The national alarm of financial crisis has sounded. The once dynamic American economic life has been reduced to a waiting game. Until the economy hits bottom, this business of waiting will continue.
In Parkside, there is no anxious waiting for the bottom. Parkside’s economy along with its housing market reached rock bottom decades ago. Unlike the rest of the country, hope for the rejuvenation of a bottomed-out economy is not widespread. In Parkside, the bottom is the status quo.
The most immediately noticeable aspect of the economic bottom Parkside has waded in for the better part of the last 20 years confronts all who live and visit there. The boarded-up and burnt out windows of Parkside’s abandoned homes and trash-filled lots where homes once stood are visually unavoidable reminders of the blight that came in and, unlike many of Parkside’s former residents, never left.
“A massive amount of destruction to Parkside’s housing market has never been addressed,” said James Brown, executive director of the Parkside Historic Preservation Corp., a property rehabilitator. “It became psychological damage. Parkside’s people began to feel frustrated and disappointed at the sight of abandoned home after abandoned home.”
In a time when one of every nine homes in this nation is vacant, one out of every three Parkside lots hosts either vacant homes fallen into disrepair or nothing at all. There are over 500 empty lots and abandoned homes in East Parkside alone, many of which are concentrated on certain arterial throughways like Viola Street and Leidy Avenue.
East Parkside’s Leidy Avenue sits three blocks from Fairmount Park, one of Philadelphia’s premier recreation destinations. Leidy Avenue, like Fairmount Park, was once full of Philadelphians. Over 70 homes were once crammed onto the 4100 block of Leidy Avenue. Today, that same block hosts some 15 homes, one of which is currently going through foreclosure and several others simply abandoned. On the nearby 4100 block of Viola Street, on Memorial Street and Marlton Street, the story reads much the same.
For Barbara Tresione, resident of 4136 Leidy Ave., living in a free-standing row home on a block where her closest neighbors are abandoned homes and undeveloped lots presents challenges of its own.
“When they knocked down the houses next to mine, I thought it could only do good,” said Tresione. “I paid more to heat my house after. There are these spaces where the houses next to mine used to be full of garbage and things people throw in there. For years it’s been this way and all I can think is that if they built something there it would set the stage for only good things.”
The number of vacant homes and undeveloped properties hasn’t attracted the kind of building Tresione would have hoped for. Instead, Parkside’s vacant properties more often attract squatters, drug users and criminals than developers.
Though the housing problem is one of massive scale, there are those Parkside developers and community organizations undeterred. For those attempting to revitalize the once prosperous West Philadelphia neighborhood, vacant housing is a problem requiring more than simply rebuilding homes for a solution.
“What has happened in Parkside is done and we are left with an opportunity,” said Brown. “We need to create a neighborhood of value. Residents need to value their homes. Leaders need to value their community. When people start to really value this neighborhood again, then we can fully exploit the opportunity vacant homes provide us with.”
On the 4100 block of Leidy Avenue, Robert Cousar, director of the East Parkside Community Revitalization Corp., sees a valuable renewal opportunity in the swathes of undeveloped land lining the block.
“These blocks of nothing used to be residential homes,” said Cousar. “The residents left, the homes remained, and eventually the city knocked them down.
Something was wrong. We’re going to rebuild the right way and attract people who will come here, who will care, and who will stay.”
Cousar and the Revitalization Corp., along with Brown’s Preservation Corp., have attempted to drag Parkside and its housing market up from the bottom-dwelling associated with urban blight. The EPCRC has partnered with corporate financiers and Habitat for Humanity to rehabilitate Parkside’s dilapidated, uninhabited homes. This time, however, the aim is to rebuild “green” environmentally-friendly and efficient homes, to attract outsiders and house low-income Parkside residents to whom the cost-saving homes will be most helpful.
