Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

West Philadelphians threading their lives back together again Not in 20 years had violence so devastatingly assaulted a major American city until last week in Philadelphia. Police action against a group of radicals led to fires that caused 11 deaths, destroyed 53 homes, and drove some 250 residents into the street. A Monitor reporter went in search of those families. Her report follows.

WALK with me along a street that once was . . . . It's early morning. The cranes and bulldozers are busy clearing away the skeletal ruins of the row houses on Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia. Scorched brick walls stand as grotesque statues on carpets of rubble and ashes. One by one the walls tumble, as the wrecking crews move along the street. Down the block, a lone tree remains, licked black by the fire that swept along both sides of Osage and spilled over to part of Pine Street. Gray desolation.

But by late morning, the scene is a different one. The whole area carries the atmosphere of carnival time. Cars clog the streets, inching along bumper to bumper, with people gawking from rolled-down windows. Sightseers keep their cameras clicking. Policemen, firemen, the press, TV crews, and clusters of both blacks and whites create a crush of humanity. Here and there, dissenters of one sort or another wave banners and shout a mix of slogans.

About these ads

And where are the victims, the homeless ones, the nearly 250 people who lost all in last week's confrontation between authorities and the radical group called MOVE?

Not here. They've scattered.

Trapped between devastation and the circus of notoriety, many have retreated behind closed doors. Some are weary of the plague of publicity that has paraded their grief across printed page and TV screen. And others have withdrawn out of caution, fearing that remaining MOVE members might retaliate.

In different places and in different ways, they're trying to thread their lives together again. Sixty-two are being sheltered at Temple University, which offered disaster victims students' vacant rooms.

A sign for the homeless hangs on the dorm door: ``It's not perfect. It's not home. But it's all we have. Welcome to Temple University.'' But there's no welcoming sign for the press, who are barred from the building unless extended a special invitation by one of the residents. The University of Pennsylvania, which opened its doors more recently, has adopted a similar policy for the homeless.

And more and more, the burned-out victims are electing to shelter themselves beneath this protective umbrella. At Temple two women, care-worn and senior in years, slip out the dorm front door, shaking their heads ``no'' to questions. Their gait slackens only after they have lost themselves in traffic. A young woman who admits that fear is her motivation also chooses to remain silent, hustling her 18-month-old into a Temple elevator.

A retired couple staying at Temple share their experiences but are reluctant to give their names: ``Those MOVE people read the newspapers and watch TV. They hold some of us from Osage responsible for starting the whole thing. We'd even like some kind of protection against retaliation,'' says the woman, who previously worked as a purchasing agent for a mental health center.

About these ads

She and her husband, a former employee of the New York City Transit Authority, had lived on Osage Avenue for only two years. Their mortgage would have been paid off this October.

What have they salvaged? ``Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I even had to borrow an eyebrow pencil,'' says the woman with a light smile, making a jest to underscore the totality of their loss.

``You can rebuild a house, the boards and bricks,'' says her husband, ``but you can't replace the memory pieces.'' The couple lost 35 drums of slides, which recorded their travels to Europe, Egypt, and China, as well as their two children's growing-up years.

What will they do now? ``Why, go on,'' the woman says matter-of-factly.

Tiny Hubbard, a short young woman with a hushed voice, lived on Osage with her mother and father, Esther and Ernest, and her sister, Lisa. When asked what she most regretted losing, she takes time to think. ``The TV and my clothes, I guess,'' she says. ``But my mom -- my mom lost her house.'' And that, she indicates, was the pivot of her mother's existence.

There is a forward approach, though, in Miss Hubbard's comments. She tells me that all four will move in temporarily with her grandmother in southwest Philadelphia. Like other victims who have been taken in by relatives, the Hubbards consider themselves fortunate.

The homeless are finding that their losses go beyond houses and possessions. Last week's disaster also wiped away their patterns of living, the simple ins and outs and ups and downs of daily doings. Routine is gone. And in its place reigns a gyroscopic kind of existence, which is unsettling at best.

For some, stability may not return until they can move into rebuilt homes. These have been promised by Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode, who sees reconstruction starting in July and winding up by Christmas. The price tag? About $5 million for rebuilding. Another $2 million for furnishings, and an additional $1 million for unforeseeable expenses.

The mayor hopes about $5 million will come from state aid. And Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Samuel R. Pierce Jr. says federal aid to the tune of $1 million will be forthcoming from HUD's discretionary fund. These funds are earmarked for reconstruction and rehabilitation of water-damaged homes. In addition HUD help includes 49 properties for interim houses, and rental and mortgage assistance programs.

Although the route back to normality may be a long one, it's under way. The displaced residents reaped a bounty of clothing, personal items, and food from contributors around the city. The outpouring was so overwhelming that volunteers could barely keep up with sorting and distribution. Volunteers have also undertaken the task of duplicating records for the Osage-Pine residents who saw their birth certificates, marriage licenses, and bank-account records go up in smoke.

The ``victim'' label can hardly be limited to the homeless. Residents on neighboring streets who escaped the fire's devastation are wearing other scars. Their lives, too, have been flipped out of kilter.

They're bothered by the bizarre tone that has invaded their neighborhood.

To judge from the houses that remain, the Osage neighborhood is, for the most part, a tidy place, well maintained by working, middle-class blacks. Their row houses butt against each other (an architectural feature that offered no firebreak alleyway or yard when last week's blaze started). Roses, iris, and pansies bloom in the row-house yards. Windows are clean, and inhabitants sweep their porches and trim their hedges.

Yes, as in any area, there are blotches, houses here and there that slip below standard because of peeling paint, graffiti, or boarded-up windows. But the Osage neighborhood has relatively few of these. The residents care about their homes, and they're disturbed by the disruption that came in the fire's wake.

``I wasn't in the fire, but this is upsetting to me,'' says Ginny Edmond, as she looks at the sightseers passing her home. She and her husband, Harold, came to the area in 1959. Their home, which is mortgage-free, backs up against Pine Street. ``It's like this from 7 in the morning until late at night,'' she says. ``Don't these people know that even a zoo closes?''

Bewilderment has touched Richard Peoples, too. ``My head is in another world yet,'' he says. ``I just don't want to speak about any of it.''

Mr. Peoples and his wife, Delores, own the corner market close to Osage. It's a friendly place, a throwback to the cracker-barrel general store, where neighbors gather to buy and to pass the time of day. Boxes and cans are in neat rows on the shelves, and the aroma of popcorn permeates the air. An overstuffed chair and two straight-backs sit at the rear of the store for any who want to park awhile and chat.

A tall man with graying temples and mustache, Mr. Peoples moves easily in his store's cramped quarters. He's owned the store for 10 years, and he knows everyone in the neighborhood.

How will the homeless people put their lives together again? ``Slowly,'' Peoples answers. ``Slowly. It'll take them a while, but they'll do it.''

And he should know, because he knows everyone on the street that once was. . . .

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.