If newspapers are dead, why does Ronnie get results?

Posted: July 25, 2013

THE NEXT TIME people tell me, "Newspapers are dead," I'll tell them about Denise Ferguson.

In 2007, the two-story rowhouse attached to hers on Lambert Street in Point Breeze was torn down, all the way to the basement floor, by a developer who then abandoned the project, leaving a deep-holed eyesore.

Ferguson convinced a man who'd worked on the property to at least fence it off from the sidewalk, so no one would fall in. It took a year, but the fence finally went up.

Problem was, it had an 18-inch gap where it should have met the side wall of Ferguson's house. So any of the children who play on the block could still tumble in.

"I never saw the man again," says Ferguson, who grew up on Lambert Street and bought her house in 2006.

For five years, Ferguson watched the hole fill with rainwater and litter. It also attracted rats and so many mosquitoes that she couldn't sit on her front steps for a breather after work.

Ferguson called 3-1-1 many times for help. Twice, she says, the city sprayed the hole with bug killer. But it remained waterlogged and trashy, and she was certain someone's kid would drown in it.

Not that anyone would be able to see a body, what with all those floating plastic bottles and bags.

I visited the site after Ferguson contacted me for help. It was a fetid, reeking mess, filled with what looked to be 2 feet of black water and a trash-bin's worth of debris. I then emailed Licenses & Inspections to ask about the site, figuring it might take a week to hear anything about a property that had been abandoned for years.

Instead, just five days later, Ferguson herself contacted me.

"You're a miracle worker!" she said. "When I got home from work, a contracting company had removed all water and refuse from the hole and filled it with dirt. You are truly an angel!"

Miracle worker? Angel? Those terms are better descriptors for Mother Teresa. Or for anybody who can coach a Super Bowl win out of the Eagles.

All I did was send an email. Perhaps, because it came from the Daily News, that was enough to bring relief within days to someone who'd needed help for years.

So listen up, people: If there's a dangerous hole that needs filling, and you've been unable to get the city to fill it in, give me a call and I bet it'll move to the top of the pile. Because my phone number is apparently the new 3-1-1.

Maybe I can get into DROP.

In the city's defense, L&I spokeswoman Rebecca Swanson says her department has been on the case since April 2011. The agency cited and fined the property's owner, Kenneth Castagna, three times for "unsafe lot" conditions. He blew them off, so the case was referred to the Law Department.

He blew off Law, too.

After my email to L&I, the agency had a private contractor drain the hole and fill it with dirt. Swanson couldn't say what conditions, this time, brought action from the city. But she insisted her department responds to every service request, no matter who makes it.

Perhaps action and response are two different things.

Swanson says Castagna will be billed for the work L&I did on the lot. And if he doesn't pay, a lien will be placed on the Lambert Street property.

*Snort* Like that means anything to Castagna, president of something called KSM Investments. According to public records, KSM owns or co-owns 22 properties in gentrifying Point Breeze, all in tax arrears and all with liens.

Some are rented to tenants, at least one of whom told me he pays a rent collector in cash. If only some of that rent made it into Philly's coffers: According to the city's online tax records, Castagna's properties (their conditions appear to range from falling-down to ramshackle to livable) are in arrears by $55,197, including interest and penalties.

Castagna himself lives on a lovely, woodsy block in Langhorne, Bucks County, far from the squalor he inflicted on Ferguson. He didn't return multiple calls to his house, and he wasn't home when I dropped by to ask why he let the Lambert Street hellhole become the city's problem to fix.

I'm pretty sure I reached him on his cellphone (thanks to Castagna's very nice son, who shared the number with me). The man who answered, though, insisted he wasn't Castagna and knew nothing about Lambert Street.

"I have no idea who or what you're talking about," he said.

Well - *snort* again - I suppose he does now. And he oughta be ashamed.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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