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Wrecking ball brings crowds, nostalgia

They stumble onto this dusty downtown block like accidental pilgrims on a Center City stroll. They are sidewalk daydreamers. Philosophers. Artists. Ravaged souls.

They stumble onto this dusty downtown block like accidental pilgrims on a Center City stroll. They are sidewalk daydreamers. Philosophers. Artists. Ravaged souls.

They stay for a moment or something slightly more. And they stare in prayerful silence at a three-ton steel ball. It hypnotizes as it lifts, drops, sways and crashes into eight stories of city concrete like a thunderous wave in an ocean storm.

There is magic in the shadow of the wrecking ball at 13th and Race Streets. The people who stop here say so. They don't know why, but it's there.

"Beautiful things normally have to be destroyed and built back up," said Jaime Wagner, a young mother who can't help but see her own life story in the carcass of this building being sacrificed for a bigger and better Convention Center.

"That's just how life is," said Wagner, who has survived much destruction in her own 30 years. Maybe, she says - just maybe - she is finally turning the page this Christmas on a young life addled by addiction and torment.

How would she know, staring at this century-old hulk of bricks and concrete just days ago, that things would change in a matter of minutes?

Maybe it had something to do with taking that moment to stop.

Maybe it's all about the moments.

Just Gene

Best . . . job . . . ever

He has come out every day on lunch break for a couple of weeks now - "rain or shine" - and watches with the wonderment of a child chasing bubbles.

He is 53, lives in Wissinoming, runs maintenance for an office building around the corner, and calls himself Gene.

"Just Gene," he says. No last name, thank you.

Gene doesn't come out here just to kill time while smoking that cigarette in his right hand.

"This is great!" he says. He speaks in exclamation points about this place.

"Childhood!" he says, eyes wide open on his ruddy, wind-whipped face.

"Digging in the dirt, playing with Tonka Toys. That's what it is," he says, craning his neck to eye the wrecking ball. "That's, like, the best job!"

But it's about more than just dirt, dust and boy-noise. Within the ferocity of the wrecking ball there are lessons about the barreling force and promise of change.

"Power," Gene says. "Awesome power. We all have the power to destroy; we all have the power to proceed."

The ex-Navy man

Calculus of destruction

James Thomas, 59, of Old City, is a retired Navy man - "E5," he says. Petty officer, second class.

"I've been coming by here for a month or so," Thomas says, because it is exciting: "The renewal. They're rebuilding Philadelphia."

Thomas is intellectual, even technical, as he tries to explain why he stops here. The fierce rate of demolition; the varied tasks of the ground crew; the chomping backhoe; the water hose; the crane - he dissects it all.

Even the allure of the wrecking ball is reduced to mathematics: "It looks so small, but apparently it weighs enough to do the job," he says. "Apparently, the operator of that wrecking ball knows precisely what he's doing."

The crane lifts and dangles the ball high above the building until it goes still. Thomas watches as it hovers at maximum potential energy. It is almost divine.

Then, the ball drops. It explodes through nearly four stories of concrete, taking out three floors with a thunderous ferocity that sends chunks of debris flying like shrapnel.

"Good shot!" he cries. "Yeah! That was a good one!"

The college kid

Artistic irony

John Hennigan, 21, was looking to beat a deadline for a college photography project.

He hit the procrastinators' jackpot when, with a roll of black-and-white film and a Minolta X-370 around his neck, he came upon 13th and Race.

"I didn't think there'd be anything to catch, and then I saw this thing - wow!" said Hennigan, a student at the University of the Arts.

The irony of his find likely escaped him. The very same building that would rescue his project - the Gilbert Building - had been home to a community of city artists before being sacrificed to the wrecking ball.

To Hennigan, the moment was simply about art.

"It looks cool," he said.


Man behind the big ball

He is a church pastor nicknamed "Deacon," and he wears a hat with an embroidered message that describes a day job:

Rock of Death.

Alvin "Deacon" Davis, 48, of Sicklerville, has swung the wrecking ball for 19 years for Geppert Brothers Inc.

Deacon and his crane have been center stage for weeks now. He knows he captivates the passersby and worries like a stage performer about hitting air instead of concrete.

"Getting my target," he calls a clear shot. It's as thrilling as nailing a dead-on fastball in a packed ballpark.

"It just feels great," he says, "to knock things down and see things flying all over you. To have that much power and see you can destroy something of that magnitude."

With a playful smile, he confesses: "I sometimes find myself taking my frustrations out on this building."

Deacon loves the Lord, his family and classic cars. But don't mess with his cranes.

He has a model crane collection at home that he is just silly over. And the one he sits in at work? It has a name, "Licia," after his 16-year-old daughter, Sylicia.

He is a neat-freak amid the debris. He wipes down the windshield and keeps a garbage can a few feet away for soda cans.

"My crane," he calls it.

Jimmy Carter was president when Deacon joined Geppert and the guys gave him the nickname. He told them not to change it after he became pastor. He's sentimental that way.

"At home," he says, "they call me Al."

It's not always fun and games, though, slamming a steel ball against a building in front of a live audience.

"You hate to have someone see you when you strike out," he says.

A hopeful mother

Out of the hole

It was a busy day, but Jaime Wagner made time for her moment before the wrecking ball.

Two weeks earlier, she had finished a 110-day stint in drug rehabilitation. It was the longest she had ever gone without drugs since she was a student at Hatboro-Horsham High School. She was walking through town one day last week in search of her future.

"I have a 5-year-old son who would always ask my mother about me," said Wagner, who is living in a recovery house in Kensington. "He's going to be be 6, two days before Christmas. I've never blown out birthday candles or woken up with my son since he was 2 days old."

She saw the demolition site on her way to a meeting with her probation officer but scurried past to avoid being late.

She then went to the Salvation Army to apply for donated Christmas gifts for her son. The application period was closed. She left and walked the streets in prayer.

"For the first time in a very long time, my mother's letting me come home for Christmas," Wagner said.

Wagner wanted a job. That way she could buy gifts for her son and take care of herself a little, too. For two weeks up and down Chestnut and Walnut Streets, no one would hire her.

She came back to the wrecking ball with a cup of coffee and a muffin. It was like seeing herself in the mirror.

"All this garbage and addiction and abuse, and the lifestyle I was living for the past 15 years, was how that building was," she said. "It was falling apart and half gone and half standing.

"I was in this hole, and then I climbed back out of the hole, and I'm in my life again," she said. "I've just started building the foundation of my new life."

She walked away, again in search of work.

The first place she entered - a pizza shop - hired her on the spot.

"I'm a counter girl," she says.

Why do so many others just whiz past the demolition site? Wagner thinks she has the answer.

"Those small things in life is what makes you realize that life is precious," she said. "People just don't stop and do that today.

"I'm just grateful," she said, "to be alive."