Neighbor nightmares: In gentrifying Philly, culture clash gets ugly

On Hamilton Street in Powelton Village, Kenneth Kramer’s brick rental property, left, and Carlos Colding’s familial home, right. A dispute about a shared chimney started a neighbor war.

It started with a chimney.

The structure, shared between Kenneth Kramer’s graceful brick rental property on Hamilton Street in Powelton Village and Carlos Colding’s familial home, needed repairs. Kramer hired a mason, and Colding kicked in $200. Then, a conversation with the contractor this winter led Colding to believe he’d been swindled into covering the entire tab.

After that, Kramer claimed in court, there were a series of counterstrikes to his properties: rows of threatening Post-it notes, starting with the poetically ominous “Upset? Not yet?” and escalating to sexually explicit comments and death threats; feces piled on a doorknob and caked into the lock; scattered bloody tampons; liberal spritzes of “fermented urine,” distinctive, according to Kramer, in that “it smells way worse than regular urine”; and culminating in a pickax to the roof and to the now-infamous chimney.

Kramer fought back in his own way: a $50,000 civil suit claiming property damage, lost revenue and defamation, and calls to the police, resulting in criminal charges against Colding that could be prosecuted as felonies.

Colding, 67, denies doing anything wrong. But he says he did post 50 or so angry notes on his own property. “I wanted to let the neighborhood know how I felt and what was being done to me,” he said in an interview. “That was my way of expressing myself. … I have free speech.”

His sister, Erdis “Freda” Hennigan, says he didn’t do anything that Kramer alleges. In fact, Hennigan, who is black, thinks Kramer, 53, a white Ardmore resident with half a dozen properties in the area, is waging a calculated campaign. “He said, ‘I could take this property off your hands if you need me to,’ ” she said. “That’s what it’s about now: He’s trying to buy up every property in the neighborhood.”

Kramer, on legal advice, declined to be interviewed.

For as long as there have been neighbors, there have been feuds. But Philadelphia’s fast-changing, densely built rowhouse communities — where next-door neighbors share a party wall but sometimes very little else — can be particularly fraught. As students pile in alongside third-generation homeowners and young professionals purchase new construction at quadruple the price of the house next door, conflicts too often blossom into all-out wars. The weapons: a call to the cops, a knife to a tire, and even, in one chilling case, a dead raccoon on a doorstep.

The pace of change in areas like Powelton Village is understandably disconcerting: Property values in Colding’s zip code more than doubled in a decade. On his block alone, where his mother purchased the property with a $5,500 mortgage in 1949, similar properties are now selling for 30 times that. And the neighborhood, once mostly African American, is now majority white. Colding feels as if he’s the only holdout on the block, which in recent years has become dominated by rentals — many of them given over to student housing.

Researchers have found areas like this, border districts between African American and white neighborhoods, to be particularly prone to hostilities.

One analysis found that 311 calls complaining about neighbors — including about noise, public drinking, or neighbors blocking a driveway — increased by 26 percent in such transitional areas. Researchers have also noted sometimes drastic increases in 911 calls and 311 calls in gentrifying communities, as behavior that was once normal is criminalized. They’ve even found that lower-income black residents in gentrifying areas report poorer health than their counterparts in other parts of the city.

“There’s a lack of familiarity [between neighbors from disparate backgrounds],” said Joscha Legewie, a Harvard sociologist who analyzed 4.7 million 311 service requests to look at mixed areas in between black and white neighborhoods in New York. “There might be a playground, and it’s not clear who’s using that space. There may be different ways of life, and communication barriers.”

At the height of Colding and Kramer’s feud in April, Colding was hospitalized and diagnosed with serious mental illness. His sister thinks his breakdown was triggered by the conflict with Kramer and more generally by the wave of gentrification that’s surged through his once-familiar community.

“He took their trash out. He shoveled their front — until he snapped, and now he ended up in the psych ward,” Hennigan said. “Everyone in the neighborhood knew he was a little eccentric, but he didn’t bother anybody. He never had a record before this incident.”

Beth Roy, a community mediator and sociologist who has worked with gentrifying communities in San Francisco, said it would be a mistake to dismiss conflicts like these — to chalk them up to abrasive personalities or mental illness. To her, they’re warning signs.

“These kinds of things are … about resentment over changes in the neighborhood that are displacing the traditional population. You can trace down the different layers of genuine conflict going on: It’s about race, class dynamics, property values, and changes of family life,” Roy said. “I see these kinds of bad behavior as a sign of limited resources, as expressive behavior by someone who doesn’t feel like he has other means.”

When the only solution is to move

Still, it’s no fun to be the target of that resentment. Just ask Kylie Flett, whose neighbors expressed themselves by standing outside her house wielding metal poles like baseball bats, in a manner menacing enough that other neighbors called her, urging her not to come home.

