How We Live: Philadelphia
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SPOKESPERSON: Welcome to the city where our nation was founded.
RAY SUAREZ: This is the tourist’s Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, the home of the Liberty Bell. Just a mile or two away from these national shrines sits the battered Philadelphia the tourists don’t see, with more abandoned lots and buildings per capita than any city in the country.
Urban expert Jeremy Nowak.
JEREMY NOWAK: People that come to downtown Philadelphia, which is one of the great downtowns in the country, but don’t travel into some of the inner-city neighborhoods, don’t have a sense of the vast nature of this problem.
RAY SUAREZ: In the past 50 years, Philadelphia has lost one-third of its population– from 2.1 million in 1950, to about 1.4 million today.
That translates into 26,000 abandoned homes, about 31,000 vacant lots, and 3,000 abandoned commercial and industrial sites that are clustered to the north, south, and west of the city’s healthy and prosperous downtown.
This spring, Mayor John Street pushed through the city council the Neighborhood Transformation initiative, or NTI, an unusual five-year, $300 million plan to clean all the vacant lots, renovate 2,500 buildings, and demolish half of the abandoned houses, replacing 14,000 row houses and Victorian shells with acres of empty land.
It’s a big-dollar figure for a demolition program, and it’s uncommon for cities to fund such a plan all on their own with borrowing. The mayor’s chief of staff, Joyce Wilkerson, explains why they are opting for so much demolition.
JOYCE WILKERSON: As you can tell from a neighborhood like this, there’s already been a lot of demolition that’s occurred. And what you have are vacant lots interspersed among standing structures. Some of them are in good shape; others aren’t. What we are trying to do is assemble parcels so that we can turn what is at this point a liability into an asset.
RAY SUAREZ: Wilkerson and the NTI strategy team hope to deliver large tracts of land to developers, who will find big chunks of empty land easier to build on, than lots interspersed with standing buildings.
MAN: We would condemn this, and all this, and all of that.
MAN TWO: Correct.
MAN ONE: Even the church.
MAN: What about the two private rails?
MAN: Where’s that?
MAN: That would be in our first condemnation package, not demolition package.
RAY SUAREZ: This risky, far- reaching attempt at redesigning the city shows just how far Philadelphia has fallen; just how few viable options city government thinks it has. Roland Scott lives in the once- thriving neighborhood of Strawberry Mansion.
ROLAND SCOTT: This used to be the supermarket, it was the neighborhood supermarket. Right next door, it used to be the shoe store. And that used to be an appliance store. Like a lot of, you know, different little stores around here, and it was real plentiful.
RAY SUAREZ: When a city is emptying out, owners stop investing in their buildings because they are assets with declining value. Many neighborhoods enter a death spiral: The buildings can’t attract buyers or renters that pay enough to keep the heat on; then, finally, the market value crashes to zero; even the real estate taxes cost more than the building’s worth; and the owner walks away. Multiply that story by 5,000, 10,000, 20,000. Many Philadelphia homeowners have ended up with property with little or no value. Amid the devastation, retired longshoreman Walt Grazier raises chickens and gardens on two vacant lots in Strawberry Mansion. He blames the blight on lack of jobs and drugs.
WALT GRAZIER: If you ain’t got no job, they’re going to move on somewhere else, they’re going to leave here, which they’re doing. It’s as simple as that. The city’s nice, a beautiful city, a lot of history here, but it’s no money here.
They force the young people to go to the drugs, for number one. Why should they work – now listen to what I’m saying – for $100 a week when you can stand out there on the corner and make over $100 in ten or fifteen minutes?
RAY SUAREZ: Bishop Kermit Newkirk’s church was once surrounded by a thousand homes in a thriving neighborhood. Now it’s an urban prairie. A century ago fine homes were built on landfill that wasn’t properly compacted. During the 1980′s the neighborhood started sinking; houses began collapsing. The lucky were able to sell out, others just walked away.
BISHOP KERMIT NEWKIRK: The value of the homes are so low that it’s really not worth keeping them up. When you see a vacancy those vacancies represent a home where families lived. Then just like a rolling cancer, each block gets worse and worse and worse, until finally you get what you get now.
RAY SUAREZ: What you’ve got now is a city where many people live in very bad housing that may sell – if a buyer can be found – for twenty or thirty thousand dollars. The question is simple: After derelict housing is pulled down, will anyone want to buy the land and build on it?
Joyce Wilkerson thinks there is a market but first the city has to acquire large enough parcels of land to create the feel of a neighborhood. She took us to Ludlow Village, a new housing development just north of downtown.
JOYCE WILKERSON: The neighborhood that we’re walking towards looked like the neighborhood – the blocks we are coming from.
RAY SUAREZ: What a difference!
