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Joyce Smith, Viola Street, a plan for reclaiming blocks

When you walk down the 4200 block of Viola Street in East Parkside, it’s clear that residents are taking care of the block. The street and sidewalks are clean, there’s a thriving community garden, and homes are well-kept. But the block’s residents often feel they are working against a tide of steady neighborhood deterioration.

Abandoned homes and vacant lots are sprinkled throughout the block, but a particularly troubling cluster exists at the south side of the street. Residents founded Viola Street Residents Association (VSRA) in 2008 to advocate for reinvestment on their block and, ultimately, four adjacent blocks.

VSRA asked the Community Design Collaborative to put their “grassroots, resident-driven” vision down on paper. Project Reclaim is intended to complement the West Park District Plan.

Collaborative intern Anooshey Rahim met VSRA’s Community Development Coordinator and Viola Street resident Joyce Smith in July to talk about her neighborhood, what to do about vacant properties, and her own community revitalization journey.

What makes East Parkside unique?

I think it’s just a beautiful neighborhood… I just moved here in 2007 and I fell in love with the homes on the street. I really believe that with some attention we can turn this place into a really beautiful place to live.

What are some of the neighborhood’s challenges?

We have a lot of vacant lots, a lot of vacant and abandoned buildings. We don’t really have a commercial district and don’t have stores where we can go to find healthy foods. We have a high number of renters and a high number of people unemployed, the usual kinds of urban ills.

Tell me about Viola Street Residents Association.

We started out as a block association, but not longer are. A block association simply represents people on the block and they do things just centered on the block… we have extended our boundaries and communicate with our neighbors on Leidy Street, Thompson Street, and around Parkside. Basically it’s a triangle we are operating in. [Note: VSRA serves a five-block area bounded by Parkside, West Girard, and Belmont Avenues]

When we first formed as a block group, we asked, “What are the major problems we have on our street?” One of the major problems is the vacancy and the abandonment. We wanted to address it so we started doing some research and looking for different tools we could use. We looked at legislation and at best practices around the city.

I started looking at state and national associations, like Pennsylvania Housing Alliance. We got together and created a list of things that we can use to help address the vacancy. One of the things that we came up was the Pennsylvania Conservatorship Act, and I said okay, we found it. Basically, if there is a property blighting the street, a group of neighbors can come together and would have to confirm that this has been vacant for a long time.

We would hope to get these houses back on the market and get people in them. We have at least eleven vacant properties, including the lots… which are another issue.

What is Project Reclaim and where do you think it will take the neighborhood?

Basically, it’s a grassroots resident driven initiative to address the abandoned properties in our neighborhood. Long-time residents have been taking care of the community garden and the vacant lots. We have new residents coming in and working on that as well.

When you talk about vacant lots, it depends block-by-block how people see that vacancy. Some people want gardens, other people want it for side yards… [On Viola Street] we have an issue on the south side of the street because we have vast, really large parcels where three or four houses were demolished.

Describe the neighborhood’s connection to Fairmount Park and how the plan approaches that adjacency.

There is a misconception that residents don’t use the park… we have a fabulous connection to the park. I have heard that people believe residents don’t use the park, but we do, we have wonderful access to the park. I think it is a wonderful asset that people take advantage of.

There was one suggestion in Project Reclaim that I thought was excellent. There is a garage that is never used, someone on Parkside owns it. It was originally a walkway that residents could cut straight through to access the park. You can see the remnants of it. The plan wanted to revive it and make it more accessible and attractive.

How do you see Project Reclaim fitting in with the neighborhood’s future?

I want to beautify the neighborhood, get stores, and all that kind of stuff. But right now, I am very sensitive to residents and their concerns about their taxes going up and the fear of being pushed out because of it. Or, people like me, who want to move into the neighborhood and can’t afford it. Ideally I’d like to see a Community Land Trust–that would be fabulous. If we could do some kind of inclusionary zoning and some kind of large development, we could still maintain some kind of diversity.

What was your path to community development?

I am fascinated by it. I have been a community actor just about most of my life, even in my work, even in my early work. When I was in school (I went to Temple), I was doing journalism. I realized I wasn’t interested in public relations journalism. So I just followed my heart of being a community actor.

Growing up in West Philadelphia I have always seen how properties deteriorate and it bothered me that rather than people staying in the neighborhoods and trying to fix it up, they would go somewhere else. When I moved here, some people were asking,“Why are you moving?” But I just see so much that can be, and I think there is so much potential in the neighborhood. I think that’s part of my journey.

We know we have a major problem in Philadelphia with abandonment. It is an old city. We have all these homes and we can work to fix them up. I have always had an interest in it and I am discovering what I can do about it. Even in this short period of time that the VSRA has formed, it is really interesting that just through my research and passion, I actually see the formula in my head being played out. The only thing that isn’t here yet are the dollars.

Do you think there needs to be more community advocacy? Or that stimulus needs to come from the city?

I see a lot of advocacy. The groups I know are speaking up. I first got started in 2000 with the Community Preservation Network, the Media Mobilizing Project, they had a housing preservation initiative going on. Then there is the Take Back Your Land campaign, they are phenomenal, and they have been an integral part of the pending land bank legislation.

What do you feel is the next step for an organization like yours?

What we need to do is work with developers, but we want responsible developers. We want developers that are community-sensitive and, through the plan and through our advocacy, wanting to come into the neighborhood.

Project Reclaim Volunteer Team

KSK Architects Planners Historians Paul Vernon, RA

International Consultants, Inc. Lucious Johnson, CPE

Dan Chong, AIA Christine Miller Cruiss Andrew Dobshinsky, AICP Brian Johnson Leah Rominger Kate Rutledge Joy Mariama Smit



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