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July 24, 2000, Monday
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THE 2000 CAMPAIGN: THE CONVENTION; Philadelphia Ends a Neighborhood's Tale


Sparing the approaching Republican National Convention a civic eyesore, bulldozers are moving in on the last of the 957 sinking homes of the Logan triangle, a stricken working-class swath of north Philadelphia that has festered as an urban disaster for more than a decade.

''The city suddenly told me I had to get out,'' said Suzette Williams, hurriedly packing a moving van after 30 years on North 11th Street. This is the epicenter of a once vital 17-block neighborhood that is now an inner-city prairie dotted with skeletal buildings and a score of lingering residents of Logan's last stand.

The 80-year-old neighborhood's collapse into its own unstable landfill is stark evidence that the vaunted Philadelphia renaissance that is attracting the Republican conventioneers is at least a tale of two cities: the glittering downtown of new hotels and trendy restaurants, and frayed old working-class neighborhoods like Logan, five miles to the north. Residents in poor, predominantly black areas complain that the city leadership has been preoccupied with attracting downtown tourists who stay overnight, rather than stemming the working-class flight of some 250,000 people in the last decade from neighborhoods freighted with neglect.

As the city government hurries to raze the Logan hulks, and even mow the summer weeds on the ghostly 47-acre wasteland, what remains, church and civic leaders are emphasizing, is a gaunt but most inviting campaign backdrop for any venturesome presidential contender who might want to stop by during the convention and speak firsthand to the issue of inner-city housing for the working class and striving poor.

''George Bush should come here and put some meat on the bones of his compassionate conservatism,'' said the Rev. Kermit L. Newkirk, pastor of the Harold O. Davis Baptist Church.

Initially, city officials had promised to raze all 957 buildings and to compensate and relocate the 5,000 residents within three years. That was in 1986, when the crumbling neighborhood first seized the city's attention with an explosion caused by an underground gas leak. The initial prescription of relocation and redevelopment that was supposed to take 3 years to accomplish is now in its 15th year, having spawned a separate quasi-government agency with its own patronage, retirement benefits and petty scandals.

In recent years, people in this Democratic neighborhood have been courting Republican state officials, some of whom have been responsive and credible, Pastor Newkirk said. His frustration is clear after 14 years of struggling with successive Democratic city administrations over the houses' cracking and sinking as their landfill of ash heaps shifted with saturation from an underground creek and ruptured utility pipes. Federal investigators have also found dangerous levels of lead and are testing for other contaminants.

Advocates for assorted causes like the global economy and gay rights will soon be arriving to take to the streets for the four-day Republican convention, opening on July 31. But only Logan is offering a vivid on-site experience and eyewitness guides through a tortured saga of neighborhood blight, political promises and bureaucratic nostrums.

When the opening gavel sounds at the convention center, Logan will have its own welcoming event.

Handbills and public bus advertising downtown will offer conventioneers graphic photos of the devastation, and pose the question, ''What is the Republican response?''

If nothing else, the convention preparations have spurred city officials into faster demolition. ''We're getting rid of everything over in Logan; I never want to hear that name again.'' an involved city official shouted from his car this week at the Rev. Mary Laney of St. Gabriel's Episcopal Church.

The church serves the surrounding Feltonville neighborhood where, Ms. Laney noted, property values have become depressed and housing sales frozen. This is because of warnings that the nearby problem with unstable landfill and underground piping may be spreading to as many as 4,000 additional houses.

''I'm trapped here,'' said Michael Brown, a homeowner just outside the officially defined area of sinkage, which some city officials concede was arbitrary in the first place.

He watched Ms. Williams pack for her move from North 11th Street. He stood in front of his own house just 30 feet away and told of the same problems of deep foundation cracks, sewage flooding in the basement and tilting, cracked walls and porch.

''My house is paid for but no one will buy it and no one will put up a mortgage for it,'' Mr. Brown said, sounding desperate as his horizon grew flatter. ''You can't give my house away.''

Logan's local leaders underline the news from City Hall that Mayor John F. Street, a Democrat, will be attending the neighborhood welcome, nine months after he campaigned in Logan, promising fresh initiative and $37 million in additional help for the disaster. This would roughly double what has been spent so far. Logan activists criticize former Mayor W. Wilson Goode for his handling of the initial crisis and former Mayor Edward G. Rendell for managing Philadelphia's downtown renewal far more successfully than Logan's.

''But the bulldozing amounts to a victory for us,'' said Ceci Schickel, chief organizer for Philadelphia Interfaith Action, a regional church and civic association. The group has been working with the Industrial Areas Foundation, a nationwide organization that is trying to make a campaign issue of housing, low wages and other problems of the working poor.

''Politicians are in denial about complicated, massive problems like Logan,'' said Mike Kecan, a foundation organizer. ''Their talk of faith-based solutions is tokenism.''

The frustrations in Logan were only compounded last summer when some homes were ruled endangered in the city's predominantly white Wissinoming neighborhood because of unstable landfill. Residents affected by this far smaller problem involving about two dozen homes received relocation and compensation help within weeks.

''I've had nothing but trouble for years trying to get my money,'' Ms. Williams said after completing her packing. ''This is still my community,'' she said as she departed.

Organizations mentioned in this article:

Related Terms:
Housing; Presidential Election of 2000; Area Planning and Renewal; Land Subsidence

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