JOYCE WILKERSON: People have off street parking. Their yard is contiguous to the houses where the kids can play.
These are the kind of amenities that people want in their neighborhoods, in their houses in 2002. Property values are growing fairly quickly once we take over enough land. This is affordable housing. It was probably on the market for forty-five — fifty thousand dollars. The houses appreciate in value fairly quickly. Center City is less than a mile from here.
RAY SUAREZ: But critical to the success of the Mayor’s plans is the support of the residents in the neighborhoods and they are suspicious.
Jeremy Nowak, a key consultant to the Mayor on NTI, says they fear gentrification – that renovated and new housing will cost too much and force them to move — but they also fear demolition will tear apart their neighborhoods.
JEREMY NOWAK: You’ve got the most challenged neighborhoods right adjacent to neighborhoods that are in much better shape; there are fabulous blocks where people have hung in there, done the right thing, raised families, and still maintained a quite viable community. So that’s an example of where you want to be really careful about how you recognize the needs of those people who are there in that community.
RAY SUAREZ: Another fear, based on experience, is that after demolition, nothing new will be rebuilt.
In the 1970′s, “urban renewal” projects demolished large portions of the city and left it empty. This was once a shopping street. Buildings on both sides of Sly’s Barber Shop were torn down and Henry Sly remembers the grand plans for a shopping mall.
HENRY SLY: Evidently whatever they had planned never came through. So I was just sitting here about 30 years, and I had a viable business, and they just took the neighborhood right on down. “
RAY SUAREZ: A few blocks away, Neighborhood activist Gladys Meade – 81 –also speaks from experience about demolition.
GLADYS MEADE: Once you start tearing down, honey, I know it’s going to be nothing but vacant lots, nothing, and surprisingly the grass won’t be green!
RAY SUAREZ: Everybody agrees that vacant lots are not desirable uses for neighborhood land but the city can’t spend ten to a hundred thousand dollars rehabbing houses that are worth far less.
JERMEY NOWAK: The cost of rehabilitation far outstrips, far outstrips the value — the only way you can rehabilitate those building is to put literally thousands and thousands of dollars of public subsidy – which simply is not available – into those buildings.
RAY SUAREZ: With only $300 million dollars allocated for demolition, lot cleaning and rehabilitation. Mayor Street’s administration has pinned its hopes on private developers.
Like John Westrum, who has stopped work in the suburbs and headed to the city, drawn by the availability of large tracts of land, and welcoming city officials.
JOHN WESTRUM: We identified areas within the city of Philadelphia that we thought had great potential for what I call the middle market, which is $150,000 to $350,000 price range.
RAY SUAREZ: Next to Fairmont Park, a landmark recreation area just 10 minutes from downtown is an old industrial area on a 20 acre site called Brewerytown. Westrum Development plans to build about 1,400 townhomes and apartments.
JOHN WESTRUM: When you come across this bridge on Gerard, we want you to look to look to your left and see a whole brand new community. The biggest obstacle has been that we have some blight to our north and our east but to the west is all park land. What we plan on doing is taking that ACME warehouse and converting it into 240 condominiums, and the best part about it is we have great views way back to Center City.
RAY SUAREZ: At present, Westrum is the only private developer building large scale projects in the entire city of Philadelphia; the remainder are public sector developers doing heavily subsidized housing. Westrum says that’s because it’s expensive, mostly because of construction unions’ high wage rates. Other obstacles are getting clear title to large tracts of land and archaic building codes.
Bishop Newkirk chairs Philadelphia Interfaith Alliance, a group of 40 churches and synagogues that has tried to build large-scale housing. Newkirk says Mayor’s Street’s initiative will fail unless he quickly reforms the way city government works.
BISHOP KERMIT NEWKIRK: Implementation of NTI now is critical, and it is up to the mayor of the City of Philadelphia who helped to forge this program, to work through all the minutia that keeps the City of Philadelphia from doing what needs to be dealt with, because – and I hate to say this in such a dramatic fashion-but to do nothing is death for the City of Philadelphia.
RAY SUAREZ: That’s what’s hard about NTI: Philadelphia must figure out quickly which blocks need a small, subtle intervention to prevent blight… and which blocks set the wrecking balls swinging… And clean up 30,000 vacant lots — All at the same time, Mayor in meeting the mayor must cut construction costs, streamline the bureaucracy, and show people the plan works with some quick, early results.
MAYOR JOHN STREET: This is a great opportunity for us but many of these problems are problems that have been created over a 50-year period. You can’t solve them all overnight. And we can’t appear to be just unilaterally and recklessly imposing our will on neighborhoods. We have to create a partnership with people.
RAY SUAREZ: And the Mayor hopes they will gamble that dead streets can support new life… that after 50 years of blight and flight, Philadelphia neighborhoods are again ready to be a good place to call home.