and Buddy Kamp are well aware.

As the neighbors hauled garbage and drug paraphernalia from the lot next to the abandoned textile factory last September, one local junkie approached Kamp and asked, “’Where are we gonna do our needles now?”

“I just told him to beat it,” said Kamp, who has little patience for the addicts who use the land near his house to get high.

Between that lot and the formerly trash-filled alleyway behind their houses, these residents have managed to clean up much of their block in the last few years. Still, there’s one lot they haven’t been able to get to, which is fenced off, but still contains some garbage and becomes overgrown and infested with flies in the summer. Another neighbor, Norma Rodriguez, wants to buy the land and turn it into a small garden with a park-like atmosphere. The lot hasn’t been cleaned in six years.

“I can’t do it now because I got a bad back,” Juan Marrero said. “It’s a matter of getting somebody out here from the city and take this stuff away.” The city, which owns the lot, came out to clean it at one point but was unwilling to remove the fence around it, which they said they needed to seek special approval for. The neighbors don’t want to leave the lot without a fence either but are nonetheless desperate to see the lot cleaned up.

“”If they don’t replace the fence, we’ll get the neighbors to pitch in for it,” Buddy Kamp said. “I don’t care. Just get rid of it. Clean it up.”

Article originally posted to Philadelphia Neighborhoods on April 16th 2011 by John Paul Titlow

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