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.
"The vast majority of the time," agrees Philadelphia Water Department spokeswoman Joanne Dahme, "the subsidence is related to a broken property lateral, or downspouts/rain leaders that are no longer in good shape."
McDonald says the city was never liable, and that the law on such matters is clear and "will be the city's guide." Payouts in the past were merely humanitarian gestures, he says; the city's not in a position to make such gestures now. "The fiscal situation of the city of Philadelphia in 2012, compared to 2001 or '02 or '03, is very different. A lot of the moneys used for the Logan [Triangle] were [federal Community Development Block Grant] funds from when the city was getting probably $75 million or $85 million a year. It is an extremely different environment now."
Some residents, though, claim the city has over the years purposefully avoided buyouts — going so far, in at least one case, as to leave state and federal money on the table. They suspect the city is hoping to sidestep not only the immediate costs of relocation assistance, but also the enduring blight that — as the still-vacant Logan Triangle illustrates — buyouts can leave behind.
In Eastwick's Penrose section — part of the same urban-renewal scheme that hatched Towne Gardens — resident Leo Brundage says he's seen just what resistance from the city can do. His house on the 7800 block of Saturn Place sits on a different kind of compromised ground: an old landfill on the edge of the Lower Darby Creek, which is itself an uncontained Superfund site. Since 1999, six major floods have each flushed up to 6 feet of what he fears is toxic water into his home, leaving blue high-water marks. While a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection analysis this year found no evidence of a cancer cluster in Brundage's zip code, he and his neighbors say their block, the closest to the creek and the landfill, has seen far more than its share of respiratory afflictions and cancer deaths. Brundage himself is a cancer survivor.
In 2002, the state put up $1.7 million to match $3.6 million in federal funding set aside to buy out Penrose residents. But Brundage and others say the city stalled, changing the rules on appraisals and adding new conditions like making buying out any given block of rowhomes an all-houses-or-none proposition. "They waited and made all kinds of excuses, until the [funds expired]."
Still, selling is not an option. "A lot of people on our block died," he says. "Why would I sell my home to a family just starting off — and then come fall hurricane season they get flooded? To do something like that? I wouldn't."
Delmonico Hughes, a Towne Gardens man whose walls are splitting and whose garage collapsed years ago, says he's in the same boat. He worries a gas line could "pop" at any time. His block is a study in creative ways to conceal a brick facade, with faux-brick veneer or vinyl siding, but he won't attempt to sell. For him it is, as Nutter once put it, a moral issue. "I'm not that kind of person," he says.
Which is why the upcoming property-tax reassessment is such a sore subject in Eastwick.
For all this, when city Chief Assessment Officer Richie McKeithen was asked at City Council budget hearings how sinking might impact assessments, he admitted it was the first he'd heard of it. He said such deficiencies would be considered on a case-by-case basis, but likely only in the appeals process. "We can only take into account things we know about," he says. "A lot of things we won't know about until taxpayers notify us."
The only other time subsidence came up in budget hearings was when 2nd District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, whose purview includes Eastwick, broached the topic of tax breaks for sinking-home victims.
"Good luck with that one," Council President Darrell Clarke told him. "The tax man cometh."
Almost no homeowner under age 60 wants to talk about improper fill. Even those who have cracks festooned across their brickwork say they haven't heard about a problem. Older residents, whose years of activism were met with indifference or resistance, have mostly given up fighting. Some have sold their homes at a loss, and others have stuffed properties with renters, often low-income immigrants. The rest say they're just waiting — either for salvation or for disaster.
June Bryant and Barbara Johnson both live in Logan on the 4800 block of North Hutchinson Street, the last block standing at the brink of the Logan Triangle. They're not sure who drew the line declaring their homes to be fit and the ones just across the street to be imminently dangerous, but they say it's clear the homes on their block are suffering from the same plight that brought down the Triangle.
"It's plain to see the houses are tilting. They haven't told us, but we've seen it," Bryant says. "I've seen cracks in the foundation. You walk into the middle of the street and your body starts to tilt. They really need to take an assessment of the community within a couple blocks and say to us, 'Y'all's houses are sinking, too,' and not just ignore it. We know the signs. We're just waiting for the city to say it.
"Or maybe we'll have another gas explosion, and they'll be forced to say that to us."
Bryant says she ran out of energy to fight the city on this decades ago. "I know what will happen. They'll start talking all that crazy talk and I'll be stressed again," she says. "They'll tell me no one else has called them with issues, so they feel like it's OK." Her block is mostly renters now, which makes activism even more difficult. "It's been a while since we've been organized as a block," she admits.
And so, she concludes, "We are stuck." Adds Johnson, "Maybe if we were younger, we wouldn't feel so stuck."
In Nicetown, it's the same story. Miguel Moyett's front porch, on the 700 block of West Courtland Street, looks onto a community garden where a cluster of rowhouses used to stand, more casualties of sinking. Another house nearby collapsed, and others have been abandoned rather than repaired. After all, it's tough to sink money into a home you think is going down anyway, he says.
Everything on this block is topsy-turvy: Walls are split, sidewalks have disintegrated. Moyett fears his own house is slowly breaking apart, worthless. His block is so close to the Logan Triangle boundaries, he says, and so clearly exhibiting the same signs of distress, that he can't understand why it was left behind. "They told me this area don't belong to Logan, so they don't do nothing. I bring political people up here, the Spanish guys, and they made promises. But after election day, you don't see them around no more."
There was a time, about a decade ago, when Beverly, the Eastwick resident, thought things were about to change. He and his neighbors made enough noise that Mayor Street met with them, and the city contracted an engineering firm to study Towne Gardens. According to a 2002 L&I memo, the firm found that houses had shifted off their piles, that floor slabs had failed, and that Beverly's block should be considered for demolition. The memo urged further study and repairs. Today, Beverly's still waiting.
As for the rest — Moyett, Serrano, Bryant, Johnson — they've all but given up. "We're here till we literally perish. We spent all our lives working and taking care of our houses, and now we're left with nothing," Serrano says. "If I start worrying about everything that happens in this area, I would be 6 feet under. Let the Lord handle it. I take it one day at a time."