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City's hands-on aid revives Dakota Street

LAST JULY, Willie McRae, 77, wearing his trademark Phillies cap and still feeling the effects of a recent shoulder injury, looked at the out-of-control weeds and dumped trash on vacant lots along the Strawberry Mansion block that he's called home for more than 50 years, and felt overwhelmed.

LAST JULY, Willie McRae, 77, wearing his trademark Phillies cap and still feeling the effects of a recent shoulder injury, looked at the out-of-control weeds and dumped trash on vacant lots along the Strawberry Mansion block that he's called home for more than 50 years, and felt overwhelmed.

The longtime block captain of Dakota Street between 30th and 31st was no longer able to tame the overgrown lots personally with his weed cutter and sling blade, as he had for years, nor lead his fellow senior citizens in bagging the mounds of illegally dumped garbage.

Two abandoned garages and a fire-damaged house seemed ready to collapse onto the broken sidewalk where neighborhood children played. A massive weed tree was so entangled with electrical wires, McRae knew that high winds could bring them down at any time.

A city-owned vacant lot next to the well-kept rowhouse of Fitzgerald Johnson, 77, where Johnson once fed his neighbors out of his flourishing vegetable garden, was so full of rubble from a deteriorating city demolition that gardening had been impossible for a long time.

Year after year, McRae had called his elected officials and various city departments about his block's problems, and had gotten lip service. He felt disrespected and ignored.

In desperation, McRae invited a Daily News reporter to walk with him down his block.

The most telling moment came when McRae touched a forefinger to an exposed cinder-block wall covered with a graffiti tribute to a youth who had been shot to death nearby - "We love you, 'O.' Quane, Pooh Butt, John Boody, Phatty, Bay-Bay, Lox, 4Life" - and gently pushed. The wall moved, ready to fall.

Carol Henry, 65, scooped up her granddaughter Daesha, 4, who had been playing on the sidewalk near the wall. McRae said that it was one of two such walls - the remains of terminally deteriorated garages behind rowhouses that front on Dauphin Street - that could collapse at any time.

"I'm afraid this is going to fall on a child," he said.

When the Daily News told city Licenses & Inspections Commissioner Fran Burns about the Dakota Street problems, she immediately agreed to tour the block with McRae and his neighbors.

What she didn't say was that she would bring Mayor Nutter's recently appointed Managing Director Richard Negrin and that the two of them would attack the block's problems with the energy of community activists.

From the moment that Burns, Negrin and their key staffers arrived on Dakota Street, for the first of two sleeves-rolled-up summer visits, McRae and his neighbors sensed that this was to be a very different experience with city officials than they'd had in the past.

Instead of lip service, they got service.

Six properties that front on Dauphin Street, with Dakota Street back yards, and two that front on Dakota Street, were issued violations for overgrown weeds, exterior trash and dangerously deteriorated to partially collapsed roofs and walls. All those problems have been resolved.

The two imminently dangerous walls that McRae could have toppled with his finger were demolished, as was a burned-out, three-story rowhouse, a deteriorating garage and the towering weed tree that posed a threat to live electrical wires.

The jungle of junk growth so thick that it supported thriving raccoon and possum populations was cut down on several vacant lots and in the alley that runs the length of the block behind the rowhouses of McRae and his neighbors.

The city-owned lot that was too full of rubble from a long-ago L&I demolition was cleared and will be filled with topsoil as soon as the weather allows - so, after years of being denied the opportunity, Johnson can once again grow his vegetables and share his harvest with his neighbors.

"I was touched personally by how the people on the block reacted to our coming to see them," Negrin told the Daily News, adding that he and Burns, working together, will expand their face-to-face response to neighborhood urban blight in the New Year.

"I saw those kids playing in debris," he said, "and asked how the debris got there. Mr. McRae said the property owner on Dauphin Street just tosses it over his back wall because he doesn't want to look at it. But he doesn't mind if the kids on Dakota Street are playing in it. I knew that had to change."

Negrin was impressed when Lucretia Lunsford, captain of the Dakota Street block that runs from 31st to 32nd, walked up to him while he was solving McRae's problems, and said that she wanted to show him a drug house on her otherwise fine block.

"She stood in front of the drug house, pointing to it and explaining the problem," Negrin said. "That took courage because she lives right across the street from it."

Lunsford told him that drug users had been quietly squatting in the house for years.

"Then, all of a sudden, it just got crazy over there," she said. "There was noise, and they were shooting and beating each other up. We couldn't sit outside. The kids couldn't play outside. All of us on the block said, 'This is just too much.' "

Negrin and Burns promised Lunsford that they would work with the police on resolving the problem - and kept their promise.

"Soon, we felt the presence of police officers more - coming through the street, checking on the house," Lunsford said recently. "Having their presence here helped a lot. Then L&I closed the house down and boarded it up tight.

"When L&I came, the people squatting there were pretty mad," Lunsford said. "They came out and said, 'This is our house. Why do we have to leave?' We told them, 'It's not your house. You have to go.'

"Now, someone is fixing up the house so people can live there. That's great. We're very happy with how the city helped us to help ourselves. We have a nice, quiet block. We want to keep it that way."

Soon, Negrin and Burns will announce their new joint effort to solve neighborhood problems, Dakota Street-style.

"People feel more connected to us when we come out to their neighborhood and see for ourselves what they are facing," Burns said.

"It's like everyone gets excited when they see Police Commissioner [Charles] Ramsey out on the street, making an arrest," Negrin said. "When we came up with this approach, we were all immediately like, 'Yes! Let's do this!' Now, it's our mission."