They’ve had it easier than a lot of people this year, Avery Stern and fiance Chris Shafer acknowledge.
They closed on their first home together on League Street, a neighborly stretch of South Philly barely wide enough for a car to pass through on March 12, just days before the coronavirus shut down Philadelphia. Like many others, Shafer, 33, is tutoring while struggling with unemployment, but Stern, 28, is soon starting a new job as an English teacher at Moorestown Friends School.
Feelings of existential helplessness in this year of plague and upheaval still consume Stern, though. It’s probably why she’s so furious about that vacant lot across the street.
“I’m not going to solve systemic racism; I’m not going to solve climate change; I’m certainly not going to solve the pandemic,” Stern said. “This feels like something that is so tangible.”
The 1,008-square-foot lot is bracketed by a green-slatted fence, and this summer was overgrown with weeds. People climb the fence alongside Dumpsters on the site to use it as a bathroom. There are rats.
Stern thinks the lot would be ideal for a community garden, an escape from the pandemic’s oppression.
The problem? The land isn’t hers.
“I have plans to develop the property,” the owner, Jeff Redel, said Wednesday. “I said to her, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.’ ”
The 69-year-old Vineland resident also owns Carl’s Vineland Farm Poultry opposite the vacant lot on Ninth Street. His father, a Polish immigrant and Holocaust survivor, founded it in 1956 a few doors from its current location. Recently, because of COVID-19, the market has become all-consuming.
“I’ve been in my place of business every day since February,” he said. “I think I’ve only had four days I didn’t come into work.”
He’s contending with new health and safety restrictions and longtime customers irritated by the precautions. But there’s pride, too, that he’s stayed open.
“Our guys are very safe, wear gloves, masks, sanitize … ,” he said. “None of the fellas have been ill.”
The friction between Stern and Redel is a familiar one, particularly in the Italian Market, where for 140 years businesses and residences have coexisted.
“The structure of the community hasn’t changed,” said Michele Gambino, acting business manager for the South 9th Street Business Association. “The residents and the business owners now have a very unique Old World situation here.”
Yet even in this dispute lurks the pandemic.
“It feels like something I can help to push forward in a good way,” Stern said. “I’ve felt paralyzed.”
Neighbors point out the lot hasn’t been a priority for many years. Before a cleanup a few weeks ago, Robin Tama, a 13-year League Street resident, described the infestation on the property as turning her sidewalk into “Rat Highway.”
“I’m not trying to crucify him,” she said. “I’d just like to see something done with this lot.”
The lot’s condition has triggered eight violations from the city Department of Licenses and Inspections since 2008, the most recent in May for litter after Stern filed a complaint. Each violation has been resolved.
Gambino noted the pandemic has made pest control harder throughout the Italian Market’s 100 markets, shops, and restaurants.
“Right now it’s so hard to get any city agency right now because they’re all still working from home,” she said. “I wish I could get them to come out here all the time, but they can’t.”
Redel last sought to build in 2009, he said, and neighbors fiercely opposed, fearing a business’ disruptions on their quiet street. He made accommodations, he said, but his permit for a zoning variance was denied, and he put plans on hold.
In retrospect, Tama said, the community may have been overzealous.
“We didn’t anticipate he would just drop the project,” she said.
Redel has been using the site as a home for a Dumpster for recyclable cardboard since 2002.
The virus has slowed renovations underway at his business, Redel said, and even delayed his response to the recent L&I violation.
“We couldn’t get anybody out there because of COVID,” he said. “Everybody was restricted to do work.”
As Redel struggled at the market, Stern and Shafer spent more time together than ever in their 5½-year relationship. They’ve played endless rounds of dominoes, debated politics and policy, and to their relief found their love has survived constantly being in each other’s company.
They manage pandemic anxiety differently. Shafer, who soon will return to school for a bachelor’s degree in math, absorbs statistics, science, and policy articles but can distract himself with other things. Stern finds that harder.
“Reading the news is the most masochistic thing you can do,” she said.
And then she fixates on the lot across the street, where rats crawled from trash bags and spent needles lay near where children play. For three months, Stern has pushed Redel for change. In-person conversations didn’t work. She’s started sending postcards.
Redel has no liens on the property, worth about $66,300 by the city’s accounting, and is current with his taxes. Stern contacted the area’s councilmember, Mark Squilla, who talked with Redel, but has little leverage to push for change.
“Any time you have an empty lot, it has the potential of adding blight to the community,” Squilla said.
Squilla urges the owners of the Italian Market’s few vacant lots to sell, if they don’t want to develop.
Redel says he hopes to use the lot for a building with first-floor retail and upper-story apartments, but he has not filed plans with the city and declined to say when he might start construction.
“If it was hers, she could do what she wishes with it,” he said.
Stern wonders why even a patch of that lot couldn’t at least temporarily become something better.
“Even if he gave us permission to use two-thirds of it to do gardening,” she said, “that is such a tangible good with no ramifications.”