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Ludlow is a community in mourning. Marvin Louis, the former executive director of the Ludlow Community Association, died in May. He lived on North Sixth Street for more than 40 years, acting as a liaison between city government and residents of the community he cared so much about. Fondly referred to as the “Mayor of Ludlow” Louis, a former boxer and military man, was instrumental in launching revitalization in Ludlow.
“He grew up a sharecropper’s child in the South,” said Herb McCutchen, Louis’ nephew. McCutchen’s mother and Louis’ sister, Jackie, lived next door to Louis and his wife for many years.
“He knew what it meant to be poor and he felt the pain of the people,” McCutchen said. “Once he married his second wife [Anne] he became a man of the people.”
Louis married Anne Colbert in 1955. They moved into their house on North Sixth Street four years later and it didn’t take long before Louis began working to improve the community.
“He was our leader around here,” said Syreeta Broadnax, who has lived on North Sixth Street for the last seven years and in Ludlow for most of her life.
“If you had a problem with housing, he could get you whatever you needed– like that,” she said, snapping her fingers.
Louis took the low-paying job of president of the Ludlow Community Association in the early 1960s. He fought with the Department of Recreation to get Ludlow get its first playground. It took him a dozen years of calls and protests, but he got the job done. Next, he started building homes in the neighborhood.
“People told Marvin that nobody would invest in Ludlow,” said Joseph Wanamaker, 55, a life-long resident of Ludlow. “His job was to prove them wrong and he proved them wrong.”
In the 1960s, Ludlow was struggling. The neighborhood built in the 1800s around textile factories fell on hard times when many of those plants left the city due to transportation and modernization problems. Soon homeowners abandoned the neighborhood as well turning their single-family homes into multi-unit apartment buildings that eventually fell into disrepair. Under Louis’ leadership, LCA helped residents hold a rent strike to force landlords to fix up dilapidated properties.
Now that Louis is gone, residents are worried.
“We need another leader around here,” Alex Napper said. Napper is a Sixth Street block co-captain, along with Broadnax.
“[Louis] was the Martin Luther King, Jr. of Philadelphia,” he said. “He has big shoes to fill.”
Broadnax and Napper have complained to the city about numerous issues on their block such as an infestation of water bugs, huge cracks in the sidewalk and missing vent covers. They said their calls go unanswered.
“I call the city to complain and they tell me I have to pay to fix the sidewalk,” she said.
The LCA has been defunct ever since Louis retired a few years ago. Currently, the organization does not have an office or a phone number. There is no one to make the calls to cut through bureaucratic red tape like when Marvin Louis was active.
“Community leadership is extremely important because people need to have control over the things that happen in their community,” said Marcus Presley, a community organizer with the Women’s Community Revitalization Project. The organization helps build leadership, provides social services and housing in Ludlow.
“But whenever there is new leadership, there could be a fight,” he said. “The key is to listen and build a consensus.”
One problem is while community leadership has its privileges it is a thankless job. It takes time, follow up and follow through. And sometimes, it means taking a stand when nobody else will.
Joseph Wanamaker is vying for the honorary “Mayor of Ludlow” title and he already has loyal followers.
“Joe Wanamaker is the new leader,” Napper said. “He’s the new Mayor of Ludlow. But he’s been reluctant.”
Wanamaker is reluctant because Louis—who he says was his mentor—is a legend in the neighborhood. He is also hesitant because he is not the only who wants that title.
“There are others,” Wanamaker said. “But I won’t name any names.”
“Who’s stepping up, I have no clue,” Herb McCutchen said. “Joe Wanamaker is pretty good, but there are others. Some of them want to win developers hearts. Others just don’t have the skills to lead.”
Some residents refuse to wait on a leader. Instead, they are rolling up their sleeves to take care of things on their own.
“Over the last two years, we had some ticks–they were all over the sidewalk,” said Eugene Hayward. He and his family have owned a home on Sixth Street for 30 years.
“We called the city to report it and they never showed up,” he said. “We solved the problem by buying bug killer and just dealing with it.”
Hayward has also stepped up to clean out a vacant lot adjacent to his property.
“This lot was here and nobody was doing anything with it,” he said. “It just took a little effort from me to make it into something.”
Now Hayward cuts the grass in the lot every two weeks. He plans to have his family’s cookout in the lot on July 4th.
“This place is home,” McCutchen said. “Some people like to leave and go to a better place. I believe in making your place better.”
Wanamaker, Hayward, Broadnax, Napper and others despite degrees of differences all agree that Marvin Louis’ leadership will be missed.