Byline: Jake Blumgart
Philadelphia has the distinction of being one of the only cities in history to have bombed itself. On May 13, 1985, the police dropped a satchel of explosives of 6221 Osage Avenue, in West Philadelphia, home of the back-to-nature radical group MOVE. The city, infamously, let the surrounding blocks go up in flames. Eleven people in the house, including five children, burned to death.
But the tragedy did not end there. The city’s efforts to rebuild the surrounding neighborhood foundered amid repeated scandals, eventually resulting in mass vacancy on the 6200 blocks of Osage Avenue and Pine Street.
The effect of walking down this stretch of Osage Avenue today is a bit unnerving. Half the houses on the eastern end of the block are boarded up and empty. It’s almost as though you can hear their hollowness on the unusually quiet street, and the echo of one’s footsteps is audible to a discomfiting degree.
But if you run into one of the residents of the block, any eeriness is quickly dispelled. The city bombed and then badly neglected these residents, but the neighborhood managed to survive, at least in part.
“This block is like family,” said Kiarra Lites, a young woman who has known residents of the 6200 block of Osage for years. Her boyfriend, Michael Taylor, currently lives there. “Everyone knows everyone and supports each other. This block is a real community. It’s mostly elders, with a few young people.”
Lites said she learned about the MOVE disaster from families on Osage who lived through it. She’s seen documentaries too, like 2013’s Let The Fire Burn.
“It never should have happened to them,” said Lites. “A lot of people don’t know about it and they try to come off and say Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love. But it’s not really, not once you find out the real history.”
Today Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration wants to finally pay the debt Philadelphia owes to this working class black community on the western edge of the city. Last week the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority issued a request for redevelopment proposals which, in unusual wording for a public RFP, asked that interested developers be “respectful of the area’s challenged history and the trauma that adjacent residents may have experienced.”
That trauma isn’t confined to the blaze. Almost every mayor for the last 30 years has sought to deal with the fallout from the MOVE bombing in one way or another.
The first attempt to rebuild the neighborhood took place soon after the fiery confrontation, which happened on the watch of the city’s first black mayor, Wilson Goode, Sr..
Mayor Goode had the Redevelopment Authority take control of the properties. He promised to get the displaced families into the new homes by the Christmas of 1985.
It was also important to Goode, and many of the mayor’s supporters, that the contract to rebuild the 61 destroyed homes go to an African-American-owned firm.
“At that time there was a great deal of pushing and advocating, even from national figures, that the contractor be an [African-American],” recalled Goode.
White-run firms tended to be better established and better connected because of their long histories in the city, leaving minority owned firms little opportunity to grow. Even today there is only a short list of black-owned firms with the bandwidth to tackle a project of such magnitude, in part because regulations that require diversity in contracting have been partly undermined. But in the 1980s, finding an African-American firm with the necessary experience proved an even greater challenge.
“I think in 1985 we selected probably the best African-American contractor in business in Philadelphia,” said Goode. “Throughout the history of Philadelphia it’s been very difficult to find major contractors who can compete for major contracts of that size. That has changed over the years. But that type of quality African-American contractors did not exist back in 1985.”
The developer selected for the job, Ernest A. Edwards Jr., proved to be grossly outmatched by the project. It soon turned out that he’d failed to disclose two previous bankruptcies. Then he came under investigation for forgery. Later he had to partner with a minority-owned company from Norfolk, Virginia to save the project—before being kicked off of it entirely for repeatedly failing to meet the deadlines. Edwards eventually went to prison for stealing $137,000 of the city’s money.
Families weren’t able to move in on Pine Street until March of 1986, or Osage until July.
The debacle didn’t end there. The houses Edwards rebuilt failed from poor material choices, faulty wiring, and overflowing toilets. At the beginning of this century, with the city seemingly endlessly on the hook for repairs, Mayor John Street declared the houses unsafe and offered to buy out the families who occupied them for $150,000 apiece.
