THE PORT RICHMOND of the early 1990s had working-class charm.
Neighbors traded Crock-Pot recipes. They knew every kid by name. They scrubbed their steps with bleach and prettied their stoops with marigolds and mums.
Then came the invasion of Robert N. Coyle Sr.
Coyle, a real-estate investor who already had a stronghold in neighboring Kensington, swept into Port Richmond with fistfuls of cash. One by one, Coyle bought homes, some as cheap as $7,000, until his housing empire ballooned to hundreds of properties.
"Just picture a shadow moving across the area like an army," said state Rep. John Taylor, R-Philadelphia, who represents Port Richmond.
Almost overnight, Port Richmond became a neighborhood divided. On the west side of Aramingo Avenue, where Coyle and his son, Robert Jr., acquired hundreds of homes by the early 2000s, residents got hit with a tsunami of blight.
The east side of Aramingo, where the Coyles never got a foothold, maintained its folksy feel, with parents pulling toddlers in red wagons to Campbell Square Park, then stopping by trendy BYOBs for crab asparagus omelets and homemade apple crisp.
"Port Richmond is a tale of two neighborhoods," said community activist Patty-Pat Kozlowski. "Once you go on the west side of Aramingo Avenue, it's almost like you go through a portal.
"It looks like a third-world country."
Coyle, whom locals call a "slumlord millionaire," gobbled up the once-stable houses on Port Richmond's west side - and let them rot.
He rented to the city's poor and desperate. Tenants endured homes with no heat or window panes, leaky roofs, crumbling ceilings, creeping mold and seeping sewage.
Longtime residents blamed their sinking property values on Coyle's decaying homes. They no longer recognized their neighborhood, or their neighbors.
"You'd have three families living in one house, trash on the porch, kids never in school," Kozlowski said. "You can't have 17 people living in a house with one toilet."
Many of Coyle's renters were transients who didn't appear to have jobs. They moved out as quickly as they moved in, neighbors said.
The houses left vacant attracted drug dealers, squatters, rodents and stray dogs. One fed-up resident likened Coyle's homes to "public toilets."
Empty soda cans, broken beer bottles and soiled diapers littered the streets. Weeds and maggot-infested garbage clogged alleys; graffiti marred walls.
"We think Coyle caused the deterioration of the neighborhood," Taylor said. "He has wreaked havoc."
And crushed dreams, some allege.
The Daily News last month detailed allegations that Coyle Sr. promised some poverty-stricken tenants, mostly in Kensington and Port Richmond, that they could rent to own their homes. The hopeful homebuyers used what little money they had to make Coyle's rickety houses livable.
They had no idea that Coyle had defaulted on more than $15 million in mortgage loans on their homes. The banks have since foreclosed, and scores of Coyle's tenants fear they could be out on the street if the banks auction the homes at sheriff's sale.
Meanwhile, Coyle is the center of a complex and expansive fraud investigation spearheaded by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.
The probe began last year with allegations that Coyle forged hundreds - possibly thousands - of city housing-inspection licenses that allowed him to rent the homes, many of which were uninhabitable.
Coyle, 64, who ran a now-shuttered company called Landvest and at least nine others out of a rowhouse real-estate office on Allegheny Avenue in Port Richmond, did not return phone calls from the Daily News. Neither did his criminal-defense attorney, Brian E. Quinn.
Coyle's son, who ran Key Investment Properties and at least five other real estate companies and owned almost 300 properties before selling most of them by 2007, did not respond to messages left with his family and his attorney.
But long before Coyle Sr. caught the attention of the Daily News and the District Attorney's Office, the people of Port Richmond mounted a tooth-and-nail fight to save their neighborhood from him. They say he not only exploited his tenants, he ravaged a neighborhood.
Ruining a neighborhood
Coyle roared into Port Richmond with his own kind of marquee. He had fliers posted all over the neighborhood: Immediate Cash for Homes - NO hassles. NO fees or points. NO commissions. NO repairs. NO obligation.
Coyle, who grew up on Kensington streets as the son of an oil-burner repairman, had a knack for ingratiating himself to the grown children of Port Richmond's sick and dying.
He told them that their parents' homes needed a lot of work and would be tough to sell. He offered to take the homes off their hands for cash, residents said.
"He could probably sell ice to an Eskimo," Kozlowski said. "His pitch was, 'I'm a local boy who made good.' "
But the local boy "left problems in his wake," Taylor said.
"Once Coyle got in there, the deterioration helped foster this, 'Let's hurry up and get out' mentality," Taylor said. "He would buy a deteriorating property, let it deteriorate further . . . and drive out homeowners around those properties and then buy [their houses]."
Taylor, a Kensington native, said he became so upset that he stormed into Coyle's office about 10 years ago and demanded that he take down his cash-for-homes signs. Coyle took them down but quickly put them back up, Taylor said.
"He was running a real-estate pawn shop," said Taylor, who has sponsored legislation aimed at preventing shady investors like Coyle from ravaging neighborhoods.
