It was a weekday morning in July, and as the summer sun hid behind the clouds, the reporter circled the block, searching for one of over 100 parcels that have been cited as vacant in the last year.
The North Philadelphia neighborhood known as Sharswood was beginning to stir. Philadelphia Housing Authority police in bullet proof vests congregated on Jefferson Street. The Norman Blumberg Apartments, one of the city’s few remaining high-rise housing projects, loomed behind them. Neighbors walked along 23rd Street, near the new development where the Brewerytown-Sharswood Community Civic Association is headquartered.
Turning onto Sharswood Street—a rail thin thoroughfare that runs east and west between Jefferson and Master—the reporter found 2305 Sharswood, a dilapidated vacant property just a stone’s throw from Vaux High School and Reynolds Elementary, two of the 24 schools that the financially troubled Philadelphia School District shuttered in June.
Knowing the danger of filming in the 22nd police district, where over 1,500 violent crimes took place last year alone, the reporter looked around for activity. Finding none, he quickly removed a video camera from his car.
Within a minute a man on a bike approached and made small talk. When he learned that the reporter was filming for a story on the community’s abandonment, the man made a simple statement.
“You ‘bout to get shot,” he said, and rode away slowly on his bike.
As the man disappeared into nearby streets, the reporter’s mouth went dry. His heart beat faster. He felt a slight tremor in his hands. But he didn’t put down the video camera—at least not immediately. Instead he recorded for a minute more, panning from the windowless vacant house to a weed-filled lot on the corner.
As he did so, the reporter racked his brain to remember what the man on the bike looked like: light brown skin with a few days’ beard growth, mid-thirties, perhaps. Overweight and dressed in a large white t-shirt and shorts with a plaid design.
While the camera rolled, the reporter’s eyes darted about, looking for a spot where a shooter might hide. A woman in Muslim garb sat in a blue car with Maryland tags as a little girl in a hijab trotted happily up to the driver’s side window. In a lot next to the vacant house, a graffiti-marred trailer sat beneath a canopy of weeds. Shadows filled the spaces in between. So did the words of the man on the bike: ‘You ‘bout to get shot.’
In the wake of that threat, the reporter’s story became much more than the tale of the approximately 400 vacant parcels in the three census tracts stretching from 33rd to 19th Streets, and from Oxford to Poplar. It became bigger than the poverty in an area where, on average, 96.9 percent of students in the Vaux and Reynolds schools were economically disadvantaged.
The reporter’s story became a tale of shadows, and the struggles that they hide; the fight between dignity and depravity; the battle between crime and hard work; the conflict between shuttered schools and at-risk children; the war between the poor and the powers that be.
“Abandonment and vacancy, I think if you overlaid a map and took poverty across the city, and took abandonment and vacancy in properties, I think you would see a high correlation between the two,” Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said in an interview, shortly after he announced the City’s new anti-poverty initiative.
The mayor’s assessment is correct. In census tract 138, where 2305 Sharswood Street is located, the median household income is $18,063. The poverty line for a family of four, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is $23,550.
In fact, an AxisPhilly analysis of census data and vacant property data obtained from the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) shows a consistent correlation between Philadelphia’s vacancy and poverty. In the 18 Philadelphia census tracts containing at least 200 properties that have been cited for a vacancy violation in the past year, the median household income averages just $20,769. For a family of four, that’s more than $3,000 below the poverty line.
But in Philadelphia, where 28.4 percent of families live in poverty, and 40,000 vacant parcels pepper the city’s landscape according to an Econsult study, vacancy is not just tied to economics. It is also linked to crime.
That’s why vacant parcels have become the battlefield where the war for Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods is being fought. On one side are longtime residents who are too old, too stubborn, or too poor to move. On the other side are criminals for whom vacancy provides the cover they are willing to kill for.
