Thirty years later on the bombed Move block

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Houses at 6228, left, and 6230 Osage Ave. are boarded up. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)

Standing behind her white security door, Nadine Foskey peers down the 6200 block of Osage Avenue. "Look at it," she says, tapping her fingernail on the glass. The 17 boarded-up houses are markers of neighbors who have died or fled.

It might be time for her to move, too, she concedes.

"Sometimes it can be so numbing," says the 52-year-old. "You get used to seeing this. You shouldn't be comfortable with it. I'm not comfortable. I'm not comfortable with even living here. It used to be secure. I'm just waiting for my time."

Thirty years after Philadelphia bombed itself, a sense of death still pervades this infamous, battered block. It is a different kind than that brought by the city's coordinated strike against MOVE activists that killed 11 people in 1985.

A generation has passed. The homeowners who remain on Osage are senior citizens. They fear death will come before a resolution.

"We're still in the same position," said Robert Ford, a longtime resident. "They're waiting for the old guard to die. I was a young man when I came in here. I'll be 70 in December."

Foskey is tired - tired of the anniversaries, the constant plywood reminders, the drug deals brokered in her backyard.

For three decades, Osage residents insist, the city has held them hostage.

During the day, there is peace on this street, a block from Cobbs Creek. One resident last week swept tree pollen from the road. Virginia Cox, 82, greeted another neighbor in her thick Trinidadian accent: "How ya doin'?" A woman, smoking a cigarette, washed her station wagon as her young daughter trailed.

A man dressed in a Flyers T-shirt meandered down the block while nursing a blunt. The sidewalk hopscotch court drawn with chalk in front of 6217 Osage, a vacant city property, was faded.

At night, residents said, the problems that come with drugs descend. Some fear an increase in gun violence.

"I don't want to move," Cox said. "I have to make myself happy until they're ready to kick us out."

On May 13, 1985, the entire block was destroyed. Police evacuated the neighborhood, and sought to arrest MOVE radicals who had fortified 6221 Osage. A shootout ensued. City officials authorized a bomb, made from C-4 explosives, to be dropped from a helicopter.

The fire was left to burn for 45 minutes and eventually consumed the whole block. Eleven people, five of them children, died. No city employee faced criminal charges in connection with the deaths.

When every May 13 nears, Gerald Renfrow opens his door and decries City Hall's neglect. The shoddily rebuilt homes. The legal quagmire. The millions spent to undo compounded mistakes.

People live in 23 of the 61 blighted houses that were reconstructed with 10-year warranties. The city owns 36, all of them vacant. That includes 19 on the 6200 block of Pine Street.

Renfrow, the block's captain, wants to invest in his home - refinish the floors, repaint the walls, maybe add a staircase.

"But we can't put the money into our homes if we don't know if we're going to be living here tomorrow," Renfrow, 69, said. "City Hall refuses to communicate with us. They are abusing us. They have us living in a state of limbo. There is no reason why our area can't be restored."

The city offered a $150,000 buyout in 2000 and froze millions approved for repairs in the flawed rebuilt houses. All but 24 homeowners accepted. The dispute went to federal court, and was dismissed in 2008 when some families agreed to settle.

At least 16 residents have since accepted $190,000 settlements. Renfrow said six families, including his, have resisted.

"The city, in essence, is enjoined from taking any further action due to the stalemate," said Everett Gillison, Mayor Nutter's chief of staff. "Obviously we remain hopeful that the individuals will move on and take their money that they won as a settlement. But without that being done, we remain in a holding pattern."

The vacant MOVE house, 6221 Osage, has newer windows - the manufacturer's stickers have not been razored from the glass. Piles of browned leaves cover a yellowed Comcast brochure. Pink and purple petunias are planted in a small garden between 6221 and 6119, where a sign endorses State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams for mayor.

Williams lived on this block - 6230 Osage - in the '90s. He was one of the 37 homeowners to accept the 2000 buyout. One year later, a Planning Commission report said, "Decisive action is needed at this time to prevent blight from spreading and causing more widespread economic problems."

Renfrow said two engineers from the Army Corps of Engineers revisited the block in 2013. The engineers prepared a report in 1997 that found the properties in need of repairs, but not "imminently dangerous." Their 2013 inspection - while unofficial, Renfrow stressed - found the homes had not deteriorated in the subsequent 16 years.

"We'd like to know," he said, "if there is any reason in the world why our community cannot be restored."

Leaving, he said, is not a practical option - especially for the older residents. The block's more mobile homeowners are hamstrung by property values that have plummeted.

"There should be a way to move on," said Teresa Campbell, a 58-year-old nurse who moved onto the block in 1997.

"Adequately," added her 28-year-old son, Albert.

"I still have a mortgage," she said. "It doesn't feel good writing a check every month and you look at this."

Down the block, Foskey stares from her doorway. She was 22 and pregnant when her parents' house was bombed. Her mother died in 2013. "It's just too much," she says. Thinking about what happened - and everything since - angers her.

She will avoid the Wednesday morning MOVE rally at 62d and Osage. From there, the crowd will march to 38th and Market Streets. Away from Foskey, away from the rebuilt family home's wood backside and the tattered insulation that flaps with a breeze.

"Look at this," Foskey says. "Who wants to live here?"

 


mgelb@philly.com

215-854-2928 @MattGelb