Can Philly Fix the Block It Razed, Then Shabbily Rebuilt, After MOVE Bombing?
There’s no historical marker at 6221 Osage Avenue to tell the casual passersby what happened here in 1985 — that the Philadelphia Police Department dropped a bomb on a houseful of black liberationists who called themselves MOVE, that 11 people were killed, that the city ultimately decided to “let the fire burn,” and that more than 50 homes were destroyed in the ensuing blaze.
But if you walk the block today, it’s still clear that something went wrong. Half the homes on the 6200 blocks of Osage Avenue and Pine Street are vacant; front doors are covered with slabs of plywood and padlocked. The fire stopped burning 30 years ago, but the wounds have never healed.
It’s not that the city didn’t try to fix it. For the families who happened to live nearby, whose homes were collateral damage in the bombing, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority moved fast. It took the properties by eminent domain and hired a developer to build new houses. But the developer didn’t do a good job. Fifteen years later, when it was clear that the homes all had the same problems, after trying to do repairs, PRA sought to take the houses back again. Most of the residents took the money the PRA offered, cut their losses, and left. Only a handful stayed.
Since then, for the last decade and a half, nothing much has happened there. The vacant rowhomes have sat empty, eroding from exposure and time, reminding their neighbors every day of one of the most violent nights in the history of the city. The broken development isn’t a historical marker, but it tells the story in painful detail nonetheless.
“You have the underlying set of traumatic events, and then you layer on top of that the fact that the investment itself was shoddy,” says Amy Laura Cahn, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center. “There was not enough investment. Basically, the community was not worth it.”
Now the Redevelopment Authority is trying to get it right. Last week, it announced that it’s looking for a developer to come in and fix 36 empty homes that will then be sold to private owners.
“Because some of the PRA-owned properties abut owner-occupied units, developers should be prepared to make every effort to address safety issues and prevent work that would adversely affect occupied properties,” the Authority wrote in the Request for Proposals. “Developer should also be respectful of the area’s challenged history and the trauma that adjacent residents may have experienced.”
It’s been something of a trend for the Redevelopment Authority lately. Over the last few years, starting under the direction of Brian Abernathy, who is now deputy managing director in the Kenney administration, the PRA has tried to address its biggest problems. Last September, the Authority selected a developer to transform Logan Triangle, a gash of vacant land in North Philly that it has owned for two decades. A month later, it announced that it had committed to working with residents to rethink the future of Eastwick, where a questionable mid-century plan had displaced thousands of residents and exposed others to sinking homes and environmental pollution.
“I know the city has been absent for too long,” Abernathy told Logan residents last year. “I know we haven’t served your community well over the last 30 years, and I apologize for that.”
Greg Heller, appointed to head the Redevelopment Authority by Mayor Jim Kenney earlier this year, told me on Friday that PRA is now trying to prioritize the sites where its own inaction has had the biggest impacts, including the homes on Osage Avenue destroyed in the MOVE bombing. The Authority hopes to select a developer who can commit to rehabilitating the existing homes at the site. But it hasn’t ruled out completely demolishing and replacing them, either.
“It’s important to be explicit for developers, planners, anyone who is shaping the future of the community to understand the history of that community,” said Cahn, who has worked with Eastwick residents to formulate a new planning process with the PRA. “Just on a core level, understanding the history — understanding tensions, community investment needs, desires, relationships over time — makes for a better plan, makes for a better development. And it’s just. But that’s not our history. That’s not how we necessarily have historically done that work.”
Rasheedah Phillips, an artist and attorney with Community Legal Services, said that public agencies have been slow to acknowledge when they’ve neglected communities or contributed to their problems, even when those agencies weren’t responsible for a precipitating traumatic event. North Philly’s Sharswood neighborhood fell into poverty and blight in the latter half of the 20th Century, particularly after the Columbia Avenue riots of the 1960s, and now the Philadelphia Housing Authority is spending hundreds of millions to remake the physical environment of the community. But PHA contributed to the conditions that left the neighborhood in need of transformation, Phillips said — neglecting its housing projects and scattered properties — and its efforts to engage residents in planning for their own future have been cosmetic.
“There was a progression to get to this point, and the city played a role in that progression, and that goes unacknowledged,” Phillips said.
Phillips has launched an art and research project called the Community Futures Lab to collect oral histories and explore “alternative temporalities” within the Sharswood neighborhood.
“We have this objective sense of time, which is the clock time, and then there’s this whole other experience of time based on individuals and families, and then communities themselves, and that is impacted by what they go through,” she said.
The Columbia Avenue riot is half a century in the past, Phillips said, but the physical signs of it still mark the neighborhood.
“That time is still present there …” she said. “Us being in 2016 really has no bearing on how that community has experienced time in all those years.”
Shawn Wells was only eight or nine years old when the police dropped a bomb on Osage Avenue, but he remembers how it shook the ground.
Wells, who lives on the side of Pine Street that wasn’t burnt down, told me from his front porch last week that he was riding his bike around the Cobbs Creek neighborhood when the conflict began. Everyone in the area had complained about the MOVE house in the years before the bombing, he said, because it was dirty and the occupants made a lot of noise.
“You’d be somewhere, and a kid would be like, ‘Oh, you play with those kids down on that block? They’re dirty. They don’t wash.”
After the fire burned out, PRA put the new houses up in a hurry, faster than he’d ever seen anything built in that neighborhood before. It wasn’t obvious at first that the houses were subpar — which, the Redevelopment Authority acknowledges in the RFP, was the fault of poor materials and bad construction on the part of the contracted developer — but problems slowly started to surface. And they were the same problems in all of the new houses on Pine and Osage.
“People started getting more private over there because they knew we weren’t in the same situation as them,” said Wells, whose house overlooks a row of mostly vacant houses, which, because of their design, would stick out in the neighborhood even if they weren’t boarded up. The residents of the new homes had a shared set of problems that cut them off from their neighbors, he said. “No one really talked. It started to separate the neighborhood. They were keeping their problems to themselves and taking it to the city. Then, I remember, one guy that was living over here … I remember him saying he just came down from the city and they just gave him a big check, and he’s moving. We were barbecuing — it was like a block party that day. Kids were getting ready to go back to school the next day. And then that week, he had a Jaguar. And then the following week, he was gone.”
Wells said the city should try to repair the houses rather than tear them down, even though he wishes they were designed like they used to be, like the house he lives in. It would be good to see some lights on across the street, he said. People need housing. And it baffles him that there’s no historical marker, nothing at all to publicly acknowledge that the police dropped a bomb on the house.
“The older people that lived over here a while back were saying, ‘Why don’t they just level it? Just make it a parking area, or a play area for the kids, or some kind of monument marking what happened there, because a lot of people ride by now and don’t even know, because they didn’t live here.’”
Last week, I watched a car with North Carolina plates pull up on the 6200 block of Osage. The driver parked, got out, took a picture, and drove away.
“People don’t know what they did to these houses,” Wells said. “These people were out there crying. They lost great-grandparents’ pictures, and stuff they couldn’t replace. One lady that lived over there, she lost her mind. She lost her mind. They put her in a home.”
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