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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Photo: 2655 Mercer Street, Fishtown-Port Richmond

While walking around the neighborhood recently a group of kids sitting on a stoop asked me if I wrote for Philadelphia's Star newspaper. I said yes and then asked them why they wanted to know. One of them mentioned all the abandoned houses in the neighborhood, especially the rotted, falling down, boarded up house on my own street (2655 Mercer Street), which has been a home to feral cats, possums, assorted crack gangs for as long as I can remember.

“Why does the city let one house stay like this and ruin the whole street?” the kid wanted to know. He was talking about an abandoned house in the middle of my block that every neighbor here has complained about at one time or another. The house, it seems, is as permanent as death and taxes. Chances are it will be here when the kids on this street grow up and have children of their own. Maybe three generations down the line the city will wake up and decide that they’ve had enough of this eyesore.

Maybe, but don’t bet on it.

Last year vandals managed to pry open the boarded up basement windows, which led to an interior infestation of feral cats and possums. I was rather happy when this happened because at least the house was serving a purpose-- providing a home to Nature’s strays-- rather than vegetating as an eyesore. The basement windows were re-boarded, thanks to a rule by Philadelphia Licenses and Inspections which states that abandoned houses must be boarded up.
The problem is, once houses like this are boarded up, they are allowed to sit for years, even decades, provided they don’t crumble onto the sidewalk or impair public safety in any way.

Everyone in the neighborhood knows that the boarded house is affecting property values here, and it’s a fire trap as well, but they’ve given up trying to do anything about it
In my quest to find answers, I dug up info on the city of Detroit.

In Detroit, there are groups that go around and paint abandoned homes orange. The end result is so glaring—orange, after all, is a high alert color—that the city takes notice. It’s hard to ignore a huge orange blob, so once an abandoned house is painted orange, it catches the eye of apathetic city officials and something gets done. The Detroit orange painters like to refer to themselves a Good Intervention force, and that’s just what they are.

I decided to talk to my neighbor Arnold, who knows the history of my street like he knows the back of his hand.

Arnold told me that the building was a rooming house in the 1970s, then something happened to bring in L & I and the place was boarded up. “The boards have been ripped off and put back on at least 20 times in the last 30 years. L & I tried to knock it down once but they discovered that it was connected to my house. If that house falls, mine goes with it. I wouldn’t mind that happening because I’d make some money,” he laughed, “so if you can get them to tare it down, I’ll buy you lunch for a month.”

Lunch or no lunch, it seems fairly simple to me that if you own a house and cannot afford to keep it up, pay the taxes, tear it down, or even sell it, then the city has every right to take the property from you, especially if the property in question is a smoldering, medieval ruin. The city should not be shy about moving in and padlocking the place foreclosure style, and then selling it off at a sheriff’s sale.

But why “enshrine” a boarded up abandoned house for decades, even if the whole thing is legal? Boards or no boards, an abandoned house is an abandoned house. Demolition or sheriff’s sale are the only answers.

When I lived in Germantown in the 1970s an abandoned house next to mine caught fire. The house, an old Victorian structure, was also boarded up and had an absent owner/landlord who wasn’t doing anything to look after it. Years passed and the old house just got seedier and seedier looking until one cold day in January a blazing fire blew out the windows on the second and third floors. The flames of this fire consumed much of the old house in minutes, and came very close to engulfing my own home.

Perhaps a coat of nice orange coat of paint, Detroit-style, could have prevented this disaster.

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