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screenshot1The 1970s in Philadelphia was a troubled era, but no one knew how troubled until the numbers from the U.S. Census in 1980 revealed that the city lost 260,000 residents during the decade.

Between 1980 and 1990 the exodus slowed. Still, we lost another 103,000. The decline was even greater in some neighborhoods.  North Philadelphia on the west side of Broad Street, for instance, lost half its population during the 20-year stretch between ’70 and ’90 and would continue to lose people for another 20 more.

Denial

As with all sudden losses, the city had trouble wrapping its head around what had happened. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of denial.

Residents on blocks that had gone half-empty resisted attempts to demolish unsafe structures.  In the 1980s, the city spent a lot of money on clean-and-seal operations to keep houses intact. There was even a movement to spruce up abandoned houses by painting flower boxes or drapes and blinds on boarded-up windows.

Collectively, there was a feeling that this exodus must be temporary; that people would return and re-inhabit the thousands of empty houses.

This wishful thinking extended up the ladder. For instance, the city resisted efforts to re-zone the empty Delaware waterfront from industrial to residential because it wanted to keep the land prepped and ready for the factories that would want to relocate there.

No one ever showed up.

By the 1990s, there was no sense denying that the loss was permanent. However, no one really wanted to concentrate too long on the enormity of the problem. What do you do with thousands upon thousands of vacant and deteriorating structures, ranging from small rowhomes to block-long factories?

No one was sure how many there were because no one counted.  An inventory would reveal the vastness of the problem and people would start to ask questions, such as: What are you going to do about it?

And they had no answer.

Triage

By then, Ed Rendell was mayor. Confronted with a city government in dire straits he did what any smart person would do: triage. He decided to put his energy and effort into reviving Center City in the hope that this would, in turn, have a ripple effect, radiating into the neighborhoods.  Rendell was right, but being right didn’t do anything to ameliorate conditions in neighborhoods outside the orbit of downtown.

Most neighborhoods did not stabilize. They continued their downward spiral, with abandonment and decay, leading to more abandonment and decay. Who wants to move into a half-empty block with derelict buildings and vacant lots?

The simple rowhouse was the strength of Philadelphia in the 19th century. Inexpensive to build, with a cookie-cutter design, it was affordable enough to allow working people the luxury of home ownership, which in turn created stable neighborhoods. People had a pride of place.

What was a blessing in the 19th century became a curse in the late 20th century.

A block that is half empty is still a block that is half full.  Utilities, water and sewer services much be delivered, trash picked up, the roads maintained, the area policed.

Successful development relied on the economies of scale.  Developers usually don’t want to build three or four houses, they want to build dozens. That requires swaths of open land and that was hard to come by in Philadelphia.

As one city planner told me ruefully during the Rendell era: We have a city with thousands of acres of open land—divided into lots 16 feet wide and 40 feet long.

During the 90s, my son went to school with a boy whose parents were recent arrivals. His father was a developer from Houston; his mother a student at Wharton.  They had moved here so she could attend school.

Once, I lamented how it was a shame that Philadelphia, unlike Houston, did not have enough good land. He disagreed.

“Philadelphia has great land,” he said. “It just has a bunch of lousy buildings on it.”

Elected officials did take a stab at the problem.  The most ambitious was Mayor John Street’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI). While NTI did pump money into the city’s demolition efforts, it never delivered on transformative change. The money ended up being a divvied up among council members and neighborhood groups. No one wanted to be the one who went into those half empty blocks and tell the remaining residents they had to leave so the city could create a clean slate for developers of projects those residents would never benefit from.

There were exceptions. In the 1980s, a ride up 11th Street was a bleak experience once you got past Spring Garden Street. You went through the Richard Allen Homes, a dreary public housing project, through an empty zone and more derelict blocks until you reached Yorktown, a successful ’60s-era project that attracted black middle-class buyers, including John Street.

Add green

Agencies combined forces to demolish Richard Allen and built public and subsidized housing—most of the houses are stand-alones with a carport, a front and back yard.  It’s been a great success. It looks suburban, but there no longer is a need for dense development. We can add green to the equation.

The city can and has done more of the same.  But, there is only so much money in the till for government-subsidized housing.  (The latest to enter the fray is Councilman Darrell Clarke, who recently unveiled a plan that quickly was dubbed a mini-NTI.)

As more properties went vacant, the city did what it does best: it slapped on liens for unpaid taxes.  Whether anyone thought we would ever see that money collected is an open question.  The government was not assiduous in going after people who owed taxes, especially during the recession, because it didn’t want to oust people from their homes.

It’s gotten to where nearly 100,000 properties are tax delinquent—a revelation made by reporter Patrick Kerkstra that shamed the city into developing a real, aggressive policy for collection.

As a recent Pew study pointed out, though, the odds are against collecting on at least a quarter of the delinquencies: the 26,000 that have racked up 10 years or more of delinquent tax bills.

Is this a problem or is this an opportunity?

As Isaiah Thompson makes clear in his interactive map of 10-year-plus delinquencies, it could be an opportunity. We could be entering the fourth stage that comes after population loss, denial and a general hopelessness over the situation.

By focusing on abandoned and tax-delinquent properties we have come to the realization that there is some great land under those lousy buildings.  A new Land Bank gives the city a second option—besides selling them as sheriff’s sales. It allows local government to take ownership of that land or building and either bank it for future use or assemble open tracts that would draw development.

The headline on Thompson’s map is Landscape of Possibilities, with emphasis on the word possible.  The Land Bank became law just this year. It has yet to get up and running.

In one sense, the map is depressing.  Those clusters of blue are a manifestation of an enduring problem.

But, for the first time in many years, it’s possible to look at that map and also envision a better future. Market forces seem to be favoring urban living. Demand is increasing, especially in neighborhoods that touch Center City.  A combination of government action in assembling land and private market forces developing it can begin to change the narrative of decline and decay that began in the 1970s.

The possibility is there. I hope we have the skill and the political will to make it happen.