Northeast Times

Filmmaker focuses on cleaning up Kensington

Film­maker Jam­ie Mof­fett has star­ted the Kens­ing­ton Re­new­al Ini­ti­at­ive, a new pro­gram, through which he hopes to re­store dilap­id­ated prop­er­ties and move drug deal­ers off corners throughout Kens­ing­ton.

Doc­u­ment­ary film­maker Jam­ie Mof­fett has had plenty of op­por­tun­it­ies to live and work in the hustle and bustle of ma­jor met­ro­pol­ises like New York or Los Angeles.

But, in­stead, he owns and works out of a stu­dio that sits on the 900 block of E. West­mo­re­land St. in Kens­ing­ton.

Why has the suc­cess­ful film­maker — whose last doc­u­ment­ary film was nar­rated by famed act­or Mar­tin Sheen — chosen to set up shop in one of the poorest sec­tions of one of the poorest neigh­bor­hoods in Phil­adelphia?

Well, aside from his loc­al roots — Mof­fett lived on Pot­ter Street, across from his stu­dio, for sev­en years and his fath­er grew up on nearby Clear­field Street — he has con­struc­ted a long-range, big-pic­ture plan to help re­hab a neigh­bor­hood plagued by poverty, drug deal­ing and vi­ol­ent crime.

In the last few months, Mof­fett and some fel­low com­munity ad­voc­ates have star­ted the Kens­ing­ton Re­new­al ini­ti­at­ive, with the main ob­ject­ive to com­bat blight by ac­quir­ing aban­doned or de­cay­ing prop­er­ties, re­hab­bing them and turn­ing long-term renters in­to own­er-oc­cu­pants.

By do­ing so, Mof­fett’s hope is that prop­erty val­ues in the area will even­tu­ally in­crease (the me­di­an price for a home in the area is $37,000), which in turn could help curb some of the il­li­cit activ­ity rampant all over the neigh­bor­hood.

It’s a lofty goal, but one that Mof­fett genu­inely be­lieves in.

“I’m not a com­munity de­veloper or real es­tate mogul,” he said while walk­ing through the neigh­bor­hood on the af­ter­noon of Feb. 1. “I’m a mo­tion-pic­ture dir­ect­or. But when I see a prob­lem and have an idea of how to ad­dress it, it con­sumes me. If I don’t do something about it, then I be­come part of the prob­lem. I love chal­lenges, and this is one heck of a chal­lenge.”

Mof­fett real­izes the enorm­ity of the task at hand, but that doesn’t in­tim­id­ate him.

His du­ties as a film­maker have taken him from troubled areas across the world, from El Sal­vador to Ir­aq, and these ex­per­i­ences, he said, have only in­spired him to make a dif­fer­ence in an area that still means so much to Mof­fett and his fam­ily.

Mof­fett said that so much neg­at­ive activ­ity oc­curs in this par­tic­u­lar sec­tion of Kens­ing­ton be­cause of aban­doned and dilap­id­ated prop­er­ties, which at­tract crime and blight. Of­ten, he said, these blighted prop­er­ties can be­come cheap rent­al prop­er­ties that are nev­er prop­erly main­tained or are left to fester after own­ers have left the neigh­bor­hood al­to­geth­er.

While walk­ing along stretches of Rand and Argyle streets, Mof­fett es­tim­ated that at least one-third of the houses he passed were boarded up, while drug activ­ity and use was clearly vis­ible in broad day­light.

“As a prop­erty own­er, I star­ted to ask my­self, ‘What’s a good neigh­bor?’” Mof­fett said. “We’ve iden­ti­fied some of these neg­at­ive prop­er­ties and (we) in­tend to re­hab them and sell them at mar­ket value to long-term renters in the neigh­bor­hood that haven’t had the abil­ity to be­come homeown­ers. With a col­lec­tion of like-minded folks, I think we can do this.”

But, he ad­mit­ted, there have been nu­mer­ous obstacles that already have presen­ted them­selves.

For starters, it has been a chal­lenge for Mof­fett’s group to even loc­ate the own­ers of some of these prop­er­ties.

“Slum­lords,” who live in far-off places such as Queens, N.Y., and Greece, Mof­fett said, can rent out prop­er­ties and al­low them to de­cline, or they may aban­don the prop­er­ties and nev­er pay the city a cent in taxes.

An­oth­er is­sue has been neg­at­ive re­ac­tion from some res­id­ents in the neigh­bor­hood who Mof­fett sus­pects are part of the crim­in­al activ­it­ies he hopes to elim­in­ate.

Though he can’t prove that it was an as­sault on his ef­forts, Mof­fett said a house he has been in­ter­ested in re­hab­bing a few doors down from his stu­dio, on West­mo­re­land Street, was set on fire in late Janu­ary.

