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