At first, Tyrone Beverly's walking tour of Towne Gardens doesn't look like much. The leafy 253-home development in Southwest Philadelphia's Eastwick neighborhood feels like a slice of modest suburban living tucked between Darby Creek and the airport. But Beverly isn't here to brag.
"You walk around here and you think, 'I've seen worse communities. I've seen worse in North Philly,'" he says. "But did you? Did you really see worse?"
The initial stop on the tour: Beverly's own rowhouse on the 6800 block of Lindbergh Boulevard, the place where he first realized something was wrong. The tip-off? "I lost my basement," he says. That is, the concrete floor cracked in half, sending his heater and ductwork crashing down. Next stop: The gaping hole at the end of his block where two houses were condemned a decade ago, and thick concrete buttresses were driven into the earth to stop the rest from toppling, he says, "like dominoes." Then there are the concrete headers over front doors, some snapped like twigs, others pulling clear from the bricks they're meant to support. There are cracks snaking across brick walls, up front steps, down streets. There are rooflines rising and dipping, window frames that have twisted so the windows can't open, garages where residents came home to find their cars underground.
The symptoms vary, but the disease, Beverly insists, is the same: "We're sinking — all these houses are sinking."
He traces the infection back to the development of Eastwick, trumpeted as the nation's largest urban-renewal project in the 1950s. It was achieved by eminent domain and, more to the point, by topping off swamps with silt and cinder — inadequate fill, inadequately compacted.
This is not a new problem. Beverly has been fighting the city on and off for more than a decade. And it's not just Eastwick. Government contracts to fill land in Logan in North Philadelphia — with coal ash carted in by politically connected contractors — laid the groundwork for what's now the Logan Triangle, 35 acres of desolation where an entire neighborhood was condemned. Cinder- and ash-filled creeks have also proven faulty ground for districts surrounding Logan, low-income areas like Feltonville, where some houses stand slanted and cracked and others were demolished. Overbrook, Mill Creek, Roxborough, Wissinoming — in pockets across the city, more than 1,000 houses built on improper fill have been leveled. No one knows exactly how many more may be affected, since the city's historical topographical maps are incomplete and residents say no ongoing monitoring appears to exist.
Residents say it's a problem created in large part by the redevelopment-planning, permit-granting, contract-allocating city government — a problem the city would rather forget. They say the city authorized, inspected and in some cases funded the developments to bolster its tax base, and has recoiled from dealing with them ever since. Even after studies found structural concerns, it's not clear the city followed up with recommended inspections or remediation.
Residents say someone should do something before the next house collapses or the next gas line explodes. Most have given up fighting City Hall. But the current "Actual Value Initiative" to reassess properties for tax purposes has reawakened the outrage of a few, like Beverly, who say that their homes are death traps — that even if they could sell them, their consciences forbid it.
"Now they're talking about fair market value? For something I can't sell? Here's what I'm saying — [the mayor] should meet with us and discuss: Where do we go from here?" Beverly says. "How do we come to the conclusion that our problem is a city problem?"
To sort through this mess, it helps to remember that Philly didn't start out as a flat, grid-ready plain (though most of it was filled more conscientiously than Eastwick).
"Typically, the city would provide fill for the streets, and leave bringing individual plots up to grade to the developers," says Adam Levine, historical consultant to the Philadelphia Water Department. "I'm not sure that in the 19th century and early 20th century there was the best oversight of that process on the part of the city government."
That lack of oversight led to the proliferation of creative filling solutions, and a favorite was coal ash — as cheap as it was politically expedient. In the 1900s, a well-connected stockholder of the Philadelphia Rapid Transit trolley company won exclusive rights to cart ash and garbage from downtown factories to a dump on his land, an 80-acre spread encompassing today's Logan Triangle. He was, essentially, paid to bring his land up to grade using refuse; the Wingohocking Creek, which ran through the premises, was diverted into a sewer and its streambed was ashed.
As for Eastwick, Levine says, the preferred fill was silt; old photographs show it being piped in from the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers. "If it was a Redevelopment Authority project, it was the city that owned and filled that land."
These practices wouldn't be accepted today. "A lot of the building done in the marshlands was just wrong," he says. And one could argue that by the '50s, when Eastwick was redeveloped, the city should have known better.
But it wasn't until the 1980s that the gravity of the problem became fully apparent.
In 1986, a gas explosion in Logan demolished one house and damaged others, a result of foundations sinking over utility lines and ash. Philly declared Logan a disaster area. Borders were drawn around what was thought to be the most-affected region, 957 buildings were listed to be condemned, and the 14-year process of compensating residents and razing the Logan Triangle began — concluding (a few buildings excepted) only when Philly began polishing itself up for the 2000 Republican National Convention.
