Walk near the corner of 37th and Wallace streets on a Sunday around noon and the red-and-white brick building will be screaming at the top of its lungs. It’s not the building itself, but the pastor of Mt. Olive Baptist Church, mid-sermon, preaching scripture to his parishioners. Taking giant gulps of air in between short yelps and wiping the sweat from his brow every now and then, Pastor Harry Moore, Sr., takes to the pulpit every Sunday just like he has for the past 19 years, with full force. When his sermon ends, not a single parishioner is sitting.
Just around the corner from Pastor Moore’s congregation stands a grey row home that has seen better days. Although it shows signs of wear and tear, the house at 3711 Melon street also stands for the ending of Pastor Moore’s sermon on a seasonably warm Sunday morning.
But on the last Saturday in May, the old home will come down, with Pastor Moore leading what he refers to as a “homegoing celebration.” The event is more commonly known as a funeral. Although instead of holding the funeral for one of his parishioners, Pastor Moore will be holding one for the home.
The concept of holding a funeral for a home comes from the minds of artists Billy Dufala, Steven Dufala and Jacob Hellman. These three plan to bring a lot of attention to home vacancy in one of the neighborhoods with the highest levels of it in the city of Philadelphia. Other neighborhoods with vacancy levels similar to Mantua’s include Strawberry Mansion and Logan, but the project starts in Mantua.
There is no question that blight is in full effect in Mantua.
“When people see a nicer neighborhood, they have more of a problem throwing trash around,” said Pastor Moore. “When the neighborhood is as run down as Mantua is, people just don’t care about trash.”
City-wide, blight is bringing down property values by $3.6 billion, according to a 2010 report on vacant land management from Econsult, a local economic consulting firm. In some neighborhoods the property value is reduced less, but in Mantua, the average amount of value lost is upwards of 20 percent, according to the report.
Not only does vacancy affect the residents of Philadelphia, the city takes a huge hit when properties are left to decompose. According to the Vacant Land Management report, more than $2 million in property taxes go uncollected every year. There were more than 17,000 vacant land parcels that were reported tax delinquent in the 2010 report. The back taxes on those properties added up $70 million, which increases two million dollars each year, according to the report. This only includes the tax information the city has collected.
More recently, news reports have described problems with blight and tax delinquency in even greater detail.
Although three quarters of vacant properties are privately owned, the city is responsible for just about 25 percent of them. Though the buildings may not be in use as of now, the city still has strict guidelines to keep the properties in functioning condition. Waste clean-up, pest control, monitoring, police patrol and fire safety are all things that need to stay in control as a buildings sit vacant. All of this maintenance costs the city more than $20 million each year.
Funeral for a Home hopes to improve this problem with grandiose demonstrations bringing attention to the issue.
“I’m hoping that it will really make a difference in the community,” said Moore. “To use this one home as an example and have other homes that they would demolish and refurbish the same way.”
“People are skeptical of it and I was careful how I dealt with telling everyone,” he added. “I made sure that I got their opinion before I let them know we were involved. I’m going to be careful even on that day.”
Moore is even a little skeptical about the project and how the neighborhood would benefit.
“The budget lines reach certain people but this doesn’t mean it reaches the neighborhood,” he said. “For a project like this to work, it’s going to have to reach the neighborhood.”
Pastor Moore is a man who is connected to his community. Before sitting down for an interview, he had to make time for a short walk down to 39th and Wallace streets to comfort a mother who had lost her daughter to a gun accident the day before. As her family lifted the mother from laying on the floor weeping, Pastor Moore and his two reverends joined hands to pray for the family. As the prayer came to an end the mother screamed “Yes, Lord!” and a deafening silence fell over the living room. There is no doubt that he deeply cares for the people of Mantua.
“I know these people,” he said. “You see me out in my community speaking to people because these people need help. I’m not the typical pastor who drives around in a shiny new car and shows up just on Sundays but you’ll see me out in my jogging suit running around the blocks.”
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Mantua will be changing in the coming years, and vacancy and condemned properties will be involved in this change. More funerals for homes around the neighborhood will hopefully bring attention to what is becoming a huge problem in The Bottom. One thing that won’t change is every Sunday morning, you’ll still find Pastor Harry Moore gasping for air, drenched in sweat, and shaking hands with everyone he runs into outside Mt. Olive Baptist Church. If anyone can bring down the house and Mantua’s housing problems, it is going to be him.
– Text, images, and video by Patrick McPeak