Roughly two-thirds accepted the offer. The Redevelopment Authority took control of the properties again, boarded them up, and left them vacant.
For Esther Hubbard, who moved to the 6200 block of Osage in 1962, moving away was never an option. Told of Mayor Kenney’s push to see the empty houses redeveloped, she seems cautiously optimistic.
“I would like to see homeowners, so we can get our block back,” said Hubbard, pausing in thought. “Well, it’ll never be the way it was…. We’re still like a family. Everyone gets along well, because we’ve been through a lot together.”
Asked what became of her neighbors who took Street’s offer she said she keep in touch with a few. But, she added, “I think they regret taking it.”
Not that the city is asking her to move, but Hubbard said she wouldn’t move no matter how the city’s redevelopment plan unfolds.
The RFP issued by the Redevelopment Authority notes that some of the properties the agency owns share walls with occupied units and that the developers must be ready to proceed in a manner that will minimize disruption to residents. A brief history of the MOVE bombing and its inglorious aftermath is included as well.
“As the owners and stewards of that property, as the public sector, it’s our job to make sure the developer that is selected respects the history,” said Gregory Heller, executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.
“These aren’t just any blocks with some abandoned houses, this is a neighborhood with a really significant history that needs to be understood and kept in mind as we work with the community on its process of revitalization and healing.”
Heller described the redevelopment of the 6200 blocks of Pine and Osage as a high priority of the Kenney administration and one it identified as a project it wanted to begin addressing in the first year. He said the conscientious RFP is of a piece with its counterpart for the Eastwick neighborhood, which is the site of one of Philadelphia’s most epic urban renewal misfires. (The policy errors of the mid-20th century are well known to Heller, who wrote a biography of Philadelphia’s master planner of the time.)
The Eastwick RFP asked that interested developers be familiar with the history of the area and that they be well versed in public engagement with the neighborhood’s activist community groups. The ask for the vacancy-ravaged blocks at the site of the MOVE bombing is even more emotionally attuned.
“These blocks have a tragic but significant history that is important for the developer to acknowledge and respect in the process of undertaking construction in this area,” the RFP states.
Such language is quite alien to the normally staid and bloodless language of development.
Dr. Eugenie L. Birch, professor of urban education and research at the University of Pennsylvania called the RFP “unusually sensitive” and worthy of commendation. “The Redevelopment Authority is saying we need to ensure the uniqueness of a particular place is remembered. That’s a big step. Ten years ago, any redevelopment authority would have just said: We want these single-family houses.”
After discussion with Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell’s office, and interested Registered Community Organizations, the Redevelopment Authority is clear that it wants homeownership as a result of any development. The site is zoned RM-1, which would allow for the possibility of small multi-family buildings, although that does not seem to accord with the city’s stated preference for homeownership.
On the north side of Pine Street, James Johnson was sweeping leaves from the sidewalk. He grew up nearby on Hazel Street and remembers the newly built houses on Hazel and Osage before he moved away. When he returned to the city years later and bought his home the vista looked very different. 19 of the 22 houses on the south side of Pine Street were vacant.
“They looked nice to see when they were going up and then when I got back I was like ‘What happened?’” said Johnson. “If they could do something better, well, we could use some new neighbors. It’s hard to come out everyday and have it look like this.”
Johnson sees lots of possibilities in the ruins across the street. Perhaps some form of affordable housing? And he figures that pretty much anything that isn’t a wall of blight could help his property’s value.
Regardless of all the vacant houses, Johnson expressed great satisfaction in the neighborhood. He may only have a half a block, but it’s a good, quiet half where his kids can play outside in safety. As Johnson describes its virtues, he sounds a lot like Hubbard—who is at least three decades his senior—when she described the old community on the 6200 block of Osage, before the conflagration.
“I just think that the city as a whole starting in 1985 failed the people of that community,” said former Mayor Goode. “Perhaps now after three decades, justice, in terms of quality houses, can appear.”