Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Osage Avenue: Still An Open Wound

Osage Ave: Still an open wound
Philadelphia Daily News

russv@phillynews.com 215-854-5987

TWENTY-SIX YEARS ago today, Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on what had once been a quiet leafy neighborhood on Osage Avenue, near Cobbs Creek Park.

But Milton Williams is tired of talking about the bomb that started a fire that killed 11 people in the MOVE house and destroyed 61 homes.

"I want to know what the city is going to do now," said Williams, 62. "What are they going to do with all of these empty houses?"

Williams' community is still home to people who once worked as teachers, nurses, clerical workers, carpenters, police officers, roofers and truck drivers.

They are aging now, many over 60, some in their 80s and 90s, and they say the city has them in limbo, living in a blighted neighborhood with houses they can't sell.

The MOVE bombing destroyed all 40 homes on both sides of the 6200 block of Osage Avenue and 21 homes on the south side of the 6200 block of Pine Street.

The homes were so shoddily reconstructed after the 1985 fire - nearly every house had leaky roofs, bad plumbing, sagging floors because beams had not been properly installed, cedar siding peeling off exteriors, and faulty electrical wiring - that the original contractors went to jail because money was misused.

The city offered families $150,000 to leave their homes, and all but 24 accepted.

The families who stayed went to court and won an injunction against the city.

But Gerald Renfrow, president of the Osage/Pine Community Association, said U.S. Judge John P. Fullam dismissed the suit even though only eight of the 24 plaintiffs signed agreements to settle.

Since the 2008 dismissal, nine more plaintiffs have accepted what later became a $190,000 settlement, saying they felt worn down.

Thirty-seven of the 61 brick twin homes now sit abandoned, with plywood in front windows and exposed, tattered insulation flapping in the wind.

It looks like a war zone.

"It looks like Berlin looked in 1945 during World War II," said Williams, who drove a UPS truck for 32 years.

Now, residents of 23 homes that remain occupied say they want answers from the city about what it intends to do to rebuild the neighborhood - once again.

Last week, about a dozen neighbors protested outside City Hall after they were denied permission to protest outside Mayor Nutter's office.

They came to ask Nutter if he is aware the lawsuit was dismissed in 2008 "with insufficient evidence that all 24 homeowners agreed to settle."

Renfrew pointed out the city's own legal documents - filed in a motion to delay paying Moody's legal fees - prove that 16 of the 24 homeowners had refused to settle the case.

"After the parties settled the case in the summer of 2008, we anticipated receiving twenty-four releases from Plaintiffs," said a legal memo filed Aug. 18, 2009.

"Instead, however, we only received releases from eight of the twenty-four plaintiffs at that time . . . "

As far as the city is concerned, mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald said, the suit has been dismissed by a federal judge.

"It is sorely in need of renewal," McDonald said of the area.

But he added that little can be done "until all this matter between those private landowners, their attorney and the court is resolved."

Adrian Moody, the attorney who filed the suit for the Osage/Pine residents, did not return several phone calls from the Daily News.

Renfrow said that Clarence Armbrister, Nutter's chief of staff, told them after a protest last year that the city may take their homes by eminent domain.

McDonald, however, denied that the city wants to seize the homes.

But Renfrow believes that all that stands between their homes and a wrecking ball is the seven homeowners who have continued to hold out.

And he said those who took the settlement are reluctant to fix their homes because they think the city will come and bulldoze them later.

Renfrow said the city wants to force them out because the area, close to a lush, green park, public transportation routes, and entertainment at the Tower Theater and the 69th Street shopping area, would be a boon for gentrification.

Residents are used to feeling that they are being pushed out.

Back in 2000, after Mayor John Street took office, residents said Street stopped repairs on their homes that had begun under the Rendell administration.

Street told them, " 'I don't want to throw bad money after good' " and talked of bringing in a wrecking ball to tear down the neighborhood, according to Connie Renfrow, 64, Gerald's wife.

"When one of the neighbors asked if we would get the first chance to buy the new homes, Street said, 'No, because you won't be able to afford them,' " said Connie Renfrow, who moved to the block in 1980.

They also said Street "scared" people into accepting the initial $150,000 buyout offer by telling them the homes had faulty heaters and posed a carbon-monoxide threat.

"You don't condemn a house because of a faulty heater," Williams said.

"This was a problem that could be taken care of for $800."

"I have no comment except to say that the Street administration made every effort to be more than fair," Street responded in an email this week.

For many residents, not only were their homes poorly rebuilt, but the city planted trees that are now breaking up sidewalks.

Hazel Taylor, 63, said her insurance company is threatening to drop her if she doesn't repair the sidewalk.

But Taylor and others said the Fairmount Park Commission told them the city had not checked to see which trees to plant.

Now many of trees have roots that have buckled the sidewalks and torn up underground water pipes.

"I'm 63 and on a fixed income, I can't pay to fix this sidewalk," Taylor said.

Elizabeth Bostic, 90, said she will continue to fight for her home.

"I refuse to die until they settle this mess," declared Bostic, raising her arm in defiance.

"It was a beautiful place," said Virginia Cox, 78, who still speaks with a lilting Trinidadian accent despite moving to the block in 1971.

"You could leave your children and say, 'I'll be right back,' " she said. "You could leave your doors open, everyone would pitch in and watch and see and live and love like a family.

"But they break us up. They break us."


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