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The best way to think of the grand jury report on the fatal fire at the Thomas Buck Hosiery factory in Kensington is not to see it as a grand jury report, but as a non-fiction novella.
I never thought I would write this about an official presentation, but it is a brilliantly told story that, in another time, could have been a tale written by Dickens. You can read the full report here.
The cast of characters include: rapacious owners, angry and frustrated neighbors, bureaucrats who “created paper, but no results,” and a trio of city agencies that passed the ball back and forth until tragedy struck.
On April 9, 2012, a person or persons unknown ignited a fire in the abandoned factory, creating a conflagration that soon threatened to spread to the entire neighborhood. Squad after squad of firefighters was called in to contain the blaze. Two of them—Firefighter Daniel Sweeney and Lt. Robert Neary—were inside an adjacent building when one of the factory walls collapsed on it, trapping the two men under a mound of rubble. They died fighting that fire.
What propels the prose of the grand jury report is an underlying tone of anguished anger. This grand jury, empanelled by DA Seth Williams, desperately wanted to indict someone in this case. The most likely candidates were Nahman and Michael Lichtenstein, a Brooklyn-based father-and-son team of real-estate moguls, who own dozens of properties in Philadelphia and New York.
The duo were “unscrupulous from the start,” the report says, cheating the original owner out of the agreed-to price, neglecting the building once they owned it, failing to pay taxes and water bills, ignoring notices from city agencies.
While the Lichtensteins were scumbags, they were not criminally so, the grand jury found. They were not linked in any direct way to the fire that caused the deaths.
There are people like the Lichtensteins in every era and in every place. Remember our own homegrown Sam Rappaport, now mercifully deceased, who was a pioneer in the art of demolition by neglect?
The question is: who will protect us from these people? Blighted and neglected buildings are not only a fire hazard and an eyesore, they deflate the values of surrounding properties and damage the soul of neighborhoods.
At one time, L&I, the Revenue Department and the Law Department were involved in cases involving the Buck factory. They were all remiss in doing their jobs, according to the report, which pointedly adds: “Had city departments done their jobs, these deaths might never have occurred.”
Responding to complaints, L&I sent four different inspectors out to the building, who dutifully wrote up violation notices. And each time an L&I inspector visited the property, they issued a new case number—thus treating the property as if it had no prior violation history. These violations, the grand jury said “were merely superficial steps that did no more than keep the bureaucratic wheels moving.”
Of course, the Lichtensteins ignored the violation notices. Just as they ignored notices of taxes and water bills due. These were canny men, wise in the ways of the world. They knew there would be no effective enforcement, not with the hapless city agencies that were involved.
At one point, the Law Department did decide to take the Lichtensteins to court, but the papers were delivered to the vacant, derelict building. There was no one there to accept service. Meanwhile, L&I did have active addresses for the owners. The two departments never talked.
From the time they bought the building until today, the Lichtensteins have yet to make an appearance before a judge.
Why did the wheels of enforcement grind so slowly—despite repeated complaints by neighbors that the building was open to squatters and the elements?
Though the only way to enforce L&I violation notices is to go to court and get an order from a judge, the department never took that step. Why?
“The secret was spilled by both the current and past L&I commissioners,” the grand jury reported. “Both admitted the Department does not really want to take large properties with serious violations before a judge. It turns out that, if the building owner is unavailable or unable to pay for repairs, the court has the power to order the city to bear the cost.”
In other words, the larger the building and the more serious the violations, the less likely are the chances for effective enforcement. It’s the world turned upside down.
It’s one thing for people like the Lichtensteins to prey on a neighborhood. It’s something else when the deed is done by the very officials sworn to protect citizens.
As an aside: during this time, when the owners were being pursued by multiple agencies for back taxes and safety violations, they waltzed into L&I and got a zoning change on the building from commercial to residential. No one bothered even to look at the files thick with violation notices.
In fact, though the wheels of the bureaucracy went round and round, nothing really happened until smoke and flames shot out of the building on April 9, 2012.
The saddest thing of all about the grand jury report is the sense that if people just did their jobs, none of this had to be.
Photo: The Associated Press