“If it’s vacant property that can be accessed,” said Police Spokesman Lt. John Stanford, “it allows people to indulge in all kinds of activities. They can use it as a stash house for drugs and or guns. A lot of time these guys don’t carry guns on the street because they know we’re stopping them. They put guns in houses, put drugs in houses. A lot of the time people are going in and using drugs in the houses. They turn into little sex shops. It’s not just drug activity, but sexual activity. It becomes a problem to neighbors and the police department. We’re trying to cut down on that type of activity so those types of conditions don’t pose a problem to allow crime to fester.”
Still, crime persists both in and around Philadelphia’s vacant properties. On July 15, just a week after a reporter was threatened for videotaping a property less than half a block away, 20-year-old Tyrone Hayes was shot and killed on the 1500 block of North 23rd Street.
Police said the motive for the shooting was unknown.
Since the 1950s, vacancy has increased while Philadelphia’s population has dropped from 2 million to 1.57 million. Over that time period, vacant land has become a breeding ground for both poverty and crime.
The City’s latest plan for addressing vacancy is the Vacant Property Strategy, which was launched in 2011. The three-pronged approach leans on finding property owners, utilizing new enforcement measures, and dedicating court time. Thus far, according to L&I, the city has collected $834,150 in permit, license or property certification fees, and the courts have assessed $786,000 in fines and judgments.
Another City plan, dubbed Philly Rising, is supposed to target “neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia that are plagued by chronic crime and quality of life concerns, and establish partnerships with community members to address these issues. The PhillyRising Team coordinates the actions of City agencies…”
But City agencies are not adequately coordinated when it comes to vacancy. An analysis of the data AxisPhilly received from L&I through a Right To Know request shows that 2305 Sharswood Street, which is clearly unoccupied and dilapidated, is not among the 19 vacant parcels the agency lists on that block. Nor is the house on the list of vacant parcels on L&I’s website.
However, records from the Office of Property Assessment (OPA) show that the house was purchased in 1993 for $1, and the OPA website lists the property’s condition as “vacant.” In essence, one city agency has a record of the property’s actual condition while another does not, a clear illustration of the City’s disconnect when it comes to tracking vacancy and abandonment.
Contacted to explain the discrepancy, L&I spokesperson Rebecca Swanson was combative, accusing AxisPhilly of cherrypicking one unreported property when L&I had cited 188 other vacant properties in that census tract.
Accusations aside, 2503 Sharswood Street is not on L&I’s list. Stacey Mosely, who provided the data in response to AxisPhilly’s Right To Know request, explained that the property was cited in 2003 for a number of violations, including a brick that fell from the property, but was taken off L&I’s demolition list when inspectors evaluated the property and determined that it was not imminently dangerous.
L&I sent certified mail to the property–OPA lists the owner as Vernon Brown, who bought the property for $1 in 1993. The mail was returned.
Swanson, who said L&I’s inspectors are doing “a fantastic job” in citing vacant properties, said no one in the community had reported 2305 Sharswood Street as vacant. Then she put the onus on the reporter who was questioning the discrepancy. “You live in Philly right? Call 311 and report it.”
When the reporter explained that he was reporting it in his story, Swanson said, “There’s 558,000 parcels in the city. To say we’re going to have an inspector at every single one every single day is unrealistic. We can’t be everywhere.”
Even if L&I had an accurate list of the city’s vacant properties, it would be difficult to enforce code violations in areas where entrenched vacancy has depressed property values. When the cost of repairing a property is more than the cost of losing it, even the threat of seizure can’t make owners pay for fines or repairs.
As for the crime that is so intricately connected to vacancy, police spokesman Lt. Stanford said the department is working with other agencies, but that the community must get involved and take ownership and pride in the area.
Therein lies the irony. It hasn’t always been this way. There was a time when 2400 Sharswood Street was named the city’s most beautiful block. As a reward, the residents were sent to the World’s Fair in New York.
So how does a neighborhood transform from a place of beauty to a place filled with vacancy’s shadows?
The answer lies in the memories of the residents. They’ve lived through the city’s failures. They’ve watched their neighbors die off. They’ve experienced the tragedy of abandonment.
They want their neighborhood back.
Click here to read part two of Solomon Jones’ Abandoned series.