Monica Yant Kinney | Philadelphia's dirty little secret: Ray Nagin was right

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin shouldn't have apologized. Much of Philadelphia looks as bad today as it did in 2000, when Mayor Street declared war on blight.

Seven years after Street launched his ambitious Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, it took an outsider to notice that if you venture very far from Center City, the "Transformation" part hasn't really happened.

Nearly $300 million has been spent demolishing dangerous buildings, cleaning vacant lots, and bundling land for developers.

The mayor and the money are almost gone, but across the gritty city, the battle rages on.

Philadelphia 2000: Home to around 30,000 abandoned buildings and 30,000 vacant lots.

Philadelphia 2007: Home to around 22,000 abandoned buildings and 30,000 vacant lots. This, even after a spurt of private-sector development and rehab in zip codes rich and poor.

I'll grant Street that towing 224,000 abandoned cars was a smashing success. Demolishing several thousand dangerous buildings saved lives and money.

But when the same sorrowful blocks deep in impoverished neighborhoods don't benefit from Street's "once-in-a-lifetime" blight fight, does that mean they, and the people in them, have been left for dead?

The seven-year itch

It had been years since I walked the 100 block of East Silver Street in Kensington with Ramona Cruz, but when I showed up unannounced Monday, she welcomed me warmly. Silver Street doesn't get many visitors besides hookers, addicts and cops.

"My own daughter doesn't come to see me and she lives on the Boulevard," Ramona, 59, laments.

In 2000, Silver Street was all tarnish. Thirteen of the 30 homes on the block were boarded up and abandoned. Rotting garbage, clunker cars and old appliances littered a half-dozen vacant lots.

After feeling ignored for so long, Ramona took comfort in Street's pledge to resuscitate Philadelphia block-by-block.

"I hope he keeps his promise," she said. "I don't want much. I just want something better for my grandkids."

Within a year, the abandoned-car program steamrolled onto Silver Street, hauling away hulks where drug dealers stashed their supply.

Twice in 2001 and once in 2005, NTI records show, vacant-lot cleanup crews picked up after dumpers.

That was the good news. There hasn't been much more, unless you consider dead rats on the sidewalk an improvement over live ones.

"Promises promises. They didn't do nothing," an older, angrier Ramona says of the panorama of pain. "It's the same as before. No, it's worse."

Last year, one home collapsed, creating even more vacant space. Last month, a dead man was hauled from an abandoned building.

"They found him in a sheet with a needle," neighbor Beverly Sullivan, 52, tells me.

The same sad story

Today, 16 of the 25 homes still standing on this stretch of Silver Street appear to be legally inhabited. Make that 17, if you count the apartment Victor Carrasquillo rented for $475 a month until an electrical fire sent his family packing.

"The wiring is all wrong in that place," he tells me, pushing his 9-month-old son, Victor Jr., in a stroller. "But people are still living there."

One of the abandoned houses has grocery bags for curtains. To get inside another, squatters shimmy under a sheet of metal covering the doorway and slither like snakes over trash bags lining the foyer.

"My husband took plywood to cover one of the other houses," Beverly said, "but before he could finish the job, the druggies stole his drill."

So goes the woe on Silver Street, where they think Nagin was absolutely right to call Philly filthy.

NTI director Eva Gladstein sympathized, but said the program never intended to cure the city of all its cancers.

"It's a citywide program," she explained, "but that doesn't mean you're going to see a physical investment on every block."

That's a relief, since this one hasn't changed a bit.


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670 or myant@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/yantkinney