Northeast Times

He's on a mission

Fishtown man teams up with fel­low res­id­ents to make life a pain for those who don’t re­spect the neigh­bor­hood.

Fishtown’s Chris­toph­er Saw­yer has an in­ter­est­ing hobby.

He likes to be a thorn in the side of ab­sent­ee prop­erty own­ers, short-dump­ers and those pesky ne’er-do-wells who clut­ter up the neigh­bor­hood with il­leg­al signs pos­ted on just about any sur­face they can find.

Where oth­ers might bake a pie or col­lect vinyl re­cords, Saw­yer spends his free time fight­ing what he calls “fly-by-night” com­pan­ies that post “ban­dit signs” throughout the com­munity, clean­ing up trash in aban­doned lots, and in­vest­ig­at­ing va­cant prop­er­ties to find their own­ers and re­port them to the city.

“I love go­ing out to cleanups and get­ting my hands dirty,” the 34-year-old Saw­yer said dur­ing an in­ter­view last week. “That’s what I do in­stead of watch­ing TV or something.”

Saw­yer is ori­gin­ally from Texas. He has been liv­ing in the area since 2003 and now lives near Cum­ber­land and Gaul streets. He said he be­came act­ive in fight­ing com­munity ills be­cause he’s heard many people com­plain, but the words were of­ten just hot air.

“I’m tired of people just bitch­ing about the city,” he said.

Tak­ing mat­ters in­to his own hands, Saw­yer, a full­time soft­ware en­gin­eer, star­ted www.ban­dit­pro­ject.org, a site that asks vis­it­ors to re­move ban­dit signs — those il­leg­al “We Buy Houses” signs of­ten seen stapled to tele­phone poles throughout the city — and re­port them to the city’s 3-1-1 hot­line.

When cited by the city, com­pan­ies and in­di­vidu­als pla­cing the il­leg­al plac­ards around neigh­bor­hoods can be hit with fines ran­ging from $75 to $300 per vi­ol­a­tion.

The law can also ap­ply to can­did­ates for polit­ic­al of­fice. 

In 2008, then-State Rep. Kenyatta John­son (D-186th dist.) was found to have vi­ol­ated Title 10 Chapter 10-1202 of the City Code, which pro­hib­its post­ing signs to poles, street­lights and sim­il­ar prop­erty.

John­son, re­cently elec­ted to the 2nd Dis­trict in City Coun­cil, took the city to court to fight the or­din­ance pro­hib­it­ing ban­dit signs, say­ing it vi­ol­ated his first and four­teenth Con­sti­tu­tion­al rights, and lost.

Bey­ond just clut­ter­ing up a neigh­bor­hood, Saw­yer said signs ad­vert­ising quick cash set­tle­ments for homes of­ten tar­get dis­tressed prop­erty own­ers. That can send a neg­at­ive mes­sage to vi­able homeown­ers look­ing to buy in the neigh­bor­hood. 

“The signs ad­vert­ise, ‘Our neigh­bor­hood is go­ing down. Wel­come to the ghetto’ … you’ve got to be in a fairly des­per­ate situ­ation to sell your home to these guys,” said Saw­yer, call­ing these types of signs “blight.” 

Re­mov­ing these signs and find­ing the own­ers so the city can fol­low up is only part of the work Saw­yer does to help beau­ti­fy the com­munity.

Saw­yer also works closely with the Olde Rich­mond Civic As­so­ci­ation and the Fishtown Neigh­bors As­so­ci­ation to tackle il­leg­al dump­ing in va­cant lots throughout the neigh­bor­hood.

He said that, just like tar­get­ing the ban­dit signs, in look­ing at il­leg­al dump­ing of tires throughout the area, he sees a care­less neg­lect of the prop­er­ties by their own­ers.

Re­cently, he was work­ing with neigh­bors to clean up a va­cant lot just north of Penn Treaty Park where short-dump­ers have thrown thou­sands of old tires. 

But bey­ond the dirty job of deal­ing with the river­front trash heap where there have been sev­er­al dan­ger­ous fires in re­cent months, Saw­yer launched an on­line cam­paign to identi­fy the own­er of the lot and put pres­sure on the city and oth­ers to put an end to the il­leg­al dump­ing.

He’s been suc­cess­ful in pub­li­ciz­ing the name of the lot own­er, Glas­gow Inc., a Glen­side, Pa., based con­struc­tion com­pany, and said he’s been work­ing with com­munity groups to get something done to change how that lot has be­come a dump­ing ground. 

 ldquo;Glas­gow just isn’t do­ing any­thing to get that lot cleared,” he said. “Why the hell should they be al­lowed to own it? It’s like, they just took a dump, lit­er­ally, in my back yard … I’m go­ing to be selfish. I want that to be something I can use. I want it to be a park or something.”

Yet, that could take a lot of work.

Saw­yer said he re­cently joined a vo­lun­teer ef­fort to clean the tires from the Beach Street lot only to be frus­trated by the enorm­ous­ness of the job.

“That’s a site about the size of Lin­coln Fin­an­cial Field. It’s a really big lot and those tires aren’t sup­posed to be there,” he said.

After a full day of clear­ing mul­tiple truck­loads of tires from the lot, Saw­yer said the group made al­most no dent in the prob­lem.

“We got through half a mound and there are maybe thirty or more mounds,” he said. “We could do that every day for a year and still not get that lot cleared.”

His next tar­get is a former ho­siery fact­ory at 1817 E. York St., where he’s work­ing on get­ting the city to do something about the blighted prop­erty.

Already, he’s tracked down the own­er — YML Re­alty Hold­ings based in New York — and he’s found out the city has two li­ens on the prop­erty. The own­ers owe $40,875 in back prop­erty taxes, ac­cord­ing to re­cords at the city’s Of­fice of Prop­erty As­sess­ment.

Launch­ing what’s been called the “York & Jasper Pro­ject” through the on­line neigh­bor­hood for­um Fishtown.us, Saw­yer and oth­ers helped mo­bil­ize neigh­bors to call the city’s 3-1-1 hot­line and re­port com­plaints to L&I about the state of the massive prop­erty. 

Loc­ated just across from the York-Dauph­in sta­tion on the Mar­ket-Frank­ford line, the block-long fact­ory is eas­ily ac­cessed by drug users and the home­less, mak­ing for a threat­en­ing com­mute for many. 

But with neigh­bors rais­ing a fuss, Saw­yer said he wants the city to stay vi­gil­ant in tar­get­ing own­ers of blight, just as the Phil­adelphia Park­ing Au­thor­ity is vi­gil­ant about hand­ing out park­ing tick­ets.

“They should be very vi­gil­ant. They should be like the PPA and tar­get these prop­er­ties and tick­et them as much as pos­sible,” he said.

Last week, he said Linda Lawrence, a staff mem­ber for Coun­cil­wo­man Joan Kra­jew­ski (D – 6th dist.) in­formed neigh­bors that the prop­erty would be fast-tracked for a tax fore­clos­ure. 

Over­all, he said, East Kens­ing­ton, where the York Street prop­erty is loc­ated, is im­prov­ing and he sees neigh­bors chip­ping in all over to help.

By tar­get­ing these ban­dit signs and out-of-town own­ers who al­low their prop­er­ties to be­come drains on the com­munity, Saw­yer said, he be­lieves the river wards will only be­come a bet­ter place to live.

“The neigh­bor­hood is on the up and up,” he said. “I see good things hap­pen­ing loc­ally and it’s im­prov­ing every day.”

Re­port­er Hay­den Mit­man can be reached at 215-354-3124 or hmit­man@bsmphilly.com 

You can reach at hmitman@bsmphilly.com.

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