A new firehouse arrives with joy and turbulence in Tacony

Heard in the Hall has a whole story on Tacony's new firehouse, which arrived complete with artwork and a dose of political tension. Just after we finished writing, though, we got a few updates.

So first, the updates, Frank Keel, a spokesperson for the firefighters' union, says he is not so sure the group can, in fact, recall the mayor.

Here's the announcement from Keel on behalf of Local 22 of the firefighters' union:

"There is some question as to the legality of a petition to recall Mayor Nutter. Lawyers are researching those questions now.  Regardless, the petition drive will begin tomorrow. Firefighters, their families, friends, neighbors and citizens with no stake in this fight have had it with this mayor's abuse of the city's firefighters. We believe we can reach the 45,000 signatures within 45 days.  Whether it gets Nutter recalled or not is somewhat immaterial. The documented, public record that 45,000 people signed a petition to have Nutter removed from office will be an albatross around his neck that he will have to drag around and explain for the rest of his political life."


And then Heard in the Hall noticed that state Sen. Mike Stack and some others are urging Mayor Nutter not to appeal the firefighters' arbitration award. Read their concerns here: http://www.senatorstack.com/phila-lawmakers-urge-mayor-to-end-dispute-with-fire-department

Now, for the story: 

It was supposed to be a simple dedication of a $6.7 million firehouse in Tacony, Philadelphia’s first in 15 years.

Suikang Zhao had journeyed to the event from New York City to explain his artwork, which honors the fire department and Disston Saw Works, the company that built Tacony.

Fourth and fifth graders from Planet Abacus Charter School, wearing red baseball caps identifying them as members of the Junior Fire Patrol, waited eagerly for their chance to help push a fire engine into its parking spot, the traditional way of welcoming a new station.

But the rancorous relationship between the city’s fire department and Mayor Nutter soured Tuesday’s celebration. Hundreds of firefighters booed city officials and chanted, “Recall, recall,” because they want to kick the mayor out of office.

They are angry because Nutter has repeatedly appealed binding arbitration awards, saying they cost the city too much.

“Binding is binding. Respect the men and women of the Philadelphia Fire Department, the men and women who go to work each morning not knowing whether they are going to go home at night,” said Bill Gault, leader of Local 22 of the firefighters’ union.

Plans to transfer experienced firefighters to new firehouses also have riled union members. Each firehouse is like a family, said Amy Smialowski, who is married to a firefighter.

“They are ripping these families apart,” Smialowski said. Her friend, Al Iavecchia, carried a sign that used the letters of the mayor’s name as inspiration: “No Good Ugly Two Timing Evil Rat.”

Union members glowered at Nutter, walking out when Rev. Joseph L. Farrell, a priest at St. Leo Roman Catholic Church, began the ceremony with the “Our Father.” Many protesters said the prayer but emphasized the words, “Deliver us from evil,” apparently directing them at the mayor.

Tacony’s previous firehouse had been knocked down in 2009 to make way for a new I-95 ramp. Funds for the new facility, Engine 38, came mostly from the city’s capital budget, with the state of Pennsylvania contributing $2 million. The city says it is Philadelphia’s first “green” firehouse, with grass on the roof and other environmentally-friendly features.

Nutter did not take the firefighters’ bait. He thanked union leader Gault and said he respected the right to free speech.

"This is America,” Nutter said. “People have many opportunities and certainly a right to express themselves in a variety of fashions."

The children from Planet Abacus, he said, got an unexpected lesson in the Constitution.

“This is a very different kind of civics lesson - very participatory,” the mayor said.

As new history was being made in Tacony Tuesday, Zhao described how he had spent weeks researching the pasts of the fire department and of Disston Saw Works. His installation includes a fire hydrant, hose and other truck equipment that he hopes kids will play on. Zhao also set several bronze panels into the concrete that depict axes, the original Tacony firehouse and other department symbols.

A professor at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, Zhao delighted in learning about how the department once worked.

“The hand truck was different here because Philadephia streets were narrower,” he said, pointing to a bronze panel that shows an old hand truck.

As people wind through the concrete path outside the station, they stumble upon pieces of Zhao’s work, such as an old model of a Disston blade.

“It's very subtle and it's not monumental. Some stuff you don't see. You have to discover it,” Zhao said.

The sculpture that comes closest to a monument is a replica of a Disston saw, with its artfully carved wood handle, cutting a log.

“They are so famous for this saw,” Zhao said of Disston, founded in Tacony in 1840. At its height, the company employed 8,000 people. Competition from Sears and other places eventually hurt Disston. R.A.F. Industries owns it now, operating it as Disston Precision. It employs about two dozen.

But there was a time when Disston was Tacony. Founder Henry Disston built row after row of twin houses for his workers.

“You see the smaller homes and then the bigger ones on the corner were for the foreman,” said Lt. Peter Garvin, who works at Engine 38.

He grew up in Tacony but, like many, has since moved farther north.

Louis Iatarola, who is on the board of the Hstorical Society of Tacony, said that while many people had moved away, he believes the neighborhood remains close to what it always was.

”I think we’re solidly working class, still stable,” he said.

Zhao, who is from Shanghai, said he was fascinated by all he had learned about Tacony and Philadelphia - including the tension between the firefighters and the mayor. Unable to imagine the Chinese government allowing such a demonstration, he shook his head and smiled.

“That was such a performance,” Zhao said.


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