The scene outside Waring House in Germantown on Tuesday and Wednesday stood as a testament to neighborhoods, businesses and government working together toward a common goal.
The long-ignored former community center on East Penn Street was surrounded by overgrown weeds, shrubs, damaged trees and other debris that had collected for years upon years. It got to the point that overgrowth blocked a sidewalk from use; the huge fenced-in lot next to the building wasn’t visible either.
All of that was gone after a Tuesday of toiling for dozens of Wister Neighborhood Council volunteers, workers from the city’s Community Partnership Program, the Alley Katz Truck Club, Rapid Wiring, Ready Willing and Able and a pair of officials from Nova Bank, which now owns the property once held by Germantown Settlement. Bees stung people and snakes made them jump back, yet the hard work was redemptive.
By Wednesday morning, the remaining debris was being loaded into bags and put onto the backs of trucks to be hauled away. The interior of the 155-year-old building was still in disrepair, but this was just the start of the overhaul.
As a blue jay flew about the lot where other birds and squirrels examined their new landscape, WNC President Anita Hamilton explained how the effort came to be.
“This was a hub in the community, but it had been abandoned for about 10 years. Neighbors had petitioned us to find out what’s going on and try to fix it up,” said Hamilton, who lives within eyeshot of Waring House. “This is a community that’s vigilant in looking out for one another.”
When they investigated the property once owned by the debt-riddled, dismantled Germantown Settlement social-services agency, they found that it wasn’t tied up in bankruptcy proceedings. It had been purchased by Nova Bank, about which Hamilton said, “Good people. They listened to our story and said ‘let’s try to work with these guys.'”
That means looking for donors and investors to help cover the estimated $200,000 needed to renovate Waring House to the point that it could hold – like it used to – health fairs, afterschool programs and other community gatherings.
There were photographs – some black-and-white – of the pre-dilapidated Waring House affixed to a poster on a stand by the front gate during the cleanup. The inside of the building bears the marks of vandals and scrappers coming in to strip anything of its value.
Volunteers thought it would be a one-day project, but it wasn’t. On Tuesday, an estimated 70 people were there to work, including some who were at-risk youths that Hamilton remembered from her days working at the Family Center at the former Pickett Middle School. About 20 returned to finish up the outside work.
Pride in community was a common theme.
“I hope people realize that they don’t have to live in debris and decay. They’ll look at today and see what the result is,” she said. “Traffic was slowing down to look at what we were doing. It takes all of us working together to do something like this. We elect officials but don’t stand behind them when it comes to telling them what we want, or supporting them to help get it done. If given the opportunity, people respond.”
Kim Hartline, REO asset manager for Nova, said she met Hamilton, WNC vice president Sandra Pugh and others by being out at the property trying to sell it to potential buyers.
She and Bob Smik, president of the bank’s alternative financial services, helped with the Tuesday efforts with Smik bringing a chainsaw along with him for good measure.
“It’s really amazing how many people were out there,” Hartline said. “Nobody cared where anybody else was from. We were just all out there getting dirty and working hard. They’re definitely committed to getting this done.”
Perhaps nobody was more pleased with the work-in-progress than Tom Sharpless, whose step-grandfather and father both lived in the property before it was donated to Germantown Settlement years ago.
He happened upon the cleanup Tuesday and returned Wednesday to take pictures of the interior and watch as others worked together to return the place in which he also lived in 1942 and 1943.
“It gives me a great deal of satisfaction,” he said, “especially if they turn it into a community center or something else useful.”