Last Saturday, I visited a narrow, vacant lot at 5th and Pierce Streets in South Philly to lay eyes on the guy who owns it – an absentee landowner whose behavior is so crazily out of character in this city that I needed proof of his existence.
His name is Sonny Van Ngo. Here's why I suspected he was a unicorn.
A few months ago, two neighborhood couples took it upon themselves to clean up his trashy eyesore of a lot.
Vandals had ripped down part of the fence that closes off the corner property from the sidewalk and were using the lot to park. Contractors dumped debris there in broad daylight. Dog poop and rodent carcasses moldered beneath the weeds and garbage.
Enter Eleni Vlachos, her husband Rob Gilbride and their neighbors Courtney Bieberfeld and Matthew Borda. Disgusted by the mess, they tried tracking down the property's owner, but public records were too tangled to decipher.
So they went rogue.
They cleared and mulched the lot, fixed the fence, and planted rose bushes and shrubs. Neighbors noticed, offered time and money to the cause, and everybody dreamed out loud of all the space could be.
A tot lot for kids. An unfussy spot to socialize over coffee on weekend mornings or adult beverages on lazy nights. A community garden to supplement the popular one down the street whose plots were all taken.
The couples cheekily christened the site the "Pierce Street Pirate Park," in honor of their buccaneering, and posted a sign with contact info so neighbors could get involved.
And then, right as they were planning the park's inaugural public event – a movie night on Halloween (they projected Shrek and Children of the Corn on an adjacent wall) – came an email from Sonny Van Ngo.
He was the park's owner. He'd seen their sign. He wanted to talk.
"We were worried," Vlachos says.
And for good reason. Because Philly loves to heap grief on those who dare to beautify the abandoned wastelands that blight their blocks.
Take Frank Galdo, who for three decades has tended a vacant, city-owned lot across from his Fishtown home, transforming it from a fetid eyesore to a minipark with nice grass, picnic tables, and a tree house. In 2013, the city ordered him to remove his stuff (he sued in response; their legal tussle drags on).
Take John Longacre, a Newbold developer who opened a bright, convivial pop-up beer garden in 2015 on once-squalid land he bought in Point Breeze. He secured the needed permits as well as buy-in from adjacent neighbors but L&I shut him down after a handful of NIMBYs insisted the spot was illegal. A judge lifted the ban within a week, but, God, the drama.
Ditto for members of the Catholic Worker, which in 1988 created a community farm, La Finquita, on an abandoned Kensington property and grew produce to stock local food kitchens. A developer bought part of the land and locked out workers without so much as a friendly chat.
Such steamrolling is rife in Philly, says Ebony Griffin, a staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center (who helped the Catholic Worker obtain a settlement from the developer in return for vacating the land; the organization is now looking to purchase property elsewhere).
In response, in 2011, the center launched a Garden Justice Legal Initiative.
"We help community gardeners either acquire land titles up front or, on the back end, work with developers or the sheriff's office" to preserve neighbors' handiwork, Griffin says.
The Pierce Street Pirates will not need her help, because when Sonny Van Ngo contacted them it was not to threaten but to — wait for it — thank them.
"I saw their sign, and I was like, 'Wow, people actually care!'" says Van Ngo, whom I met at a cleanup at the site.
His father, who owned the lot and several others around the city, died in 2015; his busy children are still settling the estate.
"My brother and I check on the properties every month. We try to keep them clean, but as soon as we bag trash, more appears," Van Ngo says. "I am so grateful to the Pirates!"
The love goes both ways.
"Sonny asked, 'How can I help?' and "What do the neighbors want?'" says Vlachos, delighted. "He even joined our Facebook group, bought more trees for the park, and helps with cleanup."
The project is so new, the Pirates don't know if they'd like to one day purchase the plot; nor have Van Ngo and his siblings decided if or when they'd even sell it. All everyone wants right now is a clean, safe corner in their strong (and apparently unicorn-free) community — and to keep talking and listening to each other, the way good people do.
And in Philly, that now includes at least one land owner.
Have you taken on a blighted lot in your community? Send your stories — the good, bad, the dumb, the inspiring — to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.