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 firstname.lastname@example.org