The 35-year-old public relations professional, priced out of Fishtown, purchased a house in Kensington five years ago. But just as she was settling in, her neighbors were struggling. At times, their water and power were cut off, forcing them out of the home. But they left behind their five dogs, who barked wildly; one even got stuck overnight in a second-floor window trying to escape.

Camera icon YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Kylie Flett with her dog Lucy-Furr sitting on their Kensington home stoop.

Flett believes it was the fact that she and other neighbors called animal control that set the neighbors off — shouting threats, vandalizing her car, and, as if in some low-budget Godfather sequel, depositing a raccoon carcass on her doorstep.

“It was that old ‘street’ situation,” she said. If someone threw a brick through her neighbors’ window, they believed the correct response was not to call the cops but to throw the brick right back. “Then they would get frustrated if people on the street called the cops on them.”

At times, she was too afraid to stay at home. Talking through it seemed hopeless. In the end, they never were able to reach an understanding. Instead, she said, “The family ended up losing their home in a sheriff’s sale. It ended up escalating because of that, I think. They probably felt helpless, and I’m a clear gentrifier in that neighborhood. So, I was singled out.”

Donnie Moore, who lives on 19th Street in North Philadelphia, notes that people oblivious of their actions can be just as maddening as directed attacks. He has been fighting a protracted battle to get Temple students to respect the quality of life of their neighbors.

“The problem we have with the Temple students is the noise — and when they leave, they dump all that stuff in the middle of the street,” he said. “We’ve got babies on that block. We have a 90-year-old lady on that block; she can’t get no sleep.”

In Fishtown, B.J. Evans, 38, had his own next-door nemesis — a longtime neighborhood resident who first took issue with his backyard barbecues (she called 911 each time he fired up the grill). She frequently filmed Evans and his wife in their backyard, tore up their flowers, tried to cut down their street tree, turned her radio to top volume whenever she left the house, and pointed a spotlight into their window, he said. She threatened repeatedly to shoot them and then herself. The only official intervention Evans could get was a stay-away order, put in place after the neighbor shoved him.

Eventually, Evans decided the only solution was to move. But even now that he lives three-quarters of a mile away, he still sometimes sees the old neighbor standing on the corner, watching.

Camera icon YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
B.J. Evans outside his Port Richmond home.

 

It sounds extreme, but Brooke Willmes, a real estate agent, said she’s helped several clients move to escape neighbor nightmares.

Most have been in gentrifying areas. “Any time you have change happening, that can be hard for people,” she said, particularly in rowhouse communities where privacy is scarce.

One client moved to escape the stench of an animal hoarder next door, after trying and failing to get him professional help. To sell the Fishtown house, the owner scrubbed the front and back steps each morning, and spritzed the place with lemon and lavender before showings. In East Passyunk, a seller lived next to a hard-of-hearing neighbor who kept the TV at top volume all day long. Open houses had to be timed strategically.

Buyers have to be diligent, Willmes said: Knock on doors, ask around, even scout the neighbors on social media.

After all, there’s no place on the seller’s disclosure for a noxious odor, a thundering TV, a neighbor with an itchy 911 finger. “It’s not a material defect,” Willmes said.

Is there a better way?

Roy thinks there should be a better way, that there should be a solution besides fleeing the neighborhood. In 2010, she mediated a conversation between old and new residents of her community in San Francisco to work through a dispute over the destruction of a beloved mural.

But, she added, talk can only go so far without policies that protect affordable housing, local businesses, and a community’s cultural heritage. For now, she said, more conflicts are imminent. “What’s driving them is clearly the market, and the obscene inequality of wealth.”

As for Colding and Kramer, the battle is “nowhere near over,” Kramer said. His legal complaints make clear he wants to be reimbursed for the damage to the roof, the chimney, a sewer pipe he says Colding filled with debris.

To that end, he’s also suing Colding’s sister, Hennigan, who got power of attorney after her brother’s breakdown and transferred the property — part of her late mother’s estate — into her own name. Hennigan said it was necessary so she could get the house in order. Her brother, a hoarder, had previously refused to let her in. She said Colding is finally on the medication he needs. She believes her brother’s mental illness, long untreated, is now being criminalized by a racist system.

Now, she’s working to clean up the property, which has eight Licenses & Inspections violations for structural issues and rubbish stemming from neighbors’ complaints.

“That’s a good outcome, when an owner steps up,” L&I spokesperson Karen Guss said. She said the city tries to be sensitive to families in situations like this — and they’re common, given the large stock of very old housing in poor communities. “You have a lot of properties that haven’t been maintained, and at this point it’s not affordable to maintain them. You have people barely hanging on.”

But Kramer is suing to have the property transfer reversed, so he can collect damages from Colding.

At Colding’s most recent criminal court date, Judge Shanese Johnson threw up her hands and issued a “no-negative contact” order.

“Obviously,” she said, “you guys don’t get along.”