Remaking Sharswood: Seniors not itching to return to Blumberg apartments in North Philly

All but one building at the Norman Blumberg Apartments will be erased: the Senior Tower. Like everyone who lived at Blumberg, these elder residents were relocated to make way for the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s grand half-billion dollar plan to remake the Blumberg site and surrounding neighborhood. Aaron Moselle caught up with some of those seniors for our series Remaking Sharswood.

Inside Saundra Preston’s tidy one-bedroom apartment in Germantown hangs a short message framed in dark wood.

“Many people walk in and out of your life, but only true friends will leave footprints in your heart.”

Preston got the keepsake years ago, but these days, it feels particularly apropos. She’s one of the 86 seniors the Philadelphia Housing Authority relocated before dismantling nearly every piece of Norman Blumberg Apartments, a half-century old complex in the Sharswood section of North Philadelphia.

PHA will spend $20 million to modernize the senior tower, one of three high-rises that stood along a superblock at 23rd and Jefferson streets, as part of an “ambitious” neighborhood transformation plan. Other towers were imploded.

In the meantime, Preston’s friends from the building are all over the city and may very well stay put.

“I miss my divas and my boos. I have to travel now if I want to go see them. Some of these seniors can’t get up and down on the bus,” she said.

The distance between former residents recently came into sharp focus when two friends who moved with Preston from Blumberg to Germantown died — one day apart. She was devastated, in part, because she couldn’t easily get together with her former neighbors to grieve.

“Even though we fought and fussed with each other, it still was a togetherness. We was one, big happy family,” said Preston.

Some of Preston’s closest friends lived with her on the 12th floor, where she was floor captain for nearly five years.

Preston had never lived in public housing before Blumberg. Her neighbors helped make the transition easier.

“Everybody up there was cool, we didn’t have any arguments, no loud mess, no nothing and we kept the floor clean. The 12th floor was poppin’,” said Preston.

And yet, she has no intention of moving back to North Philadelphia, even though, like every former resident, she’s guaranteed a unit at the new Blumberg Apartments.

Preston grew up in Germantown and has fond memories of it. She also loves her new apartment, one of 29 at Queen’s Row, a set of buildings PHA renovated near Wissahickon Avenue. She prefers walking up a short flight of stairs to her new place over waiting for an unreliable high-rise elevator.


A sense of belonging

James Norcome, Preston’s neighbor, loves the baby blue porch outside of his new building. It’s part of what provides him with a carefree feeling he never had when he lived at Blumberg.

“I can come outside and just stand out on my porch and lean over, hear the birds, catch the fresh air, feel like I’m a part of something, instead of being institutionalized like Blumberg,” said Norcome.

Norcome moved to Blumberg five years ago after retiring from construction. Moving to a fixed income meant he needed public housing. He said he’s grateful PHA was there to help, but high-rise living was never for him.

In Germantown, Norcome said he doesn’t feel “set aside” by others because he lives in public housing. Instead, he feels a sense of belonging.

A big reason: his apartment building is integrated into the neighborhood. The high-rise wasn’t.

“I done had quite a few people come up and down the street and say ‘oh them houses that you live in are real nice, how do I get one of them. Until I tell them that it’s a housing authority house, they don’t even know,” said Norcome.

It’s why Norcome isn’t moving back to Sharswood, though he’s happy other will benefit from PHA’s $500,000 plan there.

A fresh start

Over the next decade, PHA hopes to lay the groundwork for a mixed-income community with a revitalized commercial corridor, though the agency has been short on details about how it will pay for the massive project.

Former Blumberg senior residents Walter Taylor and Lamont Greer now live in Wilson Park, a public-housing complex sandwiched between the highway and commercial railroad tracks in South Philadelphia.

They both say re-imagining the neighborhood Sharswood is a good idea. Living there wasn’t particularly easy.

Greer said gun violence was routine. Drugs too. So much so that many seniors walked around the complex at 23rd and Jefferson Streets instead of through it, even though it takes longer.

“In the middle of that place, standing there, ‘hey we got this, hey we got that,” said Greer.”

For Taylor, it was good to get away. He grew up not far from the towers, and then moved to Blumberg about a dozen years ago to make life easier after splitting up with his wife. He was already working security at the complex.

“To put me in a new neighborhood where I don’t know nobody, I’m happy as I don’t know what. To me, it’s like a fresh start. It makes me feel free, like I’m wide open,” said Taylor.

It’s why he isn’t returning to Blumberg. It doesn’t hurt that his apartment is bigger.

Greer, for his part, is also staying at Wilson Park. To him, he’s finally got what he calls a “proper apartment.” His bathroom is no longer off his bedroom and he’s got room for his things and to comfortably entertain.

“What more can you ask for?” he said.

The renovated senior tower at Blumberg will have new elevators, water lines, central air and a spruced up façade. Each apartment is getting a new kitchen and bathroom.

PHA expects the work to take a year and the building to reopen by spring 2018. By then, President Kelvin Jeremiah said Sharswood will be a completely different neighborhood — a much better place to live.

“The buildings, the housing, the quality of the housing, all of that will change,” said Jeremiah.

He suspects that will have more seniors weighing their options.

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