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In parts 1 and 2 of AxisPhilly’s “Abandoned” series, which is based on Census and L&I data, readers were introduced to a North Philadelphia neighborhood where residents are fighting vacancy, poverty and crime. This week, we learn what neighbors are doing to reclaim their community …
John Pointer, 93, sits in his living room on the 2400 block of Sharswood St., recalling the names of neighbors who once populated the block where he’s spent more than 60 years.
“Ms. Nellie, Ms. Perry, Ms. Anderson, Rev. Faison, Rev. Pernell, Mr. & Mrs. Wilkinson, Mr. and Mrs. Morton …”
Pointer reads the remaining names from a handwritten list in a voice that is raspy, but strong. As he does, it becomes clear that the block’s empty houses are more than vacant structures. They are places where people once lived. Asked what happened to the neighbors he knew, Pointer is wistful.
“Some died, some moved out, and some just went to heaven,” he says.
No one has come to take their place.
Located in a North Philadelphia census tract with over 100 vacant parcels, Sharswood Street is a place where people like the Pointers hold on in the face of abandonment and decay. The vacant parcels provide easy hiding places for drugs and guns, police say. As more houses become vacant, the Department of Licenses and Inspections, which is responsible for documenting and sealing them, has found it difficult to keep up.
The Brewerytown-Sharswood Community Civic Association has fought the abandonment for 13 years. While they’ve made inroads, crime and poverty persist. Whatever happens in the future, one thing is certain—the neighborhood the Pointers remember is not coming back.
* * *
From 1900 to 1960, during the Great Migration, an estimated five million blacks came from the south to the north. The Pointers were among them. Like other African Americans who moved to cities during that era, John Pointer, a World War II veteran who served as a quartermaster in the Army, sought opportunities he could not find in his native North Carolina.
After arriving in Philadelphia, Pointer and his wife stayed with Pointer’s brother in Germantown. Then Pointer’s niece suggested they look at a home on Sharswood Street.
“The house was nice,” John Pointer told me. “And my niece was in the block already. And this house was empty so we bought this house.”
That was 1951. In a segregated Philadelphia, neighborhoods like Sharswood were home to African Americans of various income levels, and every home on the 2400 block of Sharswood Street was occupied.
“We had a block captain—Ms. Macy,” Blanche Pointer recalled. “And she’d go around and talk to the neighbors and whatever they decided to do about the block as far as decorating or putting up flowers and plants, everybody agreed to it and every house looked the same…”
“We’d paint the curbs and clean the block … I scrubbed the steps many a time with Ajax and kept it white. Everybody did.”
But as time went on, things began to change. In the early ‘60s, the Pointers’ pastor, Rev. C.M. Smith, of Wayland Temple Baptist Church near 25th and Cecil B. Moore Ave., was killed in a case of mistaken identity, the Pointers said.
“They went to his house—something about drugs, or something,” Blanche Pointer said. “They had the wrong house. He was in the kitchen. He had just had breakfast. They made him lie down in the kitchen and they shot that man right there in his home.”
In addition to drugs, there were other changes. Construction of the Norman Blumberg Apartments, a $7.9 million high-rise housing project, began in July 1965, despite neighbors’ objections. It was completed in March 1969 on an 8.5 acre site at 22nd and Jefferson Streets. The first apartments opened in 1967.
Still, Pointer worked hard. For 45 years and six months, he loaded trucks at Container Corporation of America in Manyunk. He retired from there and worked for another 22 years as a security guard. All five of his children went to college. Like many others for whom education opened doors in the era of integration, Pointer’s children left the neighborhood.
When the elderly neighbors died, there was no one to replace them, and the neighborhood declined. When the crack epidemic took hold in the late 1980s and 1990s, the abandonment gave way to chaos.
Many of those who could afford to leave the neighborhood did so. But Warren McMichael, a teacher with a Master’s degree, and Talmadge Belo, who retired as Eastern Region Staff Director of SEIU Local 668, decided to stay.
In a neighborhood that was falling apart, doing so was a major risk.
