North Central: A Side Street Feeling Surrounded

Sheila Revere and Yvonne Barksdale enjoy the breezy summer day outside Barksdale's home.

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Being a block captain is not for everyone. Keeping up with community events and informing neighbors—voluntarily—takes time, dedication, and an understanding of the neighborhood. Katherine Lakins of 19th and Nicholas streets has been doing it for about 40 years.

Katherine Lakins sits outside one of the abandoned homes across the street from her own.

It seems that age has not siphoned away her energy, though she claims she moves slower than she used to. She wakes up at 2 a.m. and does work around the house. Often she will sit outside and talk with friends who are also enjoying the weather or strolling by her home. She picks up any garbage she sees on the street—no empty snack bags or stray wads of paper are to be seen.

Recently, Lakins and a few other Nicholas Street residents said they are concerned about a new development within their immediate surroundings. One morning, they woke up to construction noise and were confused because they were not notified about any building scheduled to take place near them.

Lakins did not have to look far to locate the source of the noise. Right behind the vacant lot next to her house, workers were taking the first steps to build what she and others on her street said was to become a homeless shelter. Attempts made to contact the City Planning Commission to confirm the nature of the new building were unsuccessful.

“They just came in. The neighborhood had no notice,” she said. “It shook these old houses.”

When a friend of Lakins’ who is also a block captain walked by, they had an opportunity to discuss their shared problem.

“We don’t need this, we don’t want it,” said Beatrice Smith, or Bea, as the neighbors call her. “This area is residential.”

The area already contains two recovery houses, Smith said, and she does not understand why another similar structure

Workers take the first steps to construct what locals say will be a homeless shelter.

is necessary. She remembered when people in the community were told that one of the recovery houses was going to be a senior citizens’ complex. “We don’t want another halfway house,” she said.

One of the two institutions Smith referred to is Resources for Human Development at 1981 N. Woodstock St. The national entity is a not-for-profit organization that offers assistance for homelessness and addiction recovery. The other is Men and Women for Human Excellence at 2603 Cecil B. Moore Ave., another not-for-profit that provides substance abuse prevention and intervention. Both organizations provide additional services outside of homelessness and recovery help.

Two other community organizations lie even closer to three-block-long Nicholas Street. At 1600 N. 19th St., the Philadelphia Opportunities Industrialization Center, which focuses on poverty, unemployment and illiteracy, is just around the corner. Not far off is the Sultan Jihad Ahmad Community Foundation at 1608 N. 19th St., an organization that aims to eliminate youth violence. The foundation has another location near 17th Street and Ridge Avenue.

Someone who lives outside the community may not see the downside of building a homeless shelter in the area. How could an institution designed to help people cause any harm?

Smith’s concern is that the shelter will draw addicts and recovering addicts to her community, which she believes already has a drug problem. She understands that people who are struggling with serious problems need help, but does not think placing them in the chosen environment would be beneficial either to them or the people who live there. “I know you have to go someplace, but not here,” she said. “There’s young people with young children and people who are going to retire living here.”

Another part of the problem, Smith said, was that there was no zoning notice.

“If it was up, I would know it,” she said.

While she has not brought up her apprehensions at any community meetings yet, Smith plans on contacting other block captains in the area in order to organize an effort to make their voices heard. “We’re going to do something,” she said. “Not sure what yet, but something.”

Sheila Revere and Yvonne Barksdale enjoy the breezy summer day outside Barksdale's home.

Across the street and a few houses down, three women sat together at a picnic table under an umbrella, chatting and enjoying the breezy summer day that provided a break from the recent scorching temperatures intensified by thick, humid air. One of them, Yvonne Barksdale, still lives in the home she grew up in and has known Lakins all her life. She feels that someone should have notified residents that construction was imminent.

“I’m all about rehabilitation, but my problem is with the system,” she said. “They need to involve the people in the community. I had to walk up and say, you’re in back of my house, what’s going on?”

Barksdale said she likes living on Nicholas Street because it is peaceful. The road only runs from 19th to 22nd streets, so traffic is sparse. A number of buildings are abandoned and boarded up, making for less human noise and traffic.

Next to Barksdale on the bench sat Sheila Revere, who made no hesitation to commend her friend’s kindness and generosity toward neighbors. “She’s got a heart of gold,” she said of Barksdale, despite her friend’s protests. “No, really, she’s the glue that holds the block together.”

Revere described the deep sense of community that comes with living among the same people for years. Everyone knows each other, she said. Everyone shares and supports each other when they need it. Money is never an issue. “There’s no strings attached,” she said. “When push comes to shove, we’re together.”

Lakins said she wonders why another building is going up when a whole section of abandoned homes lie right across the street from her own. “Renovate these homes,” she said. “See, they’re building—why not do the same over here? Make it look decent.”

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