Halting Germantown clean-up efforts would make gruesome discovery ‘that much more tragic’

From the context of a community working to reclaim itself from disrepair, the tragedy’s timing could not have been worse.

Those who live near Wister Station in East Germantown have spent several months trying to correct to the sort of neglect that invites short dumping, drug activity and eroded civic pride.

Along with an array of volunteers, they turned out in force at Wister Station for April’s Philly Spring Cleanup effort which was viewed as “a way for people to take pride in their community.”

Around that time, the city installed a surveillance camera in the hope of catching of those who deemed this neighborhood a dumping ground.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

On Saturday, they took over the nearby 5100 block of Rufe St. for a “Bloccupy” effort. They wanted to show the community that the pathway to the train station is watched over by caring neighbors working to see an end to dumping on the site and make it a pedestrian-friendly street.

In short, they want their makeover to leave Rufe as a “a safe and beautiful pathway to our train station.”

Their efforts included attempting to level-off the long ditch that runs along Rufe Street and to adorn the fence that lines the train-track side of the street with artwork.

It was a happy, laid-back get-together.

That feeling wouldn’t last very long.

“A roller coaster of emotions”

Police don’t yet know who she was or how she died. What they know is this: A woman in her 20s or 30s was found wrapped in a bedsheet in a grass-covered lot along the same block of Rufe Street where people gathered for the clean-up event.

A passerby noticed her around dinnertime on Monday. Police said there were no visible signs of deadly trauma and that the body had not been there for an extended period of time before the gruesome discovery.

The story rattled a neighborhood starting to feel good about itself, but the reclamation effort will continue.

“Obviously we’re all a little disconcerted and shaken up, but it only makes me more convinced that we’re doing the right thing,” said Ross Hennesy, who organized the Saturday event. “Rufe Street is a major pedestrian thoroughfare [but] a small percentage of folks in the community see it as the neighborhood dumpster.”

Through the years, bodies from dog-fighting rings have been found in those lots. They’ve hosted neighborhood fights. Assaults. Abandoned and/or torched vehicles.

“But no homicides,” said Hennesy.

Returning to the scene

On Saturday, Weavers Way general manager Glenn Bergman was grilling hot dogs on Rufe Street with donated food from the co-op.

He came back two days later, eager for his two children to see what a collective clean-up effort could accomplish. They were greeted with news of a possible homicide.

“I was so excited to show them what we did,” said Bergman. “But when we got there, there were all these police cars. So, it went from a wonderful community event and then … there was a body found at the same location.”

Describing the crime scene at Rufe and Collom streets, he noted that the reputation of it being an area steeped in drug and illegal-gun activities has lessened.

“Let me say it has gotten better over the last 10 years,” said Bergman, who owns a building on nearby Baynton Street. “We’re hoping that [Eighth District City Councilwoman] Cindy Bass will see that there’s a community spirit to change that area. Make it lighter, brighter, turn it into a park. We will continue to organize.”

Help from City Hall

Bass’ spokesman Joe Corrigan, who attended the April clean-up event with the councilwoman, noted that “it’s an area that has been neglected for many years, but since January, we have been working with the neighbors to get that place cleaned up. … It feels like crews have been out there every other week.”

Through the Community Life Improvement Program (CLIP), a surveillance camera was recently suspended from a telephone pole at Rufe and Bringhurst streets.

Hennesy said it faces Rufe Street, toward Queen Lane, to deter or capture short dumpers.

When he was walking his dog Tuesday, he saw a man downloading images from the camera. There is no word from police about whether the camera recorded anything which could be used as evidence in the case.

Corrigan pointed out that that camera came as a result of a suggestion from a resident.

“We commend them for stepping it up, and we’re doing what we can to work with them,” Corrigan said. These efforts “are a long time coming. It’s going to take a little longer to get to where we want to be. This shouldn’t weaken their resolve.”

Moving forward

Neighbors remain focused on the lack of a sidewalk along Rufe Street creating a hurdle to fixing the perceptions of the block. To that end, Hennesy had been part of an ongoing petition to the city to fill the ditch along the side of the street and build a sidewalk there.

“This is why we began slowly filling in that hole to begin with,” said Hennesy.

A community meeting is already in the works following the news of the woman’s death. Neighbor Kathy Paulmier is hosting a small get-together at her house this week to “collectively process the events.”

Despite some in the neighborhood not believing they can get help from a city that long neglected them, those involved in the efforts don’t see Monday night’s discovery as something that will make them stop working to improve their community.

“We’re in it for the long haul. Seeing this as a setback, or abandoning Wister Station, one of the few neighborhood anchors here, as a result of these events would only make it that much more tragic and senseless,” Hennesy said.

“The fact that this can happen, that neighbors are now connected in a way that they can support each other like this, really speaks to the sense of community that has been fostered,” he continued. “We’re not immune because of the tree cover and beautiful old houses. Compared to other neighborhoods I’ve lived in, neighbors really believe that there is a better future for them. We’ll be fine.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal