Arrivederci, South Philly

The old neighborhood is changing, and some say it's for the better. After all, isn't this what those turn-of-the-century immigrants would've wanted for their grandchildren?

TO TRY AND change his neighborhood’s fortunes, Percy Fields formed the 19th and Fernon Community Action Group seven years ago. The group, largely the work of Percy and his wife, operates from a cramped, ragtag two-story building, its various rooms devoted to a neighborhood food bank, a recreation and sports program, and Fields’s own office, with mismatched furniture and newspaper clippings and certificates on the walls.
Fields is trim and compact; except for a tiny stud earring, his smart navy-blue jacket and vest, striped tie and contrasting tan slacks give him the look of a junior executive, perhaps for a men’s fashion firm. He is energetic and hopeful and full of his work here.
His group’s most important work so far has been through a contract with the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development (OHCD), which provided about $lOO,OOO to completely rehabilitate three abandoned houses nearby. When completed, they will be sold for $10,000 each to low-income families. This is just a small part of the federal money being spent in the area by OHCD. From 1980 to 1982, more than $5 million will go into the Point Breeze area to rehabilitate abandoned and neglected houses.
The need here is enormous. According to the Point Breeze Federation, a civic group, there are more than 900 vacant houses in the area and 34 empty lots where structures once stood. John Kromer, OHCD supervisor for South Philadelphia, says the money spent here is intended to stabilize the area, prevent further decay and show residents that they have not been abandoned as well But Kromer admits that, despite the victories the money buys, "If you take program dollars available and compare them to neighborhood problems, it’s clear that we won’t be able to solve the problems of the neighborhood."
What would solve many of its problems is investment by business and private citizens. But if that is coming, it is giving no sign. Fields recalls watching his former neighborhood’s shopping strip, South Street, gradually fall moribund: "When the businesses left the community," he says, "they took all the hope out with them." More recently, he watched a similar exodus on Point Breeze Avenue, his present neighborhood’s shopping district. "After the ’70s, with the riots on Point Breeze," Fields remarks, "most of the whiteys moved out."
Bill Safra is one of the white business men who remained on Point Breeze which in its prime boasted crowded, prospering shops and two cinemas-enough so to cause one neighbor to call the strip of old "our version of Chestnut Street." Today, like the neighborhood it serves, it has signs of life and industry mad, gloomy by abandoned and vacant store fronts and metal bars over display windows. Safra, 61, opened a ladies’ clothing store, The Sun Shop, here 36 years ago. He still owns the store and runs it with his wife Bella.
Safra recalls watching as, one by one large chains and then smaller merchants pulled their stores from Point Breeze Avenue when the neighborhood went from white (mostly Italian) to black. He stayed, he says, "because the blacks were excellent customers." Had other businesses remained throughout the changeover, Safra says, "I don’t think the street would have deteriorated as much as it has."
    So Fields and others like him have quite a job ahead of them. He says his white neighbors don’t understand that blacks also want stable, well-kept places to live and blames that misunderstanding for their flight. "We want the American dream, too," he says. However, even that noble wish may be working against places like Fernon Street. "When white people were moving away from black people, there were black people moving away from black people too," says Mamie Nichols, a community leader who is responsible for much of the government’s involvement in this area.