A message from the women of North Sydenham to fellow Philadelphians: Don't give up

women of North Sydenham Street
The women of North Sydenham celebrate the long-awaited demolition of a crumbling home they feared would collapse. Back row, from left: Jocelyn Hill, Gladys Green, Lorraine Falligan, Joetta Johnson and Jenesta Jones. In front, in pink, is Maggie Werts. (Helen Ubinas/Staff)

WHEN MY phone rang first thing Tuesday morning, I naturally assumed someone was dead. Not sure if you've noticed, but I'm one of those glass-half-cracked types.

And when I heard Lorraine Falligan on the other end, I was certain it was bad news. "It's coming down! It's coming down!" she said.

When I first wrote about Falligan and the other women of North Sydenham Street in North Philly, they were worried about a list of longstanding issues on their block. But they were most concerned about a crumbling vacant home they feared would collapse before the city did anything about it.

"Had it finally happened?" I wondered.

"When I was getting ready to take my granddaughter to school, and I was getting dressed this morning, I heard all this noise outside," she said. "This 'bam, bam, bam.' I ran outside and saw it. It was being demolished, finally. I couldn't believe it. "

After recovering from envisioning the worst, I believed it. It had taken longer than they hoped, but I never doubted these women would get what they wanted.

Last month, Falligan and her neighbors diverted Mayor Nutter to their block from a nearby ceremony so they could give him a friendly show-and-tell.

Block captain Maggie Werts showed him the busted-up street left behind after the Water Department tore up the pavement to repair pipes. Jenesta Jones showed him the unsealed exterior wall she was left with after an adjoining home was taken down.

They all told Mayor Nutter it was just a matter of time before the dilapidated house they'd repeatedly asked the city to demolish crashed onto the home where Terry Wright was raising her six grandchildren after her daughter was killed in 2006.

A week later, a convoy of paving trucks came barreling into the neighborhood to fix the street, and many of the surrounding ones.

The women were pleased, but they weren't shy about saying they weren't going to be distracted by a showy Band-Aid.

"You notice that house is still there," Joetta Johnson pointed out when I visited to check on the progress. I told you these women were tough.

And good for them, and Philly. If every street had more residents like these, Philly would be in much better shape, because these women live by the cardinal rules of city living: Don't just sit around complaining. Do something, and when you can't do it yourself, go to those who can, and pressure those who won't.

For starters, there would be a lot less litter. While the streets around the 3000 block of North Sydenham are full of garbage, theirs is a clean oasis.

Every day, the women sweep up. When I stopped by shortly after getting Falligan's call, Gladys Green, who's lived on the street for decades, was already starting the daily cleanup.

Falligan called to her so the women could take group photos in front of the demolition crew, which was puzzled by the excitement.

What the workers didn't know was that this was a long-awaited celebration of what is possible when city residents fight for their neighborhoods.

"Don't give up," Falligan said when I asked her what message this might send to other neighborhoods trying to get things done.

The women are already planning what to do with the lot once the demolition is complete. Wright said she'd love to be able to claim the space so that her grandchildren, ages 8 to 16, could have a place to play. The other women said it might be nice to have a pocket park dedicated to Wright's daughter.

Whatever they decide, you can bet it will be in good hands.

When I left, the women of North Sydenham were dancing in the street - their safer, newly paved one.


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