10 years of hope and frustration after Kensington warehouse fire

Neighbors hold hands and pray in Phoenix Park June 21, 2017 to observe the anniversary of a massive warehouse fire on the site ten years ago that destroyed homes and lives in Kensington. The neighborhood has s-l-o-w-l-y recovered but much still needs to be done. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

When a tough situation feels like the worst you’ve ever endured, it helps to remember how you survived past struggles.

The memories can muster the hope you need to keep going.

Last week, on the 10th anniversary of one of the worst fires in Philadelphia’s history, residents of Kensington recalled how resilient they were – and continue to be – in the catastrophe’s long, charred aftermath.

They gathered at the site of the fire, held hands, laughed, prayed, ate cake, and remembered.

The seven-alarm blaze started just after 3 a.m. June 20, 2007, in an abandoned horse-blanket factory at H and Westmoreland Streets.

As 175 firefighters battled the conflagration, flames roared around the densely residential corner, blasting out windows, igniting rowhouse roofs, and melting cars, awnings, and plastic siding. As dawn broke through the choking smoke, 19 homes were damaged or destroyed and dozens of residents displaced.

Neighbors rushed to take them in.

“The Red Cross set up a shelter, but it wasn’t needed,” says Shane Claiborne, who lost the home he shared with cofounders of the Simple Way, a Christian community nonprofit. “Everybody opened their doors to each other.”

They fixed meals and donated clothes from their closets, cash from their coin jars. One beloved Potter Street matron named Miss Sunshine took in pets rendered homeless in the disaster.

She said, “My house will be the animal shelter!”

“It was amazing to watch,” says Claiborne of his community, the poorest section of the poorest neighborhood in the city, riddled with vacant houses, squatters, drug dealers, and addicts.

“I was proud but not that surprised. Many of us know that neighborhoods that struggle economically are often community-rich. People who have survived many hardships really take care of each other. It was a beautiful thing to be part of.”

Beautiful things have happened since. But each has had an infuriating flip side.

Let’s start with the beautiful.

The corner that once held a dozen homes is now a lush community garden, with twisting grapevines and 30 varieties of trees, fruits, flowers, and vegetables. It even has a greenhouse that uses aquaponics to cultivate fresh food for neighbors.

But one side of the oasis is marred by an abandoned rowhouse with collapsing walls that also threaten adjacent occupied homes. Repeated calls to the city have been for naught.

The site of the fire is now a grassy field where kids can play. But it took years for the city to protect it from short-dumpers and drivers who treated it like a NASCAR speedway. Action came only after fed-up resident Maria Nieves encircled the tract with hundreds of donated used tires, which neighbors painted lively colors.

“The city said they were a hazard – I guess the beauty was unacceptable,” says Nieves, a pint-size dynamo nicknamed “the mayor.”

Maria Nieves, a Kensington resident, activist, and block captain, is nicknamed “the mayor.” TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The city replaced the tires with a wooden fence. But a few remain, stacked in a bright column at the site’s entrance, a symbol of residents’ defiance.

And the Simple Way has started a program called Simple Homes, acquiring abandoned houses (four so far) that they rehab with local, long-term renters to buy for cheap (Simple Homes holds the $35,000, no-interest mortgages).

Studies have linked home ownership to neighborhood safety. But how safe is a community spiked with addicts’ needles?

In a demonstration outside City Hall last week, neighbors displayed hundreds of the needles, preserved in sealed jars, that they’ve collected from their sidewalks, yards, and alleys. They wanted to make the point that they are doing all they possibly can – cleaning streets, rehabbing homes, running food programs – but that some situations are beyond their ability to fix.

“We’re doing our best,” says Jamie Moffett, a neighborhood filmmaker and Simple Way cofounder, who bought the neighborhood’s most notorious nuisance bar at auction. Soon it will reopen as Sylvia’s Sweet Cakes, a family-owned and -operated bakery. “There are really good people here. But we can only do so much.”

Everyone has big hopes for the community and health center that soon will rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the old factory site. Run by the Esperanza Health Center, it will bring optimism and life to a sad, dark corner.

So much good has happened there in the last decade. So much frustration remains.

Jars of needles removed from the streets of Kensington by Tymeka Perkins, 13; Adrianna Nieves, 17; and Tysean Perkins, 9, on display at a recent City Hall demonstration. CAMERON B. POLLACK / Staff Photographer

Case in point: The Simple Way just received a $42,700 bill from the city for services related to the 2007 fire – which began in a factory partially owned by the city.

But last week’s gathering was about thanks, not complaints.

Thanks that no one died in the fire. For the heroic firefighters. For the spirit of a community that would rather fight than quit. And for the free cake samples from the pretty new bakery that is replacing that ugly nuisance bar.

May hope taste as sweet.