Artists, neighbors battle to redeem East Kensington's 'megalots'

In the area East Kensington residents call the "megalots," artist Maria Möller stands in the space once occupied by the massive Providence Dye Works. Her new project replicates a 19th-century fire-insurance survey.
In the area East Kensington residents call the "megalots," artist Maria Möller stands in the space once occupied by the massive Providence Dye Works. Her new project replicates a 19th-century fire-insurance survey. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 04, 2014

In 1889, fire-insurance surveyor Ernest Hexamer knew the property at Emerald and Boston Streets as the Providence Dye Works, an industrial complex spanning two city blocks in East Kensington.

Today, neighbors know the site as "the megalots" - a vast expanse of blight razed by fires and neglect that attracts short-dumping, drug use, vagrancy, and prostitution.

Now, artist Maria Möller is attempting to reconcile those jarringly different views with Hexamer Redux, a project funded by the Pew Center for the Arts & Heritage to resurvey the 19th-century factory sites, all in varied states of reuse, decay, or demolition.

The first set of surveys, focused on the megalots, will be on display Friday as part of "Manufacturing Fire," an exhibition about East Kensington history, at the gallery and artist collective Little Berlin.

When Möller arrived at the megalots in the fall, she found there wasn't much left to survey but high weeds - and, barely concealed by them, addicts and prostitutes. So she recruited volunteers and artists to count stems of mugwort and goldenrod - and used the plants to dye fabric and yarn in a nod to the site's history. Later, she created the updated surveys that will be on view - unscientific collages of archival documents and images of her findings.

Like Möller, neighbors see the lots as an eyesore - but also as a place of immense potential.

"That whole zone could be a complete game changer for life in the neighborhood," said Jeff Carpineta, former head of the East Kensington Neighbors Association.

A neighborhood plan created by the association and formally adopted by the City Planning Commission this year described the mill blocks as the area's "biggest opportunity for denser, mixed-use development" and public green space.

In the meantime, the megalots have languished as a barren reminder of old trauma. The Providence Dye Works was razed only after six fires tore through the property, including a four-alarm blaze in 2000. The two blocks of blight expanded to four with fires in 2010 and 2012: the Cavco window factory fire and the Thomas Buck Hosiery mill fire that claimed the lives of two firefighters two years ago next week.

The blocks also are a microcosm of Philly's vacant-land woes: Several of the fallow parcels are city-owned, others are believed to belong to speculators, and still others are owned by tax deadbeats.

Together, they've logged dozens of complaints and citations in recent years.

"That's probably in the top 10 questions of the neighborhood," Carpineta said. "Who are these people, and what are their intentions?"

One is Ethel C. Harvey, an Olney chiropractor who was accused by federal authorities in 2012 of running a records scam that cost the city $400,000. Her property at 1929-45 E. York St., which has been cited five times by the city since 2008, is $19,286 in arrears on property taxes and has $779,700 in nuisance liens.

The lot where the Buck fire broke out, at York and Jasper, is still owned by its Brooklyn landlords. It now has $111,000 in nuisance liens.

In the meantime, maintaining the lots takes a village. The neighborhood association cleans them several times a year, and the New Kensington Community Development Corp. pitches in, too.

Then there are individuals, such as neighbor Stanford Gable, who used to mow several times a year, until the weeds won. Eventually, his mower broke.

Today, East Kensington's population is half what it was in 1950, and 20 percent of its land is vacant. Gable said it's too much for neighbors to maintain. "We're overwhelmed," he said.

The same goes for Tom Hinson, 54, whose home is perched on the edge of the empty expanse. He fenced off the lot next to his house, just to keep out the prostitutes who brought clients there daily.

"Sometimes the city cleans up, when there are a lot of complaints. But mostly the city doesn't care."

Hinson is philosophical - even about the vandals who smashed his car windshield and taillights. "If we didn't have children, I don't mind," he said. But he does. He's looking to move this year.

Yet, bookending the megalots are signs of hope: A trio of newly renovated rowhouses facing the lots along York Street are near completion. With hardwood floors and stainless-steel appliances, they're expected to be marketed for more than $300,000.

On the opposite edge on the old Cavco lot, Catholic Health Care Services is set to break ground on St. Francis Villa, a 40-unit, affordable senior housing complex with a sleek design and community vegetable garden. In February, the nonprofit received a $1 million federal housing income tax credit to fund the $11.9 million project.

"I'm hoping this project will have a stabilizing effect on the neighborhood, or a catalytic effect," project manager Kimiko Doherty said. "I don't think any developer wants to be the first one in. But I don't think these lots will be empty for too long."

District City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez said her office gets constant complaints about the lots. She hopes establishing a land bank, which would provide an agency dedicated to processing vacant property, could be a cure, in combination with community sweat equity.

Still, compared to what tends to precede them - fires and building collapses - vacant lots are not an enforcement priority. A Licenses and Inspections spokesperson said for that reason the city rarely takes lot owners to court.

The next two phases of Möller's Hexamer Redux project will remap nearby factories - which, by luck, did not suffer the same fate as the Providence Dye Works.

In May, she'll focus on Viking Mill, a factory-turned-artist-space that L&I shut down last year after at least one fire. Then she'll look at the John Bromley Carpet Mill building on Front Street, known by neighbors as "the white elephant."

"It's looked at as the next vulnerable building, and the one that could go up in flames," Möller said. (Owner Jesse Munoz disputed that and said the building had been secured.)

What will come of Möller's surveys isn't yet clear.

Unspooling a heap of golden yarn dyed at the lots, Möller said that, at the least, they offered a temporary relief from the blight. "It was really pretty," she said, "in a place that's not."


smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053

@samanthamelamed

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