These days, Kenneth Houston’s face bends into a big smile when he talks about his home on West Penn Street.
In early September, volunteers with Habitat for Humanity began fixing up the 100-year-old Germantown property through a program designed to help veterans.
It needed some TLC — badly.
“It was an eyesore, and there was nothing that I could do about it,” said Houston, who served in the Marine Corps.
Over the last decade, the house had fallen into disrepair as Houston’s gigs organizing and facilitating conflict-resolution programs started to dry up.
The inside and outside of the house needed a fresh coat of paint.
The roof was falling apart, thus rendering the second floor uninhabitable.
“Every time it rained, I was running around with buckets,” said Houston.
Thanks to Habitat, all of that (plus a new bathroom and heating system) has been taken care of to the tune of roughly $30,000.
Nearby neighbors, some strangers, were so pleased by the transformation that they often stopped Houston on the street.
“Even kind of shady guys would walk by and say, ‘Man, they hooked that up,'” said Houston.
Early last week, though, Houston and neighbors weren’t smiling when they found out one of the 66-year-old’s front windows had been smashed.
Houston said the broken pane made him sad, but not angry.
More than anything, he said he wishes the culprits — kids flinging rocks, he figured — could understand the lasting impact a quick flick of the wrist can have.
He could care less about them going to jail.
“People who are alienated feel like if they attack people who have something, they’re going to feel better, but what they’re really doing is driving them out, running them off,” he said. “So now, your economic base is weakened. If they had a broader opportunity, they would see themselves in a different light.”
Houston did call the police. They came, but he doesn’t expect to hear anything more from them until an arrest is made.
That could be sooner rather than later.
A broken-window trend
Houston is not the first person in the Penn-Knox section of the neighborhood to have a window smashed. Since April, 11 houses have been vandalized that way, including three on West Penn Street.
Capt. John Fleming, who heads the 14th Police District, said he has officers keeping an eye out for broken windows as part of an effort to root out non-violent crime, including ongoing issues with prostitution.
He’s asked the 39th District, which sits a stone’s throw away, to do the same.
“It doesn’t guarantee it’s going to change things,” said Fleming, “but it often can and does.”
Julie Baranauskas, who lives around the corner from Houston, desperately hopes Fleming is right.
Part of her concern comes down to safety. She doesn’t want to be the next neighbor with a broken window.
But like Houston, it also comes down to community, and specifically, keeping it tight-knit.
“This is exactly the kind of straws that get people to leave the city,” said Baranauskas. “We lose good neighbors for schools. We lose good neighbors because they don’t feel safe.”