Neglected & dejected

The debris (above) is home to cats, possums and raccoons. The pile is just a sample of the trash on a vacant lot on Dakota Street. Willie McRae (below, right) and Carol Henry, with her grandaughter Daesha Thompson, 4, walk in their neighborhood. They want the city to clear the blight around their homes.
The debris (above) is home to cats, possums and raccoons. The pile is just a sample of the trash on a vacant lot on Dakota Street. Willie McRae (below, right) and Carol Henry, with her grandaughter Daesha Thompson, 4, walk in their neighborhood. They want the city to clear the blight around their homes.

Strawberry Mansion neighbors try to salvage a block that the rest of the city, even animals, seem to treat as a garbage can.

Posted: July 23, 2010

SHORTLY BEFORE 4 a.m. on the first day of June, a desperate man came running from Dauphin Street, through a weed-choked, unfenced, vacant lot and onto Dakota Street, near 30th, pursued by men with guns.

Willie McRae, 77, who has lived on the North Philadelphia block since 1956 and has been its captain for more than 50 years, was awakened by gunshots.

"They finished him off right here," McRae said earlier this week, pointing to a bullet scar in the narrow street, close to his house. "He died right by that fire hydrant."

Police arrived quickly, McRae said, but it was too dark for them to look for shell casings because the streetlight over the crime scene was out, as it had been for weeks since McRae reported it to the city's highly touted, one-call-fixes-all 3-1-1 number.

And the police couldn't pursue the shooters in the darkness because the most likely escape route - a vacant lot next to the home of McRae's neighbor and lifelong friend, Fitzgerald Johnson, 77 - was overgrown with man-size weeds and filled with rubble from an exposed wall that had been deteriorating since the city demolished the adjoining rowhouse decades ago.

Johnson said that despite his requests, the city's Department of Licenses & Inspections has never repaired the wall and cleared the lot.

The vacant lot leads into an alley that runs behind the West Dakota Street rowhouses. The alley is so thick with weeds, vines and massive junk trees that it supports a thriving population of raccoons, opossums and feral cats.

"The police told us, 'We're not going in there because it's too dark to see,' " McRae said.

When Johnson asked the city to trim or remove the alley's trees, he was told that it was the responsibility of the homeowners on Gordon Street, whose back yards line the alley.

The trouble is, Johnson said, some of those properties have no visible homeowners. Some homes are abandoned. Some belong to the Philadelphia Housing Authority. So the city should trim the out-of-control trees, he said.

McRae said that the body lay on West Dakota Street from 4 to 8 a.m., when police finally had enough daylight to do their job.

At 9 a.m., he said, as if by magic or by police request, Peco showed up and finally fulfilled his weeks-old 3-1-1 call by fixing the streetlight.

A forgotten block

McRae said that the June incident shows how the city fails to provide basic services to the hardworking, taxpaying residents of his block - one of whom is a police officer - despite Mayor Nutter's public pronouncements about his one-call 3-1-1 system.

"I hate 3-1-1," McRae said. "When this light went out, I called 3-1-1, and they said it would take up to 10 working days. I said, 'You mean, we have to be in the dark here for two weeks? It takes you two weeks to fix a streetlight?' "

McRae hates getting the runaround instead of results because he worked hard all his life - full time for 34 years in an office-furniture factory and part time at the Tastykake plant - and he personally cut the weeds for decades in his block's several vacant lots until a shoulder injury last year forced him to stop, three years shy of his 80th birthday.

"I used my weed-wacker for the smaller stuff, my sling blade for the bigger stuff and a lot of help from the Almighty," McRae said.

His neighbor, Johnson, who drove a truck for 23 years and worked in a plant that made foam for car seats for 18, is equally angry about the city's failure to repair a crumbling wall from an L&I demolition. The debris that tumbled down ruined the vacant lot where he had a vegetable garden for decades. Now, the rubble makes it useless.

"The city came out once," Johnson said, looking at the remnants of his once-fertile garden. "They told me they wouldn't be able to get their heavy equipment onto the lot because of the street-sign pole in front of it."

"That little pole," McRae said, pointing at it, "once held a sign telling people not to park along that curb on Tuesdays when the street was being cleaned. The street cleanups stopped years ago. The sign is gone.

"So the city didn't clean up the lot because of a useless little pole they could have removed easily. I could remove it myself right now if they'll finally clean up this lot."

