City's grass-roots fix for troubled areas a happy success

NOBODY in City Council will mistake him for Little Orphan Annie singing "The sun'll come out tomorrow," but Mayor Nutter will part the dark clouds of his recession-ravaged budget today just long enough to deliver a ray of hope to the city's most distressed neighborhoods.

He calls it "PhillyRising" - and it works.

Before the swollen streams of government cash flow dried up, Philly mayors used cops as Glock-toting magicians, sending occupying armies of police officers into the city's most crime-ridden communities to make drug dealers disappear with headline-grabbing numbers of arrests.

Operation Sunrise in the late '90s begat Operation Safe Streets in the new millennium, both of them multimillion-dollar mayoral fantasies of overachievement fueled by mind-boggling amounts of police overtime.

When the money ran out, the cop armies left, the drug dealers returned from their revolving-door arrests and residents went back to living in fear, awaiting the next mayoral magic show.

It ain't happening.

About five minutes after Nutter took office, the recession ate his budget and burped red ink.

For the first time in many years, a Philly mayor has been forced to get real, and real cheap, about a grassroots fix for the city's most troubled neighborhoods.

For the past year, quietly, almost secretly, Nutter has.

Since last winter, PhillyRising, which is about to go citywide, has done bargain-basement wonders for its first target: North Philadelphia's Hartranft neighborhood, a small but disproportionately violent area between 6th and 10th streets from Lehigh Avenue to York Street.

"We have been underserved for over 25 years," said lifelong resident Diane Bridges, executive director of the Neighborhood Enrichment and Transformation Community Development Corp. "When the money was going around, where was our share? We've gotten nothing."

In just 12 feverishly busy months, PhillyRising has opened the long-shuttered Hartranft Community Center pool for year-round use, brought a Police Athletic League center and a public computer lab to a neighborhood that never had them before, demolished 14 dangerously deteriorated houses and prepared to demolish the crumbling sections of an old stone church.

The Hartranft transformation is going so well that Nutter plans to prove his neighborhood chops today by announcing his $573,000 plan to take PhillyRising citywide.

Instead of the transitory magic of an occupying police army, PhillyRising has worked wonders by substituting big money with big ears - listening to the Hartranft residents' most desperate needs from stalwarts like Bridges, then fulfilling them with existing city services.

Cops run the PAL center. An L&I crew demolished the dangerous houses. A community-minded deputy managing director meets constantly with Hartranft residents to keep the renewal mojo moving forward.

"Let's not even talk about money 'cause we don't have any and the city's broke," Bridges said, leading this Daily News reporter on a walking tour of PhillyRising's Hartranft renewal.

After years of being ignored, Bridges and her equally outspoken neighbor Arnetta Curry have finally allowed themselves to trust the promises of city government because, they said, seeing is believing.

A big part of their newfound faith is their breakthrough friendship with 26th District Capt. Michael Cram, who said: "High poverty, high crime, high out-of-wedlock birth rate, low high-school graduation rate and the narcotics trade are all here."

"From January 2007 to November 2009, there were 30 shootings and homicides," he said. "For such a small area, that's extremely violent."

From the moment he arrived two years ago, Cram followed his irrepressible need to befriend the people he serves and hit the streets with his aide, Officer Michelle Winkis.

"We kept walking through the neighborhood, knocking on doors, asking people what they needed," Cram said. "We did it the old-fashioned way. When you get a police captain knocking on your door, people tend to say, 'OK. We'll listen.' "

Cram made only promises he knew PhillyRising could keep. "You're not going to get by if people think you're just blowing smoke up their tail," he said.

Reopening the long-shuttered indoor pool and opening the PAL center gave 700 kids two after-school safe havens and won community trust, Cram said.

His main objective, eliminating violent crime, didn't happen overnight, he said, "but the residents' response to crime has changed, dramatically.

"I try to give people my cell-phone number and they tell me they don't need it because they have my cops' numbers," Cram said. "And they use them."

After several recent armed robberies, Cram said, his officers quickly nabbed the suspects because residents called the cops' cell phones.

"That's a big deal," Cram said. "That's a victory."

During PhillyRising's first year, from February to December 2010, "Part 1 crimes" - such as homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault - declined 16 percent in Hartranft.

Cram attributes PhillyRising's success to his knocking on doors, befriending community pillars like Bridges, and to his remarkable partnership with Deputy Managing Director John Farrell, who is so similar that these guys are like a two-man Band of Brothers.

Both served in Iraq - Cram with his Army Reserve unit, Farrell commanding a Marine infantry platoon.

"John's a Marine, so I have to explain things to him very slowly," Cram wisecracked. "But, seriously, John's the engine driving this train. We do the boots-on-the-ground thing together in the neighborhood."

Farrell's been PhillyRising's steadfast bridge between residents' needs and the city's response to them.

He helped the School District of Philadelphia - which owns Hartranft Community Center and maintains its indoor pool - partner with the city's Parks & Recreation Department, which provides the lifeguards.

He got the Police Department together with Hartranft Elementary School to establish the PAL program in the school's gym. He partnered Temple University with the school to create the new community computer lab, which is run by tech-savvy neighborhood volunteers.

No. 1 on PhillyRising's to-do list is a 30,000-square-foot church on Lehigh Avenue near 9th Street, which developed a gaping hole in its crumbling second-floor wall after massive stone blocks came crashing down last summer.

The church's visibly deteriorating bell tower appears ready to follow them.

Frightened Hartranft residents notified PhillyRising, which alerted the city's Department of Licenses & Inspections, which determined that the church was "imminently dangerous," shut it down and fenced off the sidewalk.

When the owner - Church of the Living God, in Washington, D.C. - was slow to comply, L&I brought the case into Equity Court, where it awaits a hearing.

Also on the to-do list: Arnetta Curry, who captains her block of 9th Street, between Huntingdon Street and Lehigh Avenue, with an eagle eye and a lion's heart, wants PhillyRising to remove two dead trees - one of which has a crack in its trunk where, she said, dealers hide drugs when Cram's beat cops get too close.

Farrell said the trees will soon be history.

PhillyRising is ready to extend its reach into West Philadelphia's 19th Police District, then to Frankford's 15th and then into the 6th, on the eastern half of Center City.

Managing Director Richard Negrin said, "We're empowering people by telling them, 'You don't have to stay in the muck. You can rise up.' We want to look somebody in the eye and say we're going to get this done. And then get it done.

"We asked ourselves, 'How can we go into a neighborhood, make a difference, keep on going and never leave?" Negrin said. "The answer is PhillyRising. It's here to stay."