* * *
By 2000, when McMichael looked around him, the desolation was painfully apparent. “Looking at the conditions in the community, it was either try and do something or move,” he said.
McMichael initially worked with Belo to clean the streets, but that wasn’t enough.
“You can’t keep the streets clean when you’ve got all these eyesores and abandoned buildings drawing all the trash and debris,” Belo said. “People used to come from far away and would dump their trash and garbage because they figured the area was a dump site.”
Turning that around, they knew, would be a slow process. They began by surveying the blight in the area, and worked with the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee, a program of the Philadelphia Streets Department, to get the brooms, bags and shovels they needed to begin the long process of cleaning the streets.
They worked with the Girard Avenue Coalition, attending the quarterly meetings that resulted in the lighting, sidewalks, sculptures and storefronts that were installed along the Girard Avenue commercial corridor.
Still, they could not move forward without addressing the abandonment in their own backyards. “There were so many abandoned houses around here we were just going to get overwhelmed with the plight of trying to get from one place to another,” Belo said.
The houses, many of them on the nearby 2400 block of Stewart Street, were an impediment to development in the neighborhood, said Belo, who gives then-mayor John Street credit for helping to have that entire block demolished.
As the neighborhood group became more formalized, incorporating and securing its legal status as a non-profit, McMichael and Belo began forming alliances.
“We built coalitions with different people,” McMichael said. “All the people trying to get things done. And of course there was resistance. I’m not going to name any of the people, but there was a small pocket that was resistant to what they called gentrification. I don’t really call what we have gentrification.”
What they have, in terms of new development, is Sharswood I and II, rental developments near 23rd and Jefferson Streets built by the Michaels Development Company in Marlton, NJ. The Brewerytown-Sharswood Civic Association subcontracted to handle the marketing for those projects, employing neighborhood people at $15 an hour to spread the word about the two developments.
They have also worked with the Brewerytown CDC, which works in the area closer to Fairmount Park. They’ve partnered with Philadelphia Green to plant trees in the area, and they’ve worked with Council President Clarke’s office to secure HUD grants to clean and green the lots where houses have been demolished.
Their efforts created incremental change in the neighborhood, and drew unlikely neighbors to the area.
* * *
Adam Lang, 35, moved to 21st and Master Streets seven years ago because he wanted to see what urban living was like.
“Where I grew up [outside Chicago] there was a cornfield in the backyard and we had suburbs in every direction,” said Lang, who is one of the neighborhood’s few white residents.
An IT professional who most recently lived in South Jersey, Lang couldn’t afford areas like Northern Liberties, but he was intrigued by Sharswood.
“There was a lot of infrastructure work being done around Temple and around Fairmount,” he said. “It looked like the City was doing a lot of development around the area.”
Lang loved the easy access to the 61 bus on Ridge Avenue, and the fact that he’s nine blocks from the Broad Street subway. The house was inexpensive, the property taxes were $300 last year, he liked his fellow homeowners, and he felt like Sharswood was a place where he could make a difference.
Asked if he feels he’s done so, Lang doesn’t hesitate. “It depends which month you ask me.”
He felt that he made a difference two years ago when he and the Civic Association helped to bring a financial literacy course to Vaux High School. Then in June, the school was one of 24 that closed due to the School District’s projected $304 million deficit.
Then there is the violence.
“I have a pickup truck I drive with five bullet holes in it because one guy had an issue with another guy and started shooting,” Lang said. “He ran behind the truck.”
Still, Lang said, it helps to know that he’s not alone. “I can list a dozen negative things I’ve dealt with in the last seven years. Other people can list three-dozen negative things they’ve dealt with over the last 15 years.”
Asked if he believes he made the right decision in moving to the neighborhood, Lang said yes. He believes the Ridge Avenue corridor will continue to develop along with the Brewerytown area, and that Sharswood will ultimately benefit.
“I took a chance seven years ago on a neighborhood and while there are some bad days, overall I like the opportunity, and I’ve had a chance to live next to and work with some great people in the neighborhood,” Lang said. “It’s not the easy way through life, but it’s been good.”