Citywide: The Underrated Army of Block Captains

Block Captain Marie Coleman shows off a vacant lot where her block constructed a patriotic garden..."For all the soldiers," she said.

Sigrid Craig (center, in brown coat), known as "Mrs. Philadelphia", started the block captain program over 70 years ago.
Sigrid Craig (center, in brown coat), known as “Mrs. Philadelphia,” started the block captain program more than 70 years ago.

They pick up trash. They sweep the streets. They turn vacant lots in to community gardens, organize block parties, and keep crime in check on more than 6,000 blocks throughout the city.

And they don’t get a dime.

They’re title holders of one of Philadelphia’s more underrated – and one of its most important- roles that flies close to the ground and keeps the city’s smallest unit of community in check. It’s the role of the block captain, and it’s become one of the city’s last hopes for clean, community-oriented neighborhoods.

“Even though we have more organizations that will go above and beyond to get people to volunteer or just simply to participate, I think it’s a bigger challenge now than it has been in the past,” said Dawn Woods, administrator of the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee, which oversees the block captain program.“Block unity, and overall community was a lot bigger back (when the block captain program started in the 1930s).”

The city doesn’t have an organization specifically devoted to block upkeep, said Woods. It’s a role that the block captain fills. They bridge the gap between homeowners and the city, making sure properties stay kept up and blocks stay clean.

Block captains are provided with clean-up supplies from the city – bags, rakes, brooms – but most of the job comes from internal satisfaction.

“They get to take pride in the difference they make in their neighborhood,” Woods said.

“We tell them how to go about organizing their block, getting to know the people, organizing for its clean up endeavors,” said Stephanie Robinson, the supervisor of the Clean Block Officers program, which oversee the individual block captains. “Basically, we give them the tools to work with and the support. But the residents and the block captains are actually the ones that are doing the work.”

Block Captain Marie Coleman shows off a vacant lot where her block constructed a patriotic garden…”For all the soldiers,” she said.


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