Neighbors hopeful, skeptical about rebuilding homes burned in MOVE bombing

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Ruth Willis stands outside her home on 62nd Street, where she has lived since 1959. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Ruth Willis stands outside her home on 62nd Street, where she has lived since 1959. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Since 1959, Ruth Willis has lived just blocks from the intersection of 62nd Street and Osage Avenue, where a bomb dropped by the Philadelphia Police on May 13,1985, and the ensuing fire turned the MOVE compound and surrounding area into smouldering rubble. Eleven were killed and 61 homes destroyed.

“I could see from the TV from where I staying what was going on,” Willis said. “ I could see they were at my door, and I thought I could come up and just give them the key to open the door. One of the detectives grabbed me in the middle of the street and said, ‘No, you can’t, it’s dangerous,’” she said.

The homes on Osage Avenue, built to replace those destroyed in the MOVE bombing, have not stood the test of time, and many have been abandoned. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Thirty years after, the city is still trying to rebuild from the ruin it wrought. The first builder hired to develop the site was sent to jail for using dangerously shoddy materials and misusing city funds. Now, Philadelphia is trying again, but since announcing the plan to develop 36 vacant lots in April, reactions on the block have been mixed.

Willis fears her home of six decades will become too expensive.

“We are retired people with a fixed income,” she said. She worries new construction at the MOVE site will increase property values nearby, leading to higher taxes  “That’s the main thing: increase of taxes.”

AJR Endeavors, the developer for the project, doesn’t think Willis needs to worry about a significant tax increase.

Rodney Ross, an AJR Endeavors partner, said the renovated homes will be sold for around $200,000. Homes in Cobbs Creek currently sell for about $116,867.

According to Ross, the 36 houses fronting on Osage and Pine streets will be sold to “anyone that is looking for an affordable home.” Ross hopes to begin construction in January.

City council has introduced a bill to approve the contract with PRA and allow AJR Endeavors to proceed.

A plaque at 63rd Street and Osage Avenue commemorated the MOVE bombing. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Brooke Brunson, a Pine Street resident for more than 15 years, doesn’t have an issue with the project. In fact, she doesn’t know what’s taken the city so long to rebuild.

“I don’t understand why these houses been abandoned for years, Brunson said. “There’ve been people living in there, people call them squatters.”

Sepra Freeman moved to Osage Street about a year ago and says she likes the idea if it means more children to play with her grandson.

“I would love to see people move on the block in these houses,” Freeman said. “They’re going to waste just sitting here. I think that if they rebuild the houses, they should go to low-income people.”

The city initially rebuilt the houses shortly after the bombing. However, the houses had problems from the start and were deemed substandard ten years later under Former Mayor Rendell’s administration. The city offered money to the residents to relocate. Not all took the deal. Philadelphia bought 36 houses, which have remained boarded and empty ever since.

Ross, the developer, is confident in the city’s second attempt to make amends.

“Redeveloping that whole block is going to be a big step to bringing where we think Cobbs Creek should be,” Ross said. “We want to complete the homes the right way because last time they weren’t done the right way.”

Gregory Heller, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority’s executive director, maintains that the project will benefit the neighborhood.

The Redevelopment Authority and City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell  hosted a community meeting at the Cobbs Creek Rec Center in April when the developer was named.

“We believe that once we can get these properties in active use and occupied by homeowners, that it will be a stronger and more stable neighborhood,” Heller said, “It’s already a beautiful and thriving neighborhood, we don’t want the public sector’s property to be what’s holding this neighborhood back from it’s potential.”

Ruth Willis has seen her neighborhood change over the years. She mentioned how she notices potholes in the street and houses with caved-in roofs. She hopes Pine and Osage will be lively again.

“I would like to see [people] come together and be a great community where we know one another and be caring and concerned about everyone’s welfare,” she said.

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