Also, sev­er­al flood­lights he in­stalled to help flush out loiter­ers and corner-stoop-sit­ting drug deal­ers have been smashed.

Mof­fett claims these ac­tions might be “a mes­sage” sent by loc­al deal­ers who aren’t re­cept­ive to Kens­ing­ton Re­new­al’s mis­sion.

However, none of this has slowed Mof­fett down. After all, he’s used to it, he said.

In fact, the corner right next to his stu­dio at Argyle and West­mo­re­land streets was named the fifth-worst drug corner in the city by Phil­adelphia magazine last year.

“For about the last year, you would see five to ten pur­chasers stand­ing in line to get their drugs, al­most like a su­per­mar­ket check­out,” he said of the corner. “That just can’t hap­pen. I feel a col­lect­ive re­spons­ib­il­ity to be aware of this kind of thing, and to take ac­tion.”

Mof­fett already has in­ves­ted a lot of his own money in­to clean­ing up some nearby va­cant lots, as well as in­stalling the flood­lights and a chain-link fence around an aban­doned lot he hopes to turn in­to a com­munity garden by spring­time.

He also has been in con­tact with City Coun­cil mem­bers and the city’s De­part­ment of Li­censes and In­spec­tions to point out es­pe­cially prob­lem­at­ic prop­er­ties.

However, he knows he will need help from donors and com­munity act­iv­ists to achieve his goal, which he says is in the early months of a five-year-plan.

Mof­fett has star­ted a “crowd-fund­ing” cam­paign, so­li­cit­ing dona­tions and selling T-shirts to raise money to put back in­to the com­munity.

So far, though, he has raised only about $500 of his $10,000 goal.

“Hon­estly, it’s prob­ably an ex­pense I’m not pre­pared for, but to do noth­ing is not an op­tion,” he said. “Once folks con­trib­ute to the fund, we can re­hab some of the worst prop­er­ties and sell them back to new homeown­ers. We would then par­lay those funds in­to fix­ing up the next prop­erty, and so on. There aren’t a whole lot of places in this city with such a lack of at­ten­tion, and a lot of neigh­bors are afraid to leave their homes be­cause of the neg­at­ive things go­ing on around them.”

“We need al­lies,” he con­tin­ued. “In­stead of be­ing part of the prob­lem and leav­ing the neigh­bor­hood, we need people to be part of the solu­tion. There’s al­ways been a ‘Rocky,’ blue-col­lar men­tal­ity about this area that I really like. It’s why I stay here, but it will be dif­fi­cult for me to con­tin­ue to work in mo­tion pic­tures in this neigh­bor­hood if it con­tin­ues down this crazy ‘Wild Wild West’ path. But I don’t want to be­come a part of the ex­odus.”

Mof­fett cited Fishtown as an ex­ample to build to­ward.

Once a neigh­bor­hood with prob­lems sim­il­ar to those that presently plague Kens­ing­ton, Fishtown has un­der­gone a ser­i­ous gentri­fic­a­tion pro­cess over the years, and high­er prop­erty val­ues have at­trac­ted many new homeown­ers (in­clud­ing Mof­fett and his wife).

If Fishtown can go from prob­lem area to a place where people want to raise a fam­ily, then why can’t the same thing hap­pen in a neigh­bor­hood that once stood as a ma­jor man­u­fac­tur­ing hub in Phil­adelphia, like Kens­ing­ton?

“Homeown­er­ship and crime stat­ist­ics dir­ectly cor­rel­ate,” Mof­fett said. “By driv­ing up prop­erty value and in­creas­ing home own­er­ship, crime stat­ist­ics will de­crease. When you say it loud, it seems so ob­vi­ous. By turn­ing long-term renters in­to own­er-oc­cu­pants, we can elim­in­ate the big red line drawn across this neigh­bor­hood.”

With the help of like-minded com­munity ad­voc­ates and city of­fi­cials, Mof­fett knows that he can help de­crease the amount of Phil­adelphia’s aban­doned homes and va­cant lots, a num­ber that is es­tim­ated to be some­where around 40,000.

“So many people say the city of­fi­cials or po­lice have to solve the prob­lem,” Mof­fett said. “Bull–-. This is our job. Of course we’ll need some help, but if we don’t get ourselves go­ing in the right dir­ec­tion, then there won’t be any sup­port at all from any­body.

“My dad lived here. I own a busi­ness here. My cous­in is my mail­man,” he con­tin­ued. “The im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion for a lot of people is to get the hell out, but I’m in it for the long haul. It’s been a ter­rible spir­al, and it won’t change un­til a group in­tern­ally de­cides to use whatever re­sources we have avail­able to in­vest in these prop­er­ties. It hasn’t been done this way be­fore, but that’s what we’re look­ing to do.” ••

For more in­form­a­tion on the ini­ti­at­ive and how to help, vis­it www.kens­ing­ton­re­new­al.com 

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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