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In the opening story 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 an ongoing battle against vacancy and poverty. This week, we meet two of the people on the front lines …
In a North Philadelphia census tract with more than 100 vacant parcels, even the City’s Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) can’t keep pace with the abandonment. A dilapidated property at 2305 Sharswood Street was not included in a database of vacant parcels L&I submitted to AxisPhilly in response to a Right To Know request.
When AxisPhilly questioned the omission, L&I spokesperson Rebecca Swanson said, “We can’t be everywhere.”
But on July 18, in response to AxisPhilly’s inquiry, 2305 Sharswood Street was placed on the list of properties to be inspected by L&I.
Under City rules, it could be 30 days before an inspector is dispatched, even though open properties like it often become hiding places for drugs or guns, said Police Spokesman Lt. John Stanford. Meanwhile, the neighbors wait.
That’s the reality for the denizens of Sharswood, a neighborhood where some residents have joined the fight to remake a community that is in turns desolate and vibrant. The fight has been difficult, and it is not getting any easier.
It wasn’t always this way.
Talmadge Belo, Jr., 70, a retired Naval Yard worker, and Warren McMichael, a retired teacher, are key members of the Brewerytown-Sharswood Community Civic Association, a 13-year-old organization that is seeking to turn things around. The men’s stories not only illustrate how the neighborhood became a place where some blocks are almost completely vacant. Their stories also explain how poverty, vacancy and crime became persistent problems in neighborhoods like their own.
* * *
For Belo, the story begins in 1954, when he was 11 years old. That’s when his mother moved the family from South Philadelphia to 2308 Diamond Street, in North Philadelphia’s Raymond Rosen Housing Projects.
Those they’d left behind thought Belo’s family had moved to a much more stable community. After all, Diamond Street was a place whose elegant brownstones and proximity to Fairmount Park once made it a popular locale for the rich. But Philadelphia was changing. The poor were being moved into high-rise housing projects, and Raymond Rosen was an example of that plan.
Asked why his mother moved the family to North Philadelphia, Belo was reflective. “It was an opportunity for [my mother],” Belo said. “We lived in what we thought was a great home down [in South Philadelphia], but the truth was, the toilet was in the back yard. The first time I ever saw hot water come out of a wall was in the projects—the Raymond Rosen projects.”
The housing project was brand new, Belo said, and the sheer number of people in the development was overwhelming compared to 16th and Wharton, the neighborhood he’d come from. “I was scared to death,” Belo recalled. “If I remember correctly, there were 20 gangs in the vicinity and a lot of them used to congregate in the middle of the projects on Friday and Saturday night. In fact we had an old TV that only had a certain amount of programming, but the programming outside that window was better than what was on TV.”
Belo went to school, but he had to run to Fitzsimons Junior High in order to avoid gangs like the Valley, the Vikings, the Second Two, and the Moroccos. “I’m a 70-year-old man who can still move around just because of that exercise of running up and down those steps and across that vast area toward Fitzsimons and back.”
Belo worked evenings to avoid the gangs, which he said rose out of social clubs that resulted from what Belo called the containment of blacks.
“When I first started Dobbins Vocational School in 1957, north of Lehigh Avenue was a no-no,” Belo said. “There was complete white dominance there. And in this particular area—Brewerytown-Sharswood where we are now—there was also containment. South of Girard Avenue and other areas, black folks just couldn’t go. So with that in mind, that containment, as far as I can see, caused us to come together and, hey, different corners had different ideas. And that just developed into what appeared.”
Belo overcame that containment to graduate, marry, and move with his wife to Sharswood—a once beautiful neighborhood where the two of them raised a family. The containment Belo spoke about was there, however. It was augmented by government policies such as urban renewal, whose stated objective of removing urban blight pushed poor residents—many of them black—out of some neighborhoods and into others. The result was concentration of poverty.
Still, Belo and other residents said the neighborhood was full. So how did neighborhoods like Sharswood come to contain so much vacancy? The answer, said Warren McMichael, is not in the history of the impoverished, but in the history of the middle class.
* * *
Not everyone in black neighborhoods was poor, and not everyone was involved in gangs, said McMichael, who grew up in Sharswood during the forties and fifties. Black doctors, lawyers, teachers and other middle class professionals lived side by side with everyone else, and those professionals provided the stability that made neighborhoods like Sharswood into vibrant, albeit segregated communities.
“If you came east of 25th Street it was Afro American and if you went west of 25th Street it was primarily white,” McMichael said. “The church at 28th and Master Street was called St. Ludwig’s. It was a German Catholic church. Girard Avenue was all white. There was an old movie theater at 26th and Girard. Most of the businesses were run by Jewish merchants. There were hardware stores, clothing stores, and food markets.”
There was also opportunity if you worked hard, said McMichael, the youngest of five siblings. “My father worked for the Reading Railroad and also worked as a barber on weekends. He set us up in business. He believed an idle mind was the devil’s workshop, so we boys sold ice on the weekends.”
McMichael carried that work ethic through Philadelphia’s largely segregated school system. One of his teachers pushed him to go to Roosevelt Junior High in West Oak Lane. From there he went to Germantown High School and Cheyney University. He later earned a Master’s degree.
McMichael, who as a teacher counted Council President Darrell Clarke among his former students, never left the neighborhood, but others did, and according to McMichael, it began with integration. “When integration came that’s when the middle class started moving out and going to Germantown and West Oak Lane,” McMichael said.
The deaths of homeowners also led to depopulation in Sharswood. Homeowners’ children—many of them college-educated—left the area for the suburbs or moved to other parts of the country. Then in 1967, when the Norman Blumberg Apartments, a high-rise housing project, was completed despite the objections of neighbors, Sharswood absorbed a greater concentration of poverty.
“People often ask me why I stayed, and I say, ‘I didn’t have good sense,’” McMichael said with a laugh. “But seriously, there were good people here, like Talmadge and other people in the area, and I never had children. If I’d had children I would’ve moved.”
When the drug-related crime and violence of the late eighties and nineties nearly destroyed neighborhoods in North and West Philadelphia, McMichael, who’d previously believed that real estate development was coming, grew concerned.
“Things had really gone down to a level where I was getting a little frustrated so I got together with these folks and said, ‘What are we going to do? Are we going to try to improve this community or are we going to start moving out like everybody else?’”
They decided to stay, and over the course of 13 years, Brewerytown-Sharswood Community Civic Association has formed alliances with developers like Westrum and community groups like Brewerytown CDC. They have convinced those who were afraid of wholesale gentrification to join. They have seen incremental progress.
Next week, you’ll learn how they did it.
Click here to read Part 3 of Solomon Jones’s Abandoned series