“Regression takes on many forms. Here we have vacant homes and I think they are the ugliest types of backwardness,” said Cousar. “But we have shown everybody that we can turn that weakness into a positive, and that’s a great kind of progress. “Green” rehabs are the most progressive thing we can do for this neighborhood, something everyone in Parkside can see and support.”
Cousar’s Revitalization Corp. partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build a block of seven “green” homes on Stiles Street. The project is nearly halfway completed, with three Parkside families currently living in finished homes.
Though these three families and beneficiaries of progress in Parkside now enjoy the fruits of revitalization, the rest of Parkside will have to wait to do likewise. The national economic downturn has spared none, but Parkside, economically depressed from the crisis’ outset, suffers differently than other communities. It is not economic regression that burdens the minds of Parkside’s residents, but the stalled of revitalization efforts weighs most heavily on this community.
“There’s no money right now and won’t be for a while unless a lot of things change,” said Brown. “New building and rehab projects are all on the backburner right now. The projects might never happen.”
Brown’s Preservation Corp. established the Parkside Historic District 25 years ago and has long since used up its historic district tax credit. The credit was used by the Preservation Corp. for rehabilitation efforts on the 4100 block of Parkside Avenue. Though the projects were extremely successful and now offer affordable quality apartment units, the Preservation Corp. is currently stagnant because of funding shortfalls by its private partners.
The Preservation Corp. is not alone in its current inaction. Cousar’s Revitalization Corp. will be unable to complete six rehabilitation projects slated for this upcoming year on time and has been unable to push the Leidy Avenue proposal past planning stages. The Revitalization Corporation’s and Habitat for Humanity’s Stiles St. Project has also stalled after completing three of the seven total planned “green” homes. Lack of financing has unceremoniously halted all of these anti-vacancy efforts.
Parkside rebuilding organizations are not the only vacancy-fighting groups in the city experiencing financial woes. The Redevelopment Authority of Philadelphia, coping with the national downturn and city revenue shortfalls, has had also to deal the financial infidelities of its sister program the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. NTI was a city-funded program created by the Street Administration to demolish over 14,000 abandoned and rundown homes within the city.
The NTI achieved about half that and in doing so ran up a tremendous bill in excess of $181 million, far too much for 8,000 demolitions. NTI was overpriced, engaged in questionable financial activities, and did little to alleviate Philadelphia’s problem of 26,000 abandoned homes and lots, the most vacant homes per capita of any city in the nation in 2002, experts said.
Despite the economic crisis and the lack of private and government capital, money for such revitalization efforts isn’t completely dried up. A federal stimulus package worth $90 million has made its way into the hands of the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
But for Parkside and its in-need revitalization groups, the $90 million inflow means very little. However, for Parkside’s neighbors Belmont and Mantua and for other areas of the city, the stimulus funding will translate into 300 new, affordable and energy-efficient homes and apartments. At Markoe St. in Belmont alone, 23 homes will be rehabilitated or newly constructed using stimulus funds, according to Housing Authority plans.
“This is going to be a long process and we have targeted areas all around Philadelphia,” said Carl Greene, executive director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority. “Nothing of large scale is set down to be done in Parkside, but the goal of providing high-performance, quality housing in as many areas of the city as is possible will benefit every person and each neighborhood.”
Not only does Parkside appear to have been overlooked by the Housing Authority this year, but in 2008 Mantua, one of Parkside’s closest neighbors, was awarded by the Housing Authority with the $27 million Mantua Square project. According to Housing Authority plans, the Mantua Square project will feature 101 low-rise homes and is scheduled to be completed in fall 2009. Meanwhile, the cash-starved Parkside rehabilitation efforts remain stymied.
“When you talk about real estate in Parkside and developing what’s abandoned, you are talking about much more than just a couple of fixer-uppers,” said Brown. “It will take a huge undertaking, but it shouldn’t be this difficult to put a decent roof over a resident of Parkside. All these political hoops to jump through, and still our city ignores us.”