MLK homes thrive where towers loomed

There are 245 new homes in the Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza, in South Philadelphia.
There are 245 new homes in the Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza, in South Philadelphia. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff photographer)
Posted: July 01, 2011

Sitting on his stoop near where the notorious Martin Luther King Jr. public-housing towers once loomed, Tom Anderson spun tales yesterday of when he was a reckless youth and "the neighborhood was wild, rough."

Looking at the area now, a person would hardly believe him.

Quaint brick facades now line the blocks around 13th and Catharine streets, where the townhouses of Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza have taken the place of four high-rises that stood there for nearly 40 years. The Philadelphia Housing Authority imploded the towers in 1999, at the beginning of a massive redevelopment effort funded by a federal grant.

A 64-year-old woman who moved into one of the high-rises in 1972 recalled seeing little pink and blue drug packets lying around everywhere. "It was a mess! It was dirty and everything else," she exclaimed. But she doesn't see that kind of litter much anymore.

Reports of violence and drugs still trickle in, she said, but the neighborhood is "most definitely" better.

Anderson, who was born in the 1950s and has lived in the neighborhood his whole life, agreed. "The area is more comfortable," he said. "It's beautiful because everyone is trying to get along and everything."

These comments echo the sentiments of PHA officials who came together yesterday to celebrate the completion of the MLK redevelopment. After almost 12 years and $81 million, the PHA has put the finishing touches on the final 19 home-ownership units. In total, 245 new homes have been built, and the development offers renting and home-ownership options to encourage a mix of incomes. The new homes also surround Hawthorne Park, which is being built at 12th and Catharine.

PHA officials boasted yesterday that the MLK Plaza has received more design awards than any other PHA development over the past decade. It's a welcome success for PHA, which has struggled with scandal since former director Carl R. Greene was ousted last year amid allegations of sexual harassment.

City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell summed up the transformation of the neighborhood.

"Until I looked at the picture," she said yesterday, "it didn't hit me that this was where the high-rises were."

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