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Nighttime in Wissinoming

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By Ryan W. Briggs

Tacony and Wissinoming are neighborhoods under stress.

Closer to the Delaware river than Mayfair, the neighborhoods are older, with housing stock ranging from Victorian-era twins to one-story, post World War II brick cottage-style houses.  The increased need for maintenance -- and sometimes the lack of money or desire to carry out renovations -- makes wear more noticeable in these neighborhoods.

Since most blocks are well maintained, and there is little outright abandonment that typifies Philadelphia's more blighted areas, cheap rental conversions with bad stucco jobs and loose vinyl siding stick out like sore thumbs.

They are visible reminders of declining home ownership and increasing poverty in these Lower Northeast communities.  Census data indicates that 37 percent of properties in Tacony and Wissinoming are now rentals, compared to 26 percent in 2000. Median household income has fallen from $44,030 to $36,820 over the same period, when adjusted for inflation. People living in poverty has gone from one out of 10 to nearly one of five since 2000. That's a lot of negative change in a short period of time.TownWatch Use This Photo.jpg

The members of the newly formed Wissinoming Town Watch, led by Richard Young, have felt the change. 

"Once you start to go over to rentals, that's when the neighborhood goes downhill...we're losing our identity because of the rentals.  That's my opinion," said Jerry Corrento, a member of the town watch who is also VP of the Wissinoming Civic Association.

I visited them recently at their headquarters on Van Kirk Street as they began their weekly meeting.  It's nighttime and the block of twin houses just off the southern portion of Torresdale Avenue, which Young describes as a "dragstrip for prostitution," is quiet and poorly lit.

Sitting around a conference table in the back of Young's office, the town watch members, most of them middle-aged white men and women, tell me rental units are the source of many of the neighborhood's problems.

"I've been here 30 years and I watched it get worse and worse. I don't want to say it's because of the type of people moving in, because there are a lot of homeowners here still, but the problem is some of these homeowners sell to a landlord," said Corrento.  "A lot of these landlords don't even live in Philadelphia, they live in New York and upper New Jersey, and they buy these properties up by the dozens and don't take care of them.  A lot of them are Orientals and some of them, well, they're nasty landlords."

Too many rentals

Many people I talked to in the Northeast referenced this story in one way or another.  There were well-publicized news articles at the height of the housing bubble about Asian investors from New York taking bus trips through Northeast Philadelphia scoping out investment properties.  As outsiders, they seem to catch the brunt of people's ire about slumlords, although in most cases they work with local realtors to find tenants for their properties.

"And then they made us Section 8 approved and now we've got all these problems," says one member, referring to the government rent subsidy program, prompting a chorus of agreement.  Section 8 is another common scapegoat for decline, although landlords are individually certified and there is a cap on Section 8 vouchers. But it's a way of making sense of the end result: less homeowners, more crime.  As the meeting gets going, there seems little doubt about the latter.

Rich Young Use This.jpgAddressing the room, Pat Gibson, the acting secretary, summarizes the most recent interaction with their police liaison at the 15th District.  "Robberies with guns are up, car thefts are down, and curfew is a problem.  911 is giving better response time, and the Captain [Bachmayer] is trying to get more police and says he won't take calls about that --but has no problem with you calling the mayor," says Gibson, to laughs.

 Some felt Bachmayer used his district's status as the city's largest and the busiest calls to brush off complaints of lack of responsiveness. Asked about those critiques Bachmayer repled: "It's true that what happens in one section of the district affects other sections.  We have to put our resources where they are needed and we do that the best we can."

There have been calls from residents to split the district into two, but Bachmayer says such plans are "above my pay grade." 

I asked the town watch members what they think about the police.

Although all the town watch leaders told me their partners in the district were doing the best they could, other volunteers seemed frustrated, "They talk to you like something is going to be done, then nothing happens...It's their job to appease us a little bit."

"I remember when Bachmayer started, because there was that community meeting where he said 911 response time is two hours unless they got a gun," says another. Other members shake their heads solemnly.

Crime after crime

So newly organized they haven't even received their walkie-talkies from city, the members are still tracking the crime they witness on a weekly basis.

"A woman on Van Kirk OD'ed in the back driveway of the apartments, right across from Richie's. There's another woman in the second-floor apartment selling heroin and hooking in the driveway -- I know because I can hear them yelling up to her," one member recounts, "and there's a person on Alcott Street who's dealing, I'll give you names later, 'cause I think some of the people in this room may know him, and another guy who I know is dealing because my niece goes to see him."

The meeting continues with this litany of drugs, prostitution, even a murder. The group is in good spirits, but the problems seem overwhelming.

When we finally speak in private, Rich Young, a giant of a man with an unfailing smile, is unfazed. "I see a positive force, positive attitudes, people are excited that people are actually starting to do something and get together."

In Wissinoming for seven years, Young grew up in Frankford, just to the south, at a time when the neighborhood was still mostly white ethnics. For most of his life, Young was on the wrong side of the law.

"I had a lot of problems in my younger years growing up, a lot of issues, and eventually I got tired of it," Young says, "I know most of the cops in the 15th District from being a kid."

A recovering alcoholic and drug addict who was in jail for three years, Young has been clean for years and turned his life around with the "support of other people, and by starting to care about other people."

Young seems to put neighborhood problems in a similar light.  "My strategy is to reach as many people as we can and have a positive attitude.  Eventually, if you bring enough positivity in you'll push out the negativity."

 

Click to read the companion piece on the Northeast, Twilight in Mayfair

 

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