Gregory Betancourt perches on an overturned love seat and peers through a stripped window frame into a darkened six-story building.
He sees a pile of filthy clothes, a mattress and a lot of darkness. Discarded tires and empty soda bottles clutter the concrete around him. A wooden plank on the ground nearby - what used to be the top of a school desk, maybe - is still legible: "Property of the Philadelphia School District - 1988," it reads.
This place, at 5th and Luzerne in North Philadelphia, used to be a place of learning: the Roberto Clemente Middle School.
Before that, it was an Apex Hosiery factory. Students at the old Clemente (a new one is a few blocks away, at West Erie and North Front) called their school "The Pantyhose Factory."
After the old school closed in 1994, the space was reborn as the Greater Philadelphia Book Bank, a pet project of businessman Robert Graves. The Book Bank, a place for teachers to get books for free, shut down in 2007. Graves said the School District couldn't afford to keep the building open anymore.
Today, the old Clemente is a free-for-all bonanza for scrappers who illegally strip copper, aluminum and steel from the building, as chronicled in a recent Philadelphia Weekly story. A business owner across the street from the school said she sees the scrappers early in the morning, filling their trucks with metal.
She's called the police and they've come by, but nothing changes.
Betancourt, who grew up in the neighborhood and whose granddaughter attended the old Clemente school, is worried about the building.
Not only is there the scrapping, but the school's walls also hide drug use and prostitution, neighbors say, as well as asbestos. When Betancourt read about the slew of fires in abandoned buildings in Camden last month, he immediately thought of the old Clemente school.
"It's a tragedy waiting to happen," he said.
WHO CAN FIX THIS? Well, the School District still owns the building. Spokeswoman Elizabeth Childs said the district's Facilities Management Division monitors the building daily, and cleans the site monthly.
It also "routinely welds doors shut and closes openings in windows on the ground level" - though from what Help Desk could tell, these seals are neither strong enough nor frequent enough to keep people out. After we asked about the building, the district said it would perform a more "comprehensive sealing" this week, which would take a week to complete. Childs said the district has already spent around $4,000 in repairs over the last year.
Help Desk also called the Department of Licenses and Inspections, which inspects dangerous buildings, to see if the school was on its radar. Spokeswoman Maura Kennedy said L&I had received a complaint about the building only recently, and would be inspecting it soon. The department can issue violations to the School District if warranted.
As for the asbestos, Health Department spokesman Jeff Moran said the district has been cited by the city's Air Management Services. To comply, the district must either seal the building or remove the asbestos. The district will work with an asbestos abatement contractor as well as a vacant property specialist to seal the property, Moran said.
SCHOOL FOR SALE: The district recently received approval from the School Reform Commission to put the building on the market as part of its new Adaptive Sale and Reuse Policy. It's hard to predict whether the building will be bought, but history offers a bit of hope: In the last five years, seven closed school buildings have been purchased, including the John Wanamaker School at 12th and Cecil B. Moore and the Thomas Durham School at 16th and Lombard.
There are no other school buildings currently for sale.
EMPTY SCHOOLS: There are 10 closed schools still under district ownership, according to a list of facilities provided by the district. Help Desk wondered whether the issues facing Clemente are a common problem, so we visited a couple: the old Julia deBurgos at 8th and Lehigh in North Philadelphia, closed since 2002, and the old Willard School, closed since 2010, at Emerald Street and East Cambria Street in Kensington.*
DeBurgos, or "The Castle," as students used to call it because of its gothic architecture, looks run-down, but neighbors said it was no longer a nuisance. Clifton Ballard, who attended deBurgos back when it was Thomas A. Edison High School, said the empty school has been a crime scene more than once, but that's stopped. A few months ago, PlanPhilly reported that the school was under agreement of sale and the older part of the building would be demolished to make room for a supermarket.
The old Willard school, newly boarded up, is not a problem at all, neighbors said. It's only been a year since the school shut down, but the doors and windows look secure. Neighbors said the building is taken care of - and whenever there's graffiti, it's quickly painted over.
*This address has been corrected -- an earlier version of the story said the old Willard School was at 29th and Emerald.