Road enraged


Tracie Madison can recall when her block was the opposite of a street in disarray.

Describing it as a once-beautiful stretch of road, the 34-year-old has fond memories of gathering with friends on a playground behind a fenced-in basketball court. Hide-and-seek always was the popular game of choice.

While the court remains, weeds have taken over the adjacent recreational area on the 1500 block of South Stillman Street and in residential alleyways. More disturbing to Madison are the vacant properties and lots that have invited critters and short-dumpers to her street without welcome.

"It hurts me because I had moved for a while and came back after five years," she said. "It’s horrible."

Despite the changes, Madison still loves her block. And her fellow residents – many of whom are family members – will continue fighting to reclaim the former condition of their favorite road.

Distressed from this neglect, some 25 residents rallied Oct. 29 for more involvement from the city. Carrying large cutouts of rodents, they chanted "people united will never be defeated," calling the city’s attempts at eradicating these properties into question.

Vocalizing his concerns at last week’s gathering was Dwayne Madison, Tracie’s husband and a member of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now or ACORN. He has been trying to get help for the past six years, but to no avail.

Licenses & Inspections "pays no attention when we call them out to do something about the problem," Dwayne said, as he made his way through an unkempt lot littered with trash and used building material.

A spokesperson for L&I; said the department receives complaints about these issues, but refers them to the city’s managing director’s office. Numerous phone calls to this office were not returned by press time.

With her eye on the past, Tracie remembers when the block’s elders would sit outdoors and chat. This activity, she said, stopped after mice and cockroaches were seen scurrying throughout the block.

Her husband viewed the basketball court as a step in the right direction, but does not know why city has otherwise fallen short.

"Why would you do this and stop there?" Dwayne asked.

IMPLEMENTED IN 2001, the city’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI) began a five-year, $300-million project aimed at improving the quality of life in all city neighborhoods. A 2004 report states more than $140 million was used for residential demolition with another $4.7 million used for vacant property stabilization.

Through NTI efforts, the city has revitalized 270 vacant lots in South Philly alone with grass, trees and fencing, and another 30 are planned for revitalization this spring in the area, said Cynthia Bayete Torres, NTI assistant director.

She added that Universal Companies, the nonprofit neighborhood revitalization program, was responsible for cleaning up 200 to 250 additional lots in the area.

A mix of public and private financing also has spurred new development. However, some residents say they continue living near filth while they wait for the finalization of deals.

Universal Companies agreed to revamp five homes and build four others on the 2300 blocks of Cross and Greenwich streets. Last fall, the company began working on a financing plan for the project, which costs $2 million for renovation and construction, said Aimee McHale, the company’s project manager.

Kathleen Martin, former block captain of the 2300 block of Cross Street, attended a meeting four months ago where she was told Universal Companies would begin construction by last month. Still anticipating the sound of hammers smacking nails, Martin must contend with a messier issue in the interim.

"Now, we pray that it doesn’t rain because when it does, the mud [from vacant lots] flows down onto the street," said Martin, who has lived on her block for more than 30 years.

Mud has occasionally seeped into residents’ basements adjacent to the vacant lots, she added. Universal Companies is currently awaiting the transfer of the land title of the vacant lots. Delays also occurred because construction contract bids were "extremely high and there wasn’t enough subsidies in the project to build at the prices we were getting," McHale said. The company expects to hold a groundbreaking ceremony within the next few weeks.

On other blocks, residents said they must sit, stew and hope for changes in their neighborhood. Margaret Calhoun of the 1500 block of South Stillman Street referred to her block as a "dumpsite for other people." Due to its conditions, passersby simply toss trash into the abandoned lots near her home.

A gut-wrenching smell emitting from a trash bag once spurred Calhoun to action.

"I called the police because I thought it was a dead body," she said. The police found rotted meat inside the bag.

During the rally last week, heated participants had gotten word Mayor John Street was at the nearby Church of the Redeemer, 24th and Dickinson streets. Dwayne had the opportunity to speak his mind.

"He asked me what was going on at the block and said he was sorry that he didn’t know about it," Dwayne said. "He said he will look into it."

L&I; officials paid a visit to his block the following day and informed him a fence would be installed around the lots within the week and the abandoned buildings would be torn down within the month.

"We were so glad to know he was there to give us a helping hand. We appreciate everything he’s done for us," he said. "The next step is getting some new houses on our block."