It’s a crisp spring day on South Fifth Street in Dickinson Square West. On every block, neighbors are sweeping, picking up trash, or toting home brand new blue recycling bins. But Philadelphia’s Spring Cleanup Day is just one of the many ways neighbors have worked to improve Dickinson Square in recent years.
Ted Savage, president of the Dickinson Square West Civic Association, said the neighborhood has really turned around in the past decade.
“From what I understand, the drug problem here was unbelievable. As recently as 10 or 11 years ago, neighbors didn’t walk on Fifth Street during the day,” Savage said. “By the time I moved here in 2008, things were already improving. When I moved into my house, there were vacant lots across the street. By 2009 there were three new homes there.”
The crowd who came out for the cleanup was friendly and diverse. The median age of residents has gone down from the mid 50s to the mid 40s since 2000, due to the number of young families moving to the area. About 40 percent of the residents of Dickinson Square West are people of color.
Geraldine Johnson has been block captain of the 400 block of Dickinson Street for 20 years and has owned her home since 1981. She is happy about the positive changes in her neighborhood; in fact, she has been instrumental in affecting those changes.
“Our problem was that we had drugs, basically. There were transactions on every corner along Fifth Street,” Johnson said. “We had to stick together as a block and we fought back as a block.”
Johnson and her neighbor Lyn Westcott, who owns a few properties on the block, said they had to go to nuisance court to remove neighbors who were making the drug problem worse. Now the neighbors are more like family, sometimes sharing dinners together with as many as 40 people dining. Johnson said that for these dinners each household makes a different course and the group travels from house to house, enjoying the different dishes as they go.
The median value of owner-occupied homes in Johnson’s block group has quintupled since 1990. This is due in large part to Philadelphia’s Actual Value Initiative, a program which changed the way real estate is assessed and taxed. Johnson purchased her home for less than $15,000. If she were to sell it today, it would be worth more than $200,000. But Johnson isn’t interested in moving away any time soon. The increase in her property’s value is also due to the improvements she described.
“This house is a blessing,” she said. “When I got my home I fell in love.”
Westcott said the rapid changes have left the neighborhood unrecognizable in the best possible way.
“My daughter had been away for 18 months, and when she came back and saw the new housing on Tasker Street, she asked, ‘where am I?’” laughed Westcott.
Despite the changes, Dickinson Square West Civic Association Secretary Joe Lavini thinks the neighborhood is going back to basics.
“Back in the 1950s and ’60s, there was a sense of taking care of your own,” Lavini said. “People my parents’ age passed away and a new generation of people came into the neighborhood and things got messy. But in the last five years I’ve seen a tremendous change. It seems like things are going back to a ‘we’ neighborhood instead of a ‘me’ neighborhood,” he said.
Jermaine Millhouse echoed his point.
“The sense of accountability here has changed,” he said. “As long as people come out and clean and meet their neighbors, this neighborhood will be an amazing place to be in the next five to 10 years.”
The shift in attitude from “mine” to “ours” is evident in the clean streets and friendly neighbors of Dickinson Square West.
– Text and images by Nina Lispi and Eddie Durkin