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'Lost block' now city's most beautiful

Neighbors worked for 8 years to transform abandoned rowhouses, push out crime

Michael Locke, 9, Timmothy Chase, 7, and Kyle Locke, 7 run down Gordon Street, which they helped clean.  (Kriston J. Bethel / Staff Photographer)
Michael Locke, 9, Timmothy Chase, 7, and Kyle Locke, 7 run down Gordon Street, which they helped clean. (Kriston J. Bethel / Staff Photographer)Read more

SPREAD OUT on Kathy Berry's kitchen table in Fishtown, the photos show very young children, some of them in diapers, playing in a blue plastic wading pool in front of abandoned rowhouses with broken- out windows - some boarded up, some not - and no front doors.

Piles of trash fill the deserted basements and front hallways. Weeds and weed trees flourish on the shattered sidewalks.

The innocence of the children against this backdrop of filth and despair is heart-rending.

The photos were taken seven years ago.

Berry stood with this Daily News reporter in front of her house recently and asked the same question she had asked the army of Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee judges who descended on her tiny, narrow block of Gordon Street, near Belgrade, in early October.

"Can you tell me," she said, gesturing to the homes on the block, "which houses are empty and which houses are occupied?"

The reporter couldn't. The judges couldn't.

So the block that a neighborhood newspaper once dubbed "the Skid Row of Fishtown" won the $1,000 first prize as 2009's most beautiful block in Philadelphia.

"This was the lost block of Fishtown, the city's forgotten alley," Berry, 56, said.

"Over there," Berry said, pointing to a rowhouse three doors down from hers, "there were prostitutes. The guy who lived there died violently. I heard he was beaten to death."

"There were drugs in that one," Veight, 51, said, pointing to a house near hers. "A guy shot a girl in the face there one night. I held a towel to her face to stop the bleeding while we waited for the ambulance. She survived. He's in prison."

Taking back a block

Berry, who moved to the block from around the corner on Dauphin Street in 2001, and Veight, who has lived there since 1982, have been through hell together to create their little piece of heaven.

Even when they affectionately call each other "Lynnie" and "Bunny" and joke about who's the most obsessive sweeper and who's the better urban gardener, their eyes remain serious and watchful, a habit developed over the rough years since those early photos were taken.

"Strangers used to walk down our street, figuring it's a little block so nobody's going to notice," Veight said. "But they don't know me. If I hear something, even in the middle of the night, I get up and look out the door because if somebody is messing with something, I want to know.

"If you're nosy and you stare them down, after a while, they'll take it somewhere else," she said. "And you had to be out there threatening them.

"Sometimes, I'd make it look like I was taking pictures, like, 'Yeah, I got your picture, and I'll be turning this over to the cops.' Sometimes, I'd hold the phone out the door and say, 'Yeah, that's me calling the cops now.' I did lose my car windows once, all six of them."

Veight and Berry said they spent years trying to make their block safe for their children and their grandchildren.

"The elements on this block that didn't belong here were squatting in the vacant houses, stealing electricity, stealing gas," Berry said. "They didn't pay rent. They lived with no windows. They didn't belong here."

Berry and husband Joe mounted security cameras high up on the front of their house.

"We'd sit out at night for as long as it took to make sure they realized we were going to turn them in," Berry said.

"We made it very uncomfortable for people coming to this block for drugs and prostitution. You can't do business if someone is sitting and watching you all the time, and that someone is willing to call the police."

When their courage and persistence finally paid off a couple years ago, and their block was finally free of the people who had brought it down, Berry and Veight and a handful of like-minded neighbors began to turn it into a place they could truly call home.

Filling the empties

The problem was that most of the 16 rowhouses on the block were abandoned. Berry and Veight knew that the key to rebirth was to make them look occupied and vibrant - on a shoestring.

"None of us make a lot of money," Veight said. "I work in a factory and clear 137 bucks a week, so I can't afford to go buy paint for empty houses and still pay the mortgage."

Martin Schortye, a professional painter who lives around the corner on Belgrade, donated 50 cans of paint. The city also donated some.

"I accumulated all of these half gallons of paint, all different colors," Veight said. "Then we started mixing. We ended up with a reddish brown to paint the empty houses, a dark green for fences and a gray for the big wall at the end of the street that was covered with graffiti. It all worked out wonderful."

