"You can't sit on your steps now. You can't do nothing," said Jackson, 67, who lives on 38th Street near Olive Street. Seven of 11 houses on her street are abandoned. "It was nice around here, but all the old people died and the drug people moved in."
One-third of all lots and buildings in Mantua are vacant, compared with about 10 percent citywide, city officials say, as people have left in droves over recent decades. The population has decreased by 60 percent since 1960, and nearly half of the families live in poverty.
Now, the city, as part of Mayor Street's blight initiative, is trying to erase the visible damage of decline and remove unsafe buildings in hopes that it will spur rebirth and investment in this neighborhood a short drive from Center City.
A total of 111 Mantua properties, including five near Jackson's house, are being razed as part of Street's $295 million anti-blight program.
Mantua is the site of the first large-scale demolition under the program, called the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. Demolition on smaller projects has been done, and over the next five years, 7,000 to 9,000 houses are to be demolished.
City officials hope to lure private investment to reshape the communities.
They see a future with trees and green lots with fences where there are now dilapidated houses that look like jack-o'-lanterns with vacant stares and gaping mouths.
They see new townhomes where there are now trash-strewn, weed-choked parcels.
But nobody really knows what Mantua will look like in the years to come. Right now, there is just a lot of hope.
"How can you know?" asked Cynthia Bayete, spokeswoman for the Neighborhood Transportation Initiative. "You have to start somewhere. We know what it looks like now. We know something has to be done."
Many residents are skeptical.
They fear that when the buildings come down, they will be left in a wasteland of concrete lots.
"Every election time, they come around with promises they are going to build this and build that," said Peggy Jones, who has lived in Mantua for all of her 60 years. "And then after the election, we don't hear nothing."
Jones lives next to three houses slated for demolition in the 3900 block of Mount Vernon Street. She points to vacant lots all around her house. The city tore buildings down there years ago but never built houses on them, she said. Instead, they have become magnets for trash.
She likes the idea of cared-for lots, but doesn't trust the city to come through.
"Don't come out here, tear everything down, and go back across the river where you came from," Jones said. "We don't mind if they do what they say they are going to do."
Patricia Smith, director of the city's initiative, asks people to have patience. Developers have expressed interest in building houses, she said, and the city has many plans for the area. The city already has taken title to 800 vacant lots that can be marketed to developers.
"I don't want to give the impression that Mantua will be rebuilt in a day," Smith said. "Rome wasn't built in a day."
Over the next five years, as the area is cleaned up, she sees private investors coming in. Not all demolished buildings will be rebuilt, nor should they be, she said, because the area's population has declined.
In 1960, there were 16,886 residents, according to census figures provided by the city. Forty years later, that number had fallen to 6,826, the officials said.
In Mantua, there are 3,027 parcels of land. There are 827 vacant lots, 373 vacant residential buildings, and 13 vacant commercial buildings, according to Bayete.
Developers for lots stand at the ready. Scott Mazo, a partner with the for-profit company Neighborhood Restorations, said he had expressed an interest in building up to 200 homes throughout Mantua with private funding.
The area's location just minutes from Center City makes it an attractive investment, he said.
"I think on a greater level, it is part of the overall excitement about the revitalizations of the neighborhoods in Philadelphia," Mazo said. "We are seeing so much interest in West Philadelphia."
Gloria Guard, director of the nonprofit People's Emergency Center Community Development Corp., is teaming with a private developer, Pennrose Properties, to build 50 to 60 rental housing units in and around 37th and 39th Streets on Haverford Avenue and Spring Garden Street.
"People get anxious and they want the community to revitalize overnight, and you can't do it overnight, but you can do it," Guard said. "It takes a while, but sooner or later it will be there."
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, a firm supporter of the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, said all the city has to do is make it easy for the developers to come in.
"I think the private developers would do all of [Mantua] if we give them the properties. They are only held up if we are held up," Blackwell said. "They're ready. They are willing."
Another key component for NTI will be maintaining vacant lots and turning some of them into attractive green open spaces. Philadelphia Green, the urban program of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, has proposed an extensive plan to beautify the area by planting trees and creating grassy, fenced-in lots. One has been installed in Mantua at 38th Street and Haverford Avenue; Jones and other residents call it beautiful.
A second large parcel of vacant land at 38th Street and Mantua Avenue is to be turned into green open space this spring.
The city cannot afford the $57 million it would cost to turn every vacant lot into attractive grass and trees, NTI officials said, but they plan to beautify "strategically," in areas where it can help draw investment. Officials will try to keep the rest of the lots as clean as possible.
"Sometimes it is easier [for a developer] to see the possibilities when you are looking at land that is reasonably maintained than if you are looking at a block of falling-down houses," Smith said.
But, as always, what most dictates what will happen to Mantua is available money. Most of the money for NTI - about $215 million - is intended for demolition and land acquisition. There is $80 million allocated to rehabilitate homes and clean and seal vacant houses, according to NTI's program statement and budget for fiscal 2003.
Funds for creating grassy open spaces will come from city operating funds (at least $1.5 million next year, according to Bayete) and from grants.
Blackwell said she would try to wring every dollar from the city, the state or foundations to make sure this program works.
"We've got to keep our commitment to the community that they can expect real solid transformation," Blackwell said. "They have a right to expect their lives will be better."
Rick Young, a neighborhood activist and developer who plans to do about 40 rehabs in the area, said the community has to take advantage of this chance to improve.
"We know worst-case scenario is it won't work," Young said. "There is no guarantee in anything, but there is opportunity here."
Contact staff writer Caitlin Francke at 215-854-2815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.