A stone's throw from the recess yard of William McKinley School lies a wedge in a North Philadelphia section's struggle to become more: abandoned houses covered by graffiti, littered lots, and, halfway down the narrow street, a discarded toilet leaning against a utility pole.
On a tour of this community Thursday, members of the recently formed coalition called the Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land lamented the cost of such blight.
"How are our children supposed to grow and become productive members of society?" asked resident Nashanta Robinson, 30, standing in a lot on the 2100 block of Leithgow Street, between two crumbling, deserted houses, "if this is what they see growing up?"
Robinson, a mother of three, has lived for about two years in Fairhill, one of the neighborhoods east of Broad Street in the section that is struggling with blight. "With the blight and the trash, it brings crime and just produces a negative aspect to the community which we don't want. We don't want that."
According to the campaign's recent report, "Put Abandoned Land in Our Hands," 25 percent of the properties in the section, which runs from Girard to Lehigh Avenues and Front to 10th Streets, are vacant or blighted.
Such decay has been a decades-old problem in Philadelphia, a city with an estimated inventory of 40,000 vacant, blighted parcels.
Part of the problem, said Nora Lichtash, executive director of the Women's Community Revitalization Project, is that the city's system to handle vacant land is broken, partly because the city doesn't know what property it owns and the ones it does own are scattered among multiple agencies.
"This report comes up with a solution to a vacant land crisis," said Lichtash, "which is a partnership between the community and the city to put all of the land in one place. And that the community has a role that defines what happens to it in creating homes, jobs and parks."
The city spends $20 million a year to maintain vacant land, according to the report, based on city data. Adding to the problem, the owners of 18,000 vacant properties haven't paid their taxes in 10 or more years.
"There's a recognition of a land bank as something we want to move toward," said Brian Abernathy, chief of staff for the managing director. "The administration can't just wake up one day and decide to transfer its land into one bucket. We need City Council authorization, we need state legislation, and we need to analyze the impact, which is something we're actively doing."
Fueled by legislation under consideration in Harrisburg, the coalition, a band of 15 community groups, faith organizations, and labor unions, has been pushing City Council candidates to weigh in on the idea of a one-stop citywide land bank, in which blighted land would be deposited to clear the title and any outstanding debt, such as property taxes. The newly "cleaned" properties would then be transferred to a neighborhood-based land trust for use aimed at strengthening the neighborhood.
Right now, campaign members say, when the process works, it can take years for neighbors who live next door to blight, and want to rebuild it, to acquire vacant and abandoned parcels.
"We live here, and we want to be here," said longtime community activist Cheri Honkala, "and the city does not benefit and we don't benefit from this waiting period."
Blocks away from the McKinley School, a large swath, maybe an acre, of overgrown weeds and trash sits at Third and Cumberland. The Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, headed by Honkala, has taken it over, seeding a small patch with plans to eventually convert it into a community farm.
The next stop on the tour was a garden oasis.
When Pearl Brown moved into her rowhouse on Mascher Street about 38 years ago, she had neighbors. Their houses slowly gave way to blight, becoming vacant and abandoned.
Tired of looking at the decay, Brown, then a printer, bought the adjoining property from the city in 1986 for $1, she said. With the help of family and neighborhood children, she converted the lot into a lush yard of trees, flowers, and shrubs where she likes to sit and read.
"You don't have to be rich to have what you want," said Brown, 68, standing in her yard, in a colorful, flowing dress, leaning on her cane. "You just have to work hard, and you can create your own haven."
The great-grandmother eventually expanded to the next lot. When she tried to buy it, she said, the price tag had risen to $16,000, market value.
"Off my back," Brown said, then sighed.