On Jan. 18 inside Kensington’s Trinity Presbyterian Church, a small group gathered in an attempt to solve a very large problem.
Led by organizer and facilitator D. Michael Blackie, the Port Richmond West Community Action Network (CAN) met to fix one specific issue and, as residents with concerns, to discuss issues of blight and crime in the neighborhood.
The group invited city officials to the church to explore how residents and government workers can work together to clean up decaying properties and tackle drug-related crime.
In attendance were Assistant District Attorney Beth Grossman, chief of the Nuisance Property Task Force; Fran Burns, commissioner of the city Department of Licenses and Inspections; newly inaugurated City Councilman Mark Squilla (D- 1st dist.); and Sgt. Jim Morace, of the 24th Police District.
They addressed topics ranging from how to maintain private property to how to report neighborhood crimes. Drug-dealing, robberies and prostitution were cited during the meeting as particular concerns.
In the residents’ section of the city, dilapidated and abandoned houses are a considerable problem; their concern is that rundown, vacant properties can give way to higher pockets of crime, especially drug-dealing on neglected street corners.
“Folks have been angry and upset, and they have every right to be,” said Blackie, a former newspaper editor who is Port Richmond West CAN’s chief organizer. “After we got together and organized, what came out of that were problems upon problems, such as vacant houses, drug corners and drug houses. Our objective is to educate people about keeping their property clean, which can be anything from putting your trash out the right day to sweeping up the sidewalk.”
Blackie made it clear to city officials at the meeting that he and other residents are eager to help in any way they can.
“A lot of the crime we complain about we can do something about. We don’t deserve to be held captive in our own neighborhood, because if our neighborhood is doing well, then so are its people,” he said.
In turn, the officials at the session told the people much the same thing.
ldquo;I look at this neighborhood and I see a lot of problems, but problems that can be fixed,” said Squilla. “There is empty land and places that can be rehabbed, which would be incentive for people to want to move to this neighborhood. We want to work toward solutions to crime and any other complaints you have. We can’t promise to do everything you want, but we’re here to listen.”
The agencies led by Burns and Grossman figure prominently in any strides achieved by the neighborhood. As L&I commissioner, Burns oversees a department that issues permits for construction alterations and notices of code violations to property owners.
If an owner does not respond to a violation after three attempts at contact over 90 days, the person can be taken to court and potentially lose the property if violations aren’t remedied.
Of the approximately 25,000 vacant properties in the city, Burns’ office has cleaned and sealed about 1,500 of them (with about 600 subsequent demolitions). There is still plenty of work to be done.
“It’s a constant struggle,” Burns said.
As for Grossman, the assistant district attorney, her task force is a legal conduit that aids neighborhood residents.
“If your safety and quality of life are affected by a property in the neighborhood, then you are a victim,” said Grossman, a veteran of the district attorney’s office for nearly 20 years. “Your home is your castle, and you have every right to feel safe there. If you think any illegal activity is taking place, call our hotline (215-686-5858) and report as much detail as possible. We don’t deal with bad behavior, but we can deal with properties where bad behavior is coming from.”
In the end, Burns, Grossman, Squilla and Morace delivered the same message: We’re here to help you if neighbors, in turn, help us.
If deteriorating properties are reported to the proper offices, the hope is that the neighborhood eventually will turn around.
“Whether it’s private homes or corner bars and liquor stores, the problems with the properties are clear as day,” said resident Theresa Farrell. “They produce drug dealers, prostitution, fights, stabbings, shootings, stickups and robberies. How are you supposed to walk by with your children? It’s not something you can’t see — it’s everywhere in the community.”
Blackie reiterated the theme that everyone has to work toward the same goals.
“We are one community and all need to work together, no matter where you live,” he said. “We need to take back our corners; that’s why we’re here. People want to talk about what the police don’t do to help us, but a lot of it is about what we can do, too. If you put your feet to the beat and don’t just open your mouth, a lot of good can be done.” ••