"I used to plant so many string beans, peas, okra, cucumbers and squash, I had plenty to share with my neighbors," Johnson said. "I loved that garden."

According to the city's Bureau of Revision of Taxes, that lot has belonged to the city's Department of Public Property since 1983, so the city has failed to clean and green its own property.

The lot's sole purpose today is to serve as access to West Dakota Street for a family of five raccoons that lives in the overgrown alley behind the block's row houses.

"The mother and father are big giant raccoons," said Robert Thompson, who has lived on the block for four years.

"They walk right down the street, looking for food," said his mother-in-law, Carol Henry, 65, a nursing-care worker who has lived on the block since childhood. "They're not afraid of anything."

"They are scary," Thompson said. He pointed to a white plastic table with two chairs, a colorful vegetable-print tablecloth and a vase of artificial flowers, set up on the sidewalk in front of a neighbor's house.

"Mary Izzard and her daughter, Alexis, put that little table out in the daytime to eat their lunch," Thompson said. "Not at night, though. Raccoons."

"I'm trapped here"

Johnson and McRae, wearing their Phillies caps as usual, walked down their block to the 31st Street corner, where a 30-foot Empress tree's massive branches are entangled in the power lines and its roots have broken up the sidewalk into chunks that look like the aftermath of an earthquake.

Beneath the tree, the unstable back-yard wall of a burned-out house is so near collapse that McRae can move one of its concrete blocks with one finger.

"Kids play around here all the time," he said, as Thompson's daughter and Henry's granddaughter, Daesha, 4, came out of her house to play under their watchful eyes.

"I'm afraid this [wall] is going to fall on a child," McRae said. "Years ago, that's what happened over near 33rd and Montgomery. A wall like this fell and killed a little boy."

L&I came out once and looked at the wall, McRae said, and told him that it was the responsibility of the property owner.

"That house is burned," McRae said. "No one lives there. I don't think there is a property owner anymore. Meanwhile, this wall keeps getting closer to falling down."

McRae walked up Dakota Street toward 30th, where he looked at two vacant lots that form the gateway to his block. The lot on the north side is overgrown with weeds that he hasn't been able to cut since his shoulder injury. The south-side lot is covered with a thick layer of trash that has obviously been there since the days of a faded Obama/Biden campaign poster that clings to its useless chain-link fence.

"I don't want to live where trash is being dumped," said McRae in a voice that was equal parts frustration and sadness. "But I'm trapped here. This is my home. I've worked hard but I can't get any cooperation from the city. That's what angers me."

Getting the city's attention

Informed of the situation by the Daily News, City Councilman Darrell Clarke, whose North Philadelphia district includes McRae's block, said, "Under former Mayor Street, the NTI [Neighborhood Transformation Initiative] program addressed these kinds of issues and gave people in the community hope that the city does care about you.

"Just something like cleaning a lot, greening it and putting a nice wooden fence around it can make a marked difference for a minimal cost because people respect it and don't trash the lot."

Delivering his hard-times budget, Mayor Nutter recently cut the citywide vacant-lot program - administered by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society - by $840,000, or 33 percent.

So, although Clarke has put West Dakota Street's vacant lots on his clean-and-green list, they have to wait for future funding that may or may not come through.

"Under NTI, I also had a significant demolition budget for vacant, dangerous properties," Clarke said, "and I spent it. But that program is gone, L&I's demolition budget has been reduced and I don't see those dollars coming in the foreseeable future."

When the Daily News told L&I Commissioner Fran Burns about the West Dakota Street problems, she immediately suggested a tour of the block with McRae and his neighbors.

"People get aggravated when they feel they've gone through the system, and the system has failed them," Burns said. "What I usually like to do is go out and meet the neighbors to see for myself what they're talking about. Then I can tell them directly, frankly, here's what we can do immediately and here's what the city cannot do."

True to her word, Burns called McRae and made plans to meet him today on the block.

If Burns agrees to repair the deteriorating wall exposed by a long-ago L&I demolition, clean up the rubble-strewn lot next to it so Johnson can again grow vegetables for his neighbors and demolish the unsafe wall at the 31st Street corner, she will go a long way toward restoring the residents' faith in the city government that they've paid taxes to all these years.

If she can get the trash removed from the disgusting lot on the 30th Street corner and the other nuisance lots on the block, McRae might feel that after decades of being a lone voice in a weed-choked wilderness, he has finally been heard. And respected.

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