Everybody has walked down a block of signature Philadelphia row homes. Visitors and residents have glanced side to side intermittently and have admired the subtle intricacies of each house. One had flowers on the porch banister.
Another had a Colonial-era shoe scraper beside the front steps. There were even others that had slightly different hues of house paint than those surrounding them, distinguishing the house from those around it.
But then, they stand there like open wounds: darkened, boarded-up houses tainting the otherwise serene look of the block.
Unfortunately, this has become the standard along many of the streets and avenues of North Philadelphia. After a walk down West Diamond Street, this fact gets exposed instantly. A few hundred feet from the Duckrey School near 15th Street, brick colored plywood has covered the windows and doorway of a dark-colored row house.
Farther down the street, similar properties have openings in these thresholds that have hinted about the nefarious activities that possibly go on inside since the previous owners have vacated. Farther north in the Fairhill section, however, it is crystal clear what has happened to a home on an otherwise peaceful and tight-knit block just off of Glenwood Avenue.
Resident Alvin Brown has lived on North Sixth Street near Westmoreland since 1976. He said he once knew the people who lived in the small row home near Willard Street even before he moved to the area. He recounted how a couple of years ago, arsonists set the house on fire while it was still occupied, killing all of the residents inside.
Since then, the city has taken control of the property but has done very little with it, Brown explained. His house borders the condemned home. “There’s smoke all up and around the walls [of my house], on my roof and on my porch.” Brown said. He spoke of rodents and cockroaches that often have made their way through the walls and into his home. “I’ve slowed them down [from infesting my house] but I haven’t stopped them yet. I see droppings down [in the cellar] a lot. I clean it up every day,” he continued.
Though Brown has been having issues with his house and the abandoned one next to him, he said that he still would like to stay in the neighborhood. He and a few neighbors had recently finished cleaning six of his other neighbors’ houses.
He said that despite the look of his block, everybody who lives there has looked after one another. One of his neighbors makes sure his family is fed in exchange for his cleaning services. So, despite the preconception some visitors may have when they visit a neighborhood like this, Brown and his neighbor Gerard Gonzalez believe that it is still a nice place to live. Gonzalez, who lives on the opposite side of the vacant home from Brown, has been having similar problems to those that Brown recounted.
“The house has a big hole on top and the rain goes into my basement.” Gonzalez said. He had called the city multiple times and was told that the problems would be resolved within five years. “It has been seven years since it burned,” he said. Gonzalez repeated his dismay that he believed that the city has given him the run-around, adding that the city barely gets around to salting his street when it snows.
But he had a similar sentiment about the rest of the neighborhood. “The neighbors are wonderful,” he said. Brown and Gonzalez both have been striving to break the stereotype that a neighborhood with abandoned homes and buildings automatically labels it as a bad area.
Brown said he believes crime has actually gone down over the years despite problematic properties such as the one on Sixth Street. They both spoke of residents moving out but said that the tightness and feeling of community among the residents of the block and the surrounding neighborhood keep them from leaving. “I was going to sell my house but this changed my mind,” Brown said. In what they have said, it is clear that one should never judge a book by its cover.