Our family has called the Riverwards, specifically Fishtown and Port Richmond, home for generations. We’ve always believed this is a wonderful area to live with a great sense of community. This past weekend my grandparents’ home, where they lived for more than 60 years, was destroyed. My grandmother is 94 and has lost all of her and her late husband’s belongings, including their home — one of the few things she still recognizes. Construction being performed at a neighboring property compromised the integrity of her home. The damage was so extensive it required immediate demolition of both the neighboring home as well as my grandparents’ home.

My grandparents’ home was the nucleus of our family. We gathered every Sunday, for birthdays, graduations, sporting events, new jobs and often ‘just because’ — just because we knew someone would be there. My grandparents had 10 children so someone was always there. Their home was our first stop after the birth of both of my children on the way home from the hospital. I remember as a child raiding my mom’s Christmas stocking, which hung on the mantel every year; even after her passing, I could count on that stocking being there at Christmas. Those stockings and that mantle are gone — somewhere in a pile of rubble with many other artifacts accumulated over 60 years of living and building a home. These things can’t be replaced.

Two Fishtown properties collapsed, Sunday Feb. 10, 2019. The homes, located at 633 and 635 E. Thompson St. in the Fishtown neighborhood, tumbled to the ground after Philadelphia's Department of Licenses and Inspections declared on Friday afternoon both properties imminently dangerous. (Video screen images)
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Two Fishtown properties collapsed, Sunday Feb. 10, 2019. The homes, located at 633 and 635 E. Thompson St. in the Fishtown neighborhood, tumbled to the ground after Philadelphia's Department of Licenses and Inspections declared on Friday afternoon both properties imminently dangerous. (Video screen images)

It was surreal to watch the home where we built so many memories collapse right in front of us. Our family is lucky to have a strong support system, comprised of family and a community acutely aware that this could have happened to any one of us.

It’s hard to know exactly what would have prevented this situation, but the community, the city, and state need to take measures to ensure this does not happen again. It’s time to impose harsher consequences on the types of unscrupulous behavior that lead to this tragedy. Implementation of changes that target those driving this behavior as well as those performing the work could include:

  • Require developers to provide neighbors with their direct contact information as well as a description of planned work to the property so resident can be aware,  
  • Implement a bond system where any developer must present a secured bond prior to work to ensure any potential damage to neighboring properties can be remediated,
  • Provide neighbors a greater voice in what is happening around them and provide them with a mechanism for recourse when they are wronged by a developer or investor. I’ve heard numerous stories from other neighbors about how their house was damaged as a result of contractors/investors and no city or state agency could assist. 
  • Make it more difficult to hide behind LLCs and so-called shell businesses,
  • Revision or repeal of the real estate tax abatement. While this law served as a catalyst to boost interest in the city, it has become a mechanism to provide additional incentive for developers by increasing potential interest in the house and making it a more profitable transaction for the investor/developer. Because of tax abatement, developers sometimes make decisions that aren’t in the best interest of the existing residents.
  • A coordinated effort by police and L&I to proactively surveil construction and respond to reports of suspicious activity; a dedicated unit to focus on such work,
  • Provide an easy, direct way for residents to report L&I emergencies (many reports via 311 have a 10-plus day turnaround, which gives those on site plenty of time to complete activities)

My family and I urge our city and state leaders use this tragedy as a catalyst to implement change to protect our residents, especially the most vulnerable, like my grandmother. As for our family, we are focused on rebuilding the home that once stood within this great community and housed all our family memories. This unfortunate event has brought Fishtowners together, old and new, as one community to support my grandmother. We are appreciative of this. This camaraderie is a reminder of why our family has chosen to call this area home and why we don’t fault others for wanting to do the same.

Jennifer Romaniw is longtime resident of Fishtown and Port Richmond. She is the granddaughter of Mrs. Clovena Klenk, whose home was destroyed.