By 2002, the people of Port Richmond knew they had a problem. The neighborhood movement to fight back started small, just 10 to 15 people seated on folding chairs in a back yard on Tulip Street near Clearfield, where Coyle left one of the heaviest footprints.
"Tulip Street sounds so nice," Kozlowski said. "But there are no tulips on Tulip Street. . . . It's a war zone."
Kozlowski, 33, runs the Port Richmond Civic Association of the east side of Aramingo where she says the biggest gripes are things like, "Someone took a mum off my porch."
Kozlowski's group joined forces with the west side's Port Richmond Community Group where the complaints are, "The crack dealer pulled a gun out last night and walked up and down my block screaming," she said.
"It was no longer nice to sit outside," said Maryann Trombetta, 55, a lifelong west-side resident who helped form the community group. "I didn't feel safe walking up Agate Street by myself."
Taylor, who said his legislative office had received numerous complaints about Coyle, initiated a study in July 2007 to examine the root of the Port Richmond divide.
The yearlong study - "The Taylor Project: West Port Richmond" - confirmed what most already knew. While neither Coyle nor Landvest was named in the study, Taylor said the research found a "direct correlation" between crime and blight and the number of homes owned by Landvest and other slumlords.
On the west side of Aramingo Avenue, narcotics arrests, for example, mushroomed from 22 in 1998 to 60 in 2005. Serious incidents, including aggravated assault and robbery, leaped from 51 in 1998 to 82 in 2006, the study shows.
"The bricks-and-mortar decay has paved the way for social distress," the study reads. "Crime, and specifically crimes against people, has infected this neighborhood."
Jeanne Dacenzo, who lives on Amber Street near Ontario, next to one of Coyle's homes and across the street from another, knows that all too well.
Jeanne and her husband, Bob, have lived in their two-story stucco rowhouse since 1981. "It was nice back then. On Saturdays, everyone used to come out and clean," she said. "It was a neighborhood - not just a 'hood."
About a month ago, Dacenzo, a mother of four and grandmother of seven, heard the unmistakable "pop, pop, pop" when two people were shot in a drive-by.
From her window, she saw everyone on Amber Street run for cover. A stray bullet pierced her next-door neighbor's storm door. The hole from the slug remains.
Tales like these were heard over and over at community meetings that grew larger each month. By 2004, organizers had to rent a room at Northeast Hospital for a standing-room-only crowd that came to rant about slumlords. Coyle was at the top of their list.
"We printed out every property that was owned by him," recalled Trombetta, a meeting organizer. "My printer ran out of ink."
Three elderly widows were regulars at the meetings. They have lived on Weikel Street for half a century. They get indignant when asked why they don't move.
"Why should we?" retorted one widow, who was too fearful to be quoted by name. "This is our home. This is where we raised our children."
To hold on to the past, they collect $2 from neighbors for each holiday to adorn the block's lampposts with ribbons and bows. On a late October morning, a Coyle- owned house across the street from the widows sports a cracked window. It's the only home on the block with a bare lamppost.
The absence of Halloween decor is a mere hint of the deeper problems that lie behind the shabby facade of Coyle's homes.
Fighting back isn't enough
Coyle owns two homes on one small block of Amber Street, near Ontario. Both properties gave Jeanne and Bob Dacenzo major headaches.
The house next door had a broken sewer pipe that caused the sidewalk near the Dacenzos' front door to buckle. Coyle's tenant reported the problem to the Water Department and the city's Department of Licenses & Inspections. Instead of fixing the pipe, Coyle evicted the tenant, the Dacenzos said.
Around the same time in 2007, a cracked water pipe in a Coyle-owned home across the street flooded the Dacenzos' basement, they said.
The couple had to pump out several inches of water every night, then tear up carpet, redo Sheetrock and paint - repairs that cost more than $3,500.
"All I wanted was my home the way it was before," Jeanne Dacenzo said.
The Dacenzos combed through court records and researched Coyle's empire. They wrote him certified letters, then, without a lawyer, filed suit against him in small claims court.
"I don't think he expected us to keep going," she said.
They went to court four times, taking time away from work, and in June 2008 won a judgment of $3,547.57.
Coyle appealed the case. The Dacenzos backed down, fearing they wouldn't be able to match Coyle's money and legal muscle.
Rep. Taylor's efforts and the mobilization of angry residents has had frustratingly little impact. There are even more abandoned or blighted houses since their fight began in 2002. Trash litters sidewalks and vacant lots; graffiti is etched on walls.
The residents' commitment and rage have been no match for an adversary with enormous financial resources and property-ownership laws on his side. Many complain that city government has failed them. Now their only hope is justice.
"We can't get our neighborhood back," Jeanne Dacenzo said. "It's slumlords like [Coyle] that brought it down. Now I want to see him brought down and go to jail."
"I'd like to take off work when he gets charged. I'd like to be there for my satisfaction," she continued.
"I hope they put him in jail with someone he rented to."