But as the story of the Logan Triangle residents reached its conclusion, a new chapter was beginning across Roosevelt Boulevard in Feltonville. A 2000 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study of 12 square blocks in the area found homes there, too, were sinking on ash and rubbish that in some places was 40 feet deep.
"Some of the structures are experiencing significant stress and are progressively becoming more unstable with time," the report stated. It found the fill was deposited with "little to no compactive effort" and was "by today's standards ... unacceptable." Broken sewer mains and laterals made matters worse, flushing away fill and further weakening the ground. The study laid out more than 15 recommendations: for special building requirements in the affected neighborhoods; for a thorough inventory of affected structures; for "semi-annual or annual" inspections; for special measures to be taken during demolition to protect neighboring structures; for the city to "develop a design" and "provide structural support, designed by a registered professional engineer, for any new end unit created by the removal" of an adjoining unit; and for a number of other preventive or ameliatory measures.
While the city did undertake initial follow-up inspections, whether it pursued any of the other recommendations is unclear: The Department of Licenses & Inspections (L&I) did not respond to multiple calls and emails over the course of three weeks. But residents say they've seen no evidence of follow-up monitoring. And most newly created end units in Feltonville — unlike the one on Beverly's block — don't appear to have had special support mechanisms put in place.
Mildred Serrano, who lives on the 4500 block of North Reese Street (one of several Feltonville blocks singled out for special attention by the Army Corps), says she received no offer of structural support for her house, which is indeed a "new end unit created by the removal" of an adjoining unit. As predicted by the Army Corps, the party wall partially crumbled; Serrano was left to repair it and sue the property owner for damages. She did so — winning, finally, just this year — but her home continues to tilt.
Serrano says the city wasn't named in her lawsuit, but it shares the blame. "The city was aware of it. They have a lot to do with this," she says. "They should have taken more precautions [in permitting building here] or monitored the [water and sewer] laterals, and they're not doing it. When they knocked down the house next door, the Army Corps had special restrictions, because now this is the end property. The city did not follow through on any of that. They always got their little asses out of the whole situation. They're never liable for anything. The city don't care."
Barry O'Sullivan, spokesman for Philadelphia Gas Works, says PGW is carefully monitoring and replacing pipes all over the city, reducing the likelihood of another explosion. But overall, Serrano calls the follow-up monitoring a joke. "We talked about L&I and water checking in, but it never happened."
Philadelphia and the federal government together spent about $38 million to relocate homeowners in Logan. But by 2006, compensation offers had dwindled from about $50,000 per property in the mid-1980s to just $100 apiece for the mostly nonresident owners at the bottom of the list. Today, a doctor's office, Courtland Street Medical, still stands in the middle of the Triangle wasteland, topped with a billboard reading, "No pay, no play, had to stay 20 years." The owner, Dr. Donald Turner, says he's waiting to be compensated; the city says it finally made him an offer — in 2007.
What all this makes clear is that the handling of sinking property cases has been far from consistent, leading to accusations of race and class discrimination from all sides. That's how they see it in majority-black Eastwick, in Hispanic areas of Feltonville. And that's how it looked back in 2000, when national newspapers reported that many minority Logan residents were still stuck in purgatory, while just a year earlier 32 families had been rapidly compensated and relocated from sinking homes in majority-white Wissinoming in the Northeast. Even Turner is claiming racism: His previous billboard read, "Mayor [Wilson] Goode thought my white friends would help me."
Whatever motivated it, the inconsistency has bred mistrust. In Feltonville, some residents even barred inspectors from their homes, fearful their houses would be condemned without timely (or any) relocation assistance.
They were probably right to worry. In 2001, then-Mayor John Street put his foot down, outlining a policy of prevention and an end to relocation compensation.
At the time, he got heat for it — from, among others, then-Councilman Michael Nutter, from whose Overbrook district 18 families had just been evicted from sinking homes. In 2001, Nutter told the Inquirer, "While people in Mayor Street's administration may state that the city has no legal responsibility here, I feel very passionate that in many instances we still have a moral obligation."
Since then, though, his outlook has changed.
"Caveat emptor: Buyer beware," says Mark McDonald, the mayor's spokesman. "You've got to do your own due diligence before you buy something. Is the local government, the city of Philadelphia, to be the Daddy Warbucks of last resort, where we're supposed to pay people for whatever situation may arise?" McDonald makes the same point that has echoed throughout Philly's sinking homes cases: that homeowner neglect can and in many cases did exacerbate the problems seen in sinking areas.