Wednesday, August 20, 2014
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Cleaning up the city isn't a job for one man

When city officials told a South Philadelphia businessman that he had to put back the ugly Jersey barriers he’d removed in cleaning a trash-strewn, city-owned vacant lot in the neighborhood, it’s no wonder the confrontation went viral.

Cleaning up the city isn't a job for one man

Ori Feibush
Ori Feibush STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

When city officials told a South Philadelphia businessman that he had to put back the ugly Jersey barriers he’d removed in cleaning a trash-strewn, city-owned vacant lot in the neighborhood, it’s no wonder the confrontation went viral.

After all, the city’s directive — along with a threat of legal action — was taken to mean that real estate developer Ori Feibush also should return the estimated 40 tons of trash that his crews carted off the corner property near his coffee shop in the city’s Point Breeze section.

The dustup was reported on a heavily trafficked online news site, and noted as far away as Pakistan. It showed how, with shockingly little effort, almost any arm of city government can find ways to hold Philadelphia up to national, even global, ridicule.

Fortunately, the city Redevelopment Authority, which controls the lot Feibush says he’d like to buy, has taken a step back. After a broadside from City Controller Alan Butkovitz, the authority announced that Feibush’s improvements — including attractive fencing and a picnic table — can stay.

Are people willing to pitch in and improve the neighborhood where you live?
Yes, block captains have organized cleanups
No, haven’t seen any organized efforts
Yes, but mostly limited to their own properties
No, don’t really know my neighbors

But, as Butkovitz said, the lesson should be that citizens have a right to expect a helping hand from city agencies in trying to spruce up city-owned eyesores.

To be sure, there was more than a little bit of civil disobedience in Feibush’s taking it upon himself to clean up a lot he doesn’t own. Yet, it’s clear that his instincts were good in wanting to see an unsightly area spruced up. Indeed, how much better off would other city neighborhoods be if they were permeated by the same spirit?

Underlying the dispute, of course, is the city’s perennial struggle to dispose of thousands of vacant and abandoned properties under its control. It’s a system tangled in red tape, and which Feibush says so far has frustrated him, given the lot he cleared of debris

To his credit, Mayor Nutter last spring made a promising move by launching an interactive database to provide greater access to the catalog of properties. The hope is that interested buyers will be able to speed the process of negotiating deals with the city.

While one man’s attempt to keep a vacant lot clean was unorthodox, it offers a reminder to City Hall officials that government needs to do a better job with the properties under its purview.

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