WE LOVE saying, "never again."
We said it on June 20, 2007, when that abandoned horse-blanket factory burned to the dirt at H Street and Westmoreland in Kensington - but not before spreading to 19 homes, destroying seven of them, along with nine cars.
For years, neighbors had complained to the Department of Licenses and Inspections about the city-owned building, which had been so vandalized by squatters and addicts that L&I cited it as a fire hazard.
But then came April 9, 2012, when Lt. Robert Neary and firefighter Daniel Sweeney died while battling the blaze that engulfed Kensington's abandoned Buck Hosiery Factory at York and Jasper streets.
"Never again," we repeated, when we learned how Nathan and Michael Lichtenstein, the factory's father-and-son slumlords, had allowed the building to fall into the kind of ruin that invited chaos. The city's prior, half-baked attempts to address the building's neglect were outlined in withering detail in a subsequent grand- jury report that recommended a raft of changes meant to prevent another such catastrophe.
But then came yesterday's conflagration at York and American streets that started in a vacant factory that, according to city records, is owned by someone named Richard Paynter.
The fire leveled the warehouse and a thriving business next door and seriously damaged a third building separated from the flames by just a skinny side street. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries fighting the flames; a civilian, who may have been a squatter, is in critical condition with burns on over 80 percent of his body.
This time, please, let's not say "never again." Because we never mean it.
If we did mean it, we would enforce the laws that would keep our city's inventory of 2,500-plus crumbling old manufacturing plants from endangering their surrounding neighborhoods. Instead, we've decided that if some people will die, that's the cost of living in a rust-belt city whose poor residents outnumber better-off ones.
"I just don't know how many wakeup calls are needed for the city to require more from property owners," said Jamie Moffett, a Kensington filmmaker and community activist who helped his neighbors claw their way back from the destruction wrought by the two prior fires. "If you own a property, and you're not going to lock your doors, close your windows, keep out intruders and protect it from neglect, then shame on you. And shame on the city for letting you put everyone else at risk."
East Kensington artist Jesse Gardner is beyond disgusted.
"We know better at this point," said Gardner, whose studio on Arizona Street near Emerald boasts a beautiful outdoor Mural Arts portrait of firefighters Neary and Sweeney, who died just three blocks away. "These large, vacant buildings never have alarms or sprinklers, and they should. Fires like this don't happen when a building is adequately protected. Keeping the neighbors and the neighborhoods safe has to be the bottom line. The neighbors can't force them to be responsible, but the city can."
And yet the city doesn't. It's as if the grand-jury report was never written.
Paynter (or "Payntner," as his name is spelled in other city documents, because that's how we roll in Philly) is a deadbeat who hasn't paid real-estate taxes on his American Street property since at least 2007, according to city records. He owes $11,023.55, which is probably about a tenth of what it will cost the city to clean up the mess his warehouse started.
But, hey, at least no one died, right? That's how resigned we are to the blight we enable by letting real-estate speculators inflict neglect on Philly's struggling neighborhoods.
In Kensington, advocates like Moffett, Gardner and so many others can host neighborhood cleanups, paint murals, organize Town Watch groups, pioneer new small businesses in areas where bigger ones won't risk the investment. But they can't force carpetbaggers like Lichtenstein and Paynter (or is it Payntner?) to pay their taxes, police their buildings, clean up the trash generated by vagrants looking for a place to crash.
"There's only so much we can do," said artist Gardner. "At some point, this is on the city. If the city is not responsible, then who is? I'm an advocate for good government, but I'm not in charge. When will the city step up?"
Each time the city doesn't, we make a mockery of heroes like Neary and Sweeney, who rushed in to clean up a tragedy that was years in the making.
I would like to believe that the men did not die for nothing, that we learned the lessons of the Buck Hosiery fire, and that heroic action is never in vain.
But, honestly, I'm beginning to wonder.
On Twitter: @RonniePhilly