Blumberg towers come tumbling down, raising memories of horror and home

The Norman Blumberg Apartments - one of the city's most notorious housing projects - came tumbling down Saturday morning.

Timothy Scruggs couldn't be late for this. He ran down a dirt path worn through an empty lot, dodged plastic bags and discarded bottles and snack wrappers and came to a halt in the parking lot at 22nd and Sharswood Streets.

It was just past 7 a.m. on Saturday. There was still time.

The place was packed - mothers with children wrapped in blankets, young women in nursing scrubs just getting off the night shift, a man selling T-shirts out of the trunk of his car. The shirts read: "Forever Blumberg."

Scruggs stared past them all, toward the two enormous housing project towers to the west, gutted and packed with explosives.

The Norman Blumberg Apartments - one of the city's most notorious housing projects and the childhood home of almost everyone in the parking lot - were about to come down.

When they were built in 1967, the 510-unit Blumberg projects - two low-income high-rises, a third set aside for senior citizens, and a cluster of low-rise apartments - were billed, like so many other high-rise projects, as a modern solution to inner-city poverty.

"Each resident helps out the other," gushed a 1968 Inquirer feature on the towers' community garden for senior citizens. "No one is forgotten at Norman Blumberg Apartments."

But within a few short years, the towers came to typify all that had gone wrong with the public-housing policies of the 1960s - a symbol of misguided urban planning, concentrated poverty, and official neglect writ large.

"The amazing thing," a resident told the Inquirer in 1974, after his mother had been gang-raped in one of the low-rise apartments, "is that nobody helps anybody out."

By the 1980s, Blumberg was infamous.

Waiting for the implosion on Sharswood Street, a dust mask covering her face, Tanisha Walker-Jones, 43, remembered riding her bike through the project courtyards and hearing the yells: "Get down! They're coming through!"

She and her friends would ditch their bikes, lie flat on the pavement, and wait for the gunshots to stop.

By the 1990s, newspaper reports on Blumberg read like dispatches from another planet. A 1991 Inquirer feature on the Philadelphia Housing Authority's police force described "crackheads and pipers staggering and scurrying in the hallways past children playing in slippers." The officers patrolled the units "floor by urine-reeking floor." They found a dead cat in a corner.

On his first trip to the site after being appointed PHA director two years ago, Kelvin Jeremiah said he was approached by an armed man in the courtyard who told him, in no uncertain terms, to get out.

"No child should live under the conditions I saw at Blumberg," Jeremiah said.

But for nearly 50 years, children did, and for them Blumberg was home, for better or worse.

"Blumberg had a culture," said Bryant Jennings, a heavyweight boxer who grew up down the street from the towers and still trains at a neighborhood gym. "Our own slang, our own language. People who moved would always come back, because this is what they knew. And [the demolition] is devastating to a lot of people, because what they knew is being torn down."

Scruggs, 23, grew up in the towers with most of his family - "Everywhere you looked, that was a cousin, a brother, an aunt, an uncle. We felt safe."

He made his first friends in the towers, spent summer afternoons at neighborhood cookouts and played in the project playgrounds.

He remembers the crime and the drugs and the addicts who roamed the towers. He also remembers his mother, opening her door to neighbors who needed food or a place to stay.

"My mom fed a lot of people," he said. "Took in a lot of people. And it wasn't just her."

Scruggs moved out in 2012, and now works as a counselor for kids in juvenile detention and foster care.

"Growing up in Blumberg is really what pushed me toward my profession - seeing people in need, families in need, teenagers in need," he said.

On Saturday morning, with minutes left to go before implosion, Scruggs embraced old friends in the parking lot and slapped hands in a complicated maneuver he called "the Blumshake."

People reminisced about their family's history in the towers and recited their old apartment numbers. One woman showed up with a laminated photo of her great-grandmother, smiling on move-in day at her brand-new Blumberg apartment.

The PHA was holding a demolition ceremony a few blocks away, with a heated tent, coffee and refreshments on hand. Local dignitaries opined on the significance of the event.

Scruggs took stock of the attendees in the parking lot, wrapped in blankets, cheering and hugging one another, their camera phones tilted toward the towers.

"Everybody who's anybody," he concluded, "is here."

Jeremiah has been at the PHA helm for two years, and his plan for Sharswood, the neighborhood surrounding the Blumberg towers, is easily one of the housing authority's most ambitious undertakings. The implosion of the towers is one of the first steps in the plan.

The idea is to remake the neighborhood from the ground up, seizing more than 1,300 parcels of land - 800 of them through eminent domain - to build new public housing units and affordable and market-rate rowhouses to create a mixed-income community.

The first 57 houses will be completed by the fall. Another phase of the plan aims to revitalize Ridge Avenue, once the business hub of the neighborhood and now clotted with crumbling, abandoned storefronts.

"We want to build housing where anyone, regardless of income, would choose to live," Jeremiah said.

The plan has not been without controversy. Homeowners in the area whose buildings were scooped up in the eminent-domain grab have complained about the PHA's property-value assessments, which some feel are too low. Redevelopment experts have questioned the agency's experience with urban planning and revitalizing distressed neighborhoods like Sharswood.

Jeremiah, who calls the Sharswood plan his life's work, says his goal is "holistic" change in the neighborhood - improving not just housing stock, but educational opportunities and commercial accessibility.

"I can't wait to push that button," he said before Saturday's implosion.

In the parking lot, someone started a halfhearted countdown, then started to scream as the blasts hit the Blumberg towers.

For a moment, nothing happened. The towers loomed where they always had. And then they crumpled.

An enormous dust cloud rose over the parking lot and, alarmed, the crowd scrambled backward.

The dust settled. The sun was bright. The towers were replaced by a heap of rubble.

"It don't even feel right," Scruggs muttered.

Residents headed for the rubble, to grab bits of brick for souvenirs. Scruggs, quiet, walked down the sidewalk, kicking up dust. He pointed west, toward the brand-new PHA houses under construction. Toward the shuttered elementary school. Toward the boarded-up houses and blighted lots and potholed streets where he and his friends rode their bikes and danced at parties and grew up and out of a place called Blumberg.

"From here to there," he said, "I have a different memory for every step."

awhelan@philly.com

215-854-2961@aubreyjwhelan