Berry said that with the help of Joe - "an electrician and a real Mr. Fix-It" - and Veight's equally handy son-in-law Max, a plumber, "we fixed the broken windows and hung blinds in all the empty houses, and we put up real doors instead of plywood so you don't know they're empty.

"After we painted, we put flowers in front of all the houses and our block came to life," she said. "It took us two years."

All that time, Berry said, she and Veight were sweeping.

"I'm a fanatic sweeper," Berry said, "but I never do it good enough for Lynnie. She says, 'How many times do I have to show you how to sweep?' I say, 'I don't know, Lynnie. Show me again.' "

"I used to tease Bunny," Veight said. "I'd be like, 'There's no sense sweeping in front of your house, Bunny, if you're just going to leave it in front of somebody else's house. No sense squirting your hose like that, either.' "

"I thought Lynnie was bad," Berry said, shaking her head, "but Sandy is way worse than Lynnie."

Sandy is Clean Block Officer Sandy Miranda of the city's Streets Department, who spent the past year coaching Berry, Veight and their Gordon Street neighbors - who proudly call themselves "Gordonians" and their offspring, "Little Gordonians" - toward their Philadelphia More Beautiful victory.

"To go beyond cleanliness, you have to go beyond sweeping," Miranda said. "Most people just sweep and say, 'OK, I swept. My block is clean.' But weeds are like a fence that blows down - they collect trash. If you have weeds all over the place, you can say, 'I'm always out here cleaning,' and I say, 'I can see why you're always out here cleaning: it's because you're not pulling out the weeds.' "

Berry swears that after she and Veight pulled all the weeds out, Miranda found more.

"I said to her, 'Sandy, you are OCD - Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.' She said, 'Look!' She's showing me one eensy-weensy blade of grass in a crack in the corner of the sidewalk. Don't ask me how she saw it."

Berry laughed and said: "Sandy's a sweetheart. I love her to death."

After eliminating the weeds to even Miranda's satisfaction, Berry and Veight put dozens of pots and hanging baskets - filled with the flowers they had grown from starter plants - in front of every house on the block.

Winning the prize

After eight years of driving out the drugs and prostitution, then rehabbing their block rowhouse by rowhouse, Berry and Veight found themselves sitting at the 2009 Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee clean-block awards banquet, checking out the competition and feeling sure they had no chance.

"We never believed we would win, did we, Lynnie?" Berry said.

"No," Veight said, shaking her head. "Not after we saw those videos of the other blocks in the contest. They had lawns - I mean big lawns - and 20, 30 people working on the contest. We had six or seven people and flowers in pots."

As the smaller awards were announced and the evening built toward the $1,000 first prize, Berry told Veight, "We might as well go now. We got bowling tonight."

But Miranda convinced them to stick around and be proud of how far they had come and how they would never return to the days of abandonment. And then, they won.

"I almost passed out," Berry said. "I wear my emotions on my sleeve at all times. So, I'm crying. My sister Joan is crying. I can't believe it because I never won anything in my life except for a five-dollar scratch-off in the lottery. Nothing. I was blown away. I still am."

The block's residents are thinking about spending the $1,000 prize money on lamppost lighting for each home, Berry said, standing outside her front door, gazing fondly at the enormous flowering impatiens plant - a garden unto itself - that Veight hung on the front of the empty house across the narrow street.

"Lynnie grew that all summer long," Berry said. "She's really good with impatiens. I envy her. I feed mine and everything but I can't get them to grow like that."

Veight smiled and said: "Bunny once told me that looking across the street and seeing those flowers was the best part of getting up in the morning."

"It was a long road and a lot of years," Berry said happily. "But at least when I walk outside my door now, I'm proud of where I live."

She watched her grandson, Timothy Chase Jr., 7, who was one of the babies in the blue plastic wading pool in those old photos, playing with two cousins, running up and down the most beautiful reclaimed block in Philadelphia, surrounded by freshly painted homes and by hundreds of his grandmother's and her best friend's flowers.

"For Lynnie and me, all of the rough years have always been about making our block into a decent place for the kids to play," Berry said, smiling. "You know what I mean?"