Vacant-lot fund cut is no clean sweep, mayor says

Posted: July 15, 2010

After slashing a third of the $2.4 million budgeted for cleaning, greening and maintaining thousands of vacant lots, Mayor Nutter said yesterday that the city never planned to eliminate the program, as many community activists had feared.

"Unfortunately, we have a lot of vacant property in the city, and we want to make sure our neighborhoods are in a kept fashion," said Nutter, who cut $840,000 from the program's funding.

The loss is bad news for neighborhood anchors like the Village of Arts and Humanities - which transformed its dozen devastated North Philadelphia blocks into a thriving community of pocket parks, sculpture gardens, vegetable patches, an orchard and rehabbed residential properties.

Until the funding ran out on June 30, the end of the city's fiscal year, Derrick Toler, 21, was part of a five-man crew - hired from the neighborhood - that kept the Village's vacant lots green, and free from the trash and criminal activity that haunted them in the past.

"I like taking care of my own community," Toler said yesterday, tending the lots as a light rain fell. "My neighbors are thankful. I like telling my friends, 'Don't throw trash in that lot. I clean it.' "

When the vacant-lots money ran out in June, the Village let all of Toler's crewmates go, and asked Toler to do the job of five - which is impossible.

"We're heartbroken," said Elizabeth Grimaldi, the Village's executive director, after learning of the funding cut.

The $70,000 that the Village had received, she said, paid for the five-person crew - "often a first chance for neighborhood residents to acquire landscaping skills that lead to good jobs. It's not just cutting grass."

The funding of the crew, she said, enables the Village to go after additional funds for other projects - such as the $5,000 it gets from the Philadelphia Eagles to maintain a playground that Eagles players built, or the training program slated for this fall to prepare crew workers for careers in storm-water management.

If the $70,000 and the five-person crew are reduced, "it is very difficult to convince funding partners that we can bring larger-scale job training here," she said.

And the diminished crew can't keep up with the needs. El Sawyer, the Village's program director, said it was amazing how quickly a vacant lot could go from green to grisly.

"We have 32 little parks in the Village," he said. "As soon as we stop maintaining them, people start dumping construction debris and other trash . . . . You've never seen anything like the rats that come running if someone dumps a gallon bucket of grease.

"Our residents don't deserve to live with blight, especially when there are able-bodied community people willing to take care of the vacant lots."

"It's a painful cut," said Alan Jaffe of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which administers the program, distributing city funding to 15 community agencies and their 200 maintenance workers. "It's a shame it has come to this."

Staff writer Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.