Sisters' toiling has transformed Germantown block

Aine (left) and Emaleigh Doley encouraged neighbors to revitalize their block of West Rockland Street in Germantown by becoming urban gardeners in their own yards. The sisters' "Grow This Block!" campaign led West Rockland to receive the Streets Department's Philadelphia More Beautiful Neighborhood Transformation Award last year. Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer
Aine (left) and Emaleigh Doley encouraged neighbors to revitalize their block of West Rockland Street in Germantown by becoming urban gardeners in their own yards. The sisters' "Grow This Block!" campaign led West Rockland to receive the Streets Department's Philadelphia More Beautiful Neighborhood Transformation Award last year. Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 11, 2012

SWEAT-EQUITY sisters Emaleigh and Aine Doley have labored together as the two-headed block captain that resurrected West Rockland Street near Germantown Avenue, rallying neighbors to transform barren front yards and trashed vacant lots into flower and vegetable gardens, and to turn despair into hope.

But before they showed a Daily News reporter all the good stuff, the Doley sisters, true to their grass-roots-activist DNA, led him to the bottom of their hilly Germantown block and showed him what could be an abandoned mine shaft that has eaten the sidewalk.

The cavernous hole is 10 feet deep and runs from the curb to a house that's owned by a Florida bank and appears vacant. Huge mounds of earth and debris — pieces of broken pipe and asphalt — line either side of the hole, and rusted pipelines — sewage? gas? — are exposed along its bottom.

"Children from DePaul Catholic School over there walk down this street to get home," said Aine (pronounced AHN-YA), pointing to the school that backs onto Rockland, half a block from the hole. "This hole is a terrible accident waiting to happen."

"We've contacted 3-1-1 several times for months," said Emaleigh, 28, citing the city's nonemergency-call center. "As you can see, nothing's happened."

"Look," said Aine, 35, pointing to a green vine that has emerged from the dank, dark depths of the hole and taken root in a pile of rubble. "Tomatoes. The hole has been here long enough to grow tomatoes. Do you believe this?"

Back on their vibrant block — 46 occupied houses lining both sides of the street, children everywhere — the Doley sisters wondered why the city hasn't fixed the crazy quilt of crumbling asphalt patch jobs that passes for a sidewalk bordering a city-owned vacant lot.

"If we were in Chestnut Hill," said Aine, "this is not how the Water Department would fix the sidewalk after digging it up to make underground repairs."

For 20 years, the city-owned vacant lot bordered a city-owned nuisance house and a second nuisance house owned by an absentee landlord. Then last year, Mayor Nutter learned about the Doley sisters' "Grow This Block!" campaign, which has turned homeowners and renters into urban gardeners and transformed Rockland into a flower-rich gem. The sisters had given neighbors an entire yard's worth of plants, some of which were offshoots from their own gardens, for $10 or $20, and put that money into developing a community vegetable garden.

On Memorial Day weekend, Aine said, Nutter showed up in her back yard, where she and her mom were discussing — what else? — planting more gardens. "When the mayor comes to your block out of nowhere," Emaleigh said, "people get excited."

The unflappable Aine quickly took Nutter to the bottom of the block and showed him the two abandoned houses that had blighted Rockland for decades. "Within five days of his visit," Aine said, "the city began demolishing those houses."

Aine has lived on the block since she was 5. Emaleigh grew up there, moved away for college, then returned to live with her sister in the house where they were raised.

The Doley sisters work in product marketing, so they are sophisticated social-networkers who use Twitter and their photo-rich West Rockland Street blog — rocklandstreet.com — to spread the word online about their block on the rise.

But the sisters understand that their older, low-income neighbors — their block's backbone — use land lines, not smart phones, and respond to fliers, not emails. So they keep the block working together by spreading the word 20th-century style, too.

Besides, the sisters said, 300 bags of dog poop is 300 bags of dog poop — there is no digital way to deal with it.

In April 2010, the sisters assembled a bunch of student volunteers and neighbors to tackle the 15-foot weed trees and mounds of dumped construction debris in the vacant lot at Rockland and Greene streets.

"All these big, strong guys were ready to help with the cleanup when they smelled the dog poop," Emaleigh said. "Then they saw it — 300 bags of it. They backed off."

Aine said: "Every day, a woman from another block dumped her dog's poop there. We know it was her because there were 300 of the same kind of bags."

"Aine went in there and picked up all the bags," Emaleigh said. "Then our crew cleaned up the lot. Once it was clean, the lady stopped dumping her dog poop there."

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society will soon fence the lot. The Doley sisters will build raised beds, plant flowers, turn an eyesore into an oasis. That is what they do.

"When we were young in the '80s, the block went through the crack epidemic," Emaleigh said. "The surrounding blocks saw an increase in open-air drug sales and crime. That's still a problem all around us."

Recently, Emaleigh tweeted, "3-block stretch of Logan St., parallel to W. Rockland btwn Wayne Ave & Greene St scene of 3 shootings this wk."

Rockland Street also was hit hard by the recession. Joblessness and foreclosures devastated the middle of the block. But since they rolled up their sleeves four years ago, the Doley sisters have rallied residents and restored hope through the power of cleaning and greening.

Near the top of the street, Hope Campbell, who has lived on the block since 1970 and co-captains it with the Doley sisters, tends her own lovely garden and an equally lush one across the street in the front yard of an unoccupied house that is not hers.

"First thing in the morning, I like to sit on my porch, have my coffee and look across the street at something pretty," Campbell said, casually explaining all the physical labor she has devoted to growing watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers, peas, corn, tomatoes, carrots, peppers, lettuce, herbs and flowers on a vacant property.

That's typical of the selfless attitude that motivated Campbell to get the block designated an official Play Street, closed to traffic while dozens of children cool off in the hydrant sprinkler on the summer's hottest days.

"Miss Roz" Rahman, a 30-year resident, said: "The block always had some gardeners, but Aine and Emaleigh jump-started the gardens here now. They had dozens of children walking up and down the street, eating cucumbers that they had grown themselves. That gave the children such a sense of pride."

The Doley sisters laughed. "When we first showed the children how to grow cucumbers, watermelons, peppers and tomatoes, they had no idea they could eat them," Aine said. "They told us, ‘It came out of the dirt on Rockland Street. It's gross!' "

Emaleigh said, "We told them, ‘Where do you think cucumbers come from? You think someone in the back of the grocery store grows them by magic?' "

Ada Pullett, who has lived on the block for 40 years, has a front yard filled with azalea bushes but got so caught up in the sisters' "Grow This Block!" spirit that she asked her husband, Charles, to build her a raised bed for petunias and daisies — "which I did, faithfully," Charles said, smiling — and another raised bed in the new community garden across the street, where she planted a full palette of pastel flowers that she asked her husband to water every day — "which I do, faithfully," Charles said, smiling.

Last year, the block's flower-fueled rebirth won the city Streets Department's Philadelphia More Beautiful Neighborhood Transformation Award.

"We're like a butterfly," Ada said. "He's in that cocoon. Then the change happens. He comes out of that cocoon and he's a beautiful butterfly. West Rockland Street is back on the map!"

Contact Dan Geringer at 215-854-5961 or geringd@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @DanGeringer.

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