Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

April 17–24, 1997

cover story

The Philadelphia Experiment

How the friendship of Becky Washington and Alan Hunter paved the way for a revolution in public housing.

By Frank Lewis

 


 

When Vince Lane toured South Philadelphia's notorious Southwark Plaza public housing complex for the first time in 1993, he liked what he saw.

Not the shards of glass and litter scattered about, or the graffiti or the withered stray cats or any of the other signs of stifling poverty. Lane, then chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority, looked past the depressing, menacing facades of Southwark's towers and lowrise homes to two of his tour guides that day. Rebecca Washington, 30-year resident of Southwark and longtime leader of its tenant council, shuffled along quietly but purposefully with the aid of a cane, nodding and "mm-hmm"-ing at the running commentary provided by Alan Hunter, the burly bearded man at her side.

"Alan was there, and Rebecca, and it was the first time I actually walked the site," Lane recalls more than four years later. "And when I was walking the site, looking at the structure, my immediate impression was, 'My God, this is... very do-able."

Lane was visiting the folks from Southwark and from Queen Village, the decidedly more upscale neighborhood that almost surrounds it, just as they had visited him in Chicago not long before. They'd heard he was something of a miracle worker in public housing, and had flown there to "lay hands," as he puts it now, on Lake Parc Place, Lane's model of an increasingly popular concept he calls mixed-income housing.

And while no one had said as much yet, the South Philly folks already were beginning to see Lane as their guide to a brighter future for Southwark.

"They had all the elements that, in my mind, would make for a successful mixed-income community and reintegration of public housing back into the surrounding neighborhood," Lane recalls. "They had money [from HUD, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] — not enough to do the whole job, but enough to leverage. They had a strong surrounding community; the whole community's not devastated like you find in places like Cleveland and Chicago, where Robert Taylor, the largest public housing complex in the country, if not the world, is surrounded by stuff that's equally as poor."

"And they also had what I consider the most critical element, a working relationship — a partnership — between the public housing tenants and the surrounding community."

These partnerships are extremely rare, notes Lane. Distrust, resentment, even open hostility, are far more common when housing policies make neighbors of the relatively affluent and the extremely poor.

But that afternoon outside Southwark, he watched and listened as Hunter, the freelance consultant who'd moved into a comfortable Queen Village rowhome a few years before, talked passionately about healing and uniting communities and changing the world one city block at a time, pausing immediately when the soft-spoken Washington felt the need to elaborate.

Lane smiles at the memory.

"So you got this white-haired, bearded Jewish guy and this short little black woman hugging and locking arms and saying, 'We can do this.'"

"If that [relationship] had not been there," he adds, "we would not be here today."

—-

"Here," for Southwark and Queen Village, is a few months from the start of a massive renovation project that many residents of both communities figured they wouldn't live long enough to see.

In about one month, if all continues as planned, a new private entity, theSouthwark Plaza Limited Partnership, will close a complex and virtually unprecedented deal with the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) that will leave the residents themselves as majority owners — an experiment never attempted on this scale anywhere in the nation. In fact, though Southwark's rebirth was underway before conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats in Washington began overhauling social policies, the project in many ways represents the future of public housing in America.

Soon after closing in mid-May, abandoned units on the west side of the site (Southwark is bounded by Third Street, Fifth Street, Christian Street and Washington Avenue) will be rehabbed for temporary occupation by residents of the east side, where work will begin.

This is expected to take three to four months, at which time demolition will begin. In two to three years, two of the three towers will be gone, the cracked cement common areas will have given way to small, private, landscaped parks with benches for the old folks and splash pools for the kids, and the numbing effects of poverty will be diffused by the working-class families expected to move in.

Queen Village may actually start to look run down in comparison.

The future wasn't always so bright. Before key players like Lane and State Sen. Vincent Fumo came on board, the long-discussed Southwark renovation had been bogged down for years by ill-conceived plans, squandered millions, and debates — endless debates that sometimes threatened to permanently divide the communities of Queen Village and Southwark, regardless of how badly their leaders wanted to work together.

But before Lane and Fumo, and long before anyone here had even heard of such radical notions as tenant ownership and mixed-income housing, there was the relationship between Washington and Hunter. An unlikely pair brought together by coincidence, they nonetheless have formed a bond that has helped both communities slowly shed the prejudices and suspicions that separated them for so many years.

"I was struck," says Hunter today, "I was incredibly struck by her understanding of how stuff works. I mean, very little education, couldn't really express herself well, but she just knew about this link between our communities, that Southwark shouldn't be this little island, that they're really part of the larger community, that because they're poor they're powerless, but somehow if they could link up with the larger community, maybe we could help them and in turn boost ourselves."

Washington, typically, sums up her thoughts in far fewer words but with just as much passion.

"Alan," she says, almost reverently, "was just like an angel coming in here."

"Queen Village: Philadelphia's First Neighborhood," boasts a tasteful promotional flyer produced last year by the Queen Village Neighbors Association (QVNA).

Settled by Swedes in the 17th century, the area originally was known as Wicaco, the Lenni Lenape tribe's word for "peaceful place." William Penn later dubbed the community Southwark, after a neighborhood on the Thames in London. The name Queen Village was chosen in the 1970s, to recognize Sweden's Queen Christina and her role in promoting the original settlements.

"Extending south from Lombard Street to Washington Avenue," the brochure reads, "and east from the Delaware River to Sixth Street, Queen Village is sandwiched between patrician Society Hill and the tightly woven Italian and ethnic communities of South Philadelphia — drawing its character a little from each."

What the brochure fails to mention, or to point out on the handy street map, is Southwark Plaza. Built in 1963 for about $12 million, Southwark remains a demonstration model of the misguided public housing policies of the day: Build cheap, then pack 'em in. Between the three 26-story towers and scores of low-rise buildings, the plaza housed 886 units.

The decline was fairly rapid. In 1977 residents told a Bulletin reporter what it was like to live surrounded by poverty and trash. "It's like living in hell, only worse," one woman said. "In hell, at least you are dead. This is a living hell."

There were more than 2,700 residents at that time, earning on average less than $4,000 a year. Crime flourished, then exploded as cheap drugs infiltrated poor neighborhoods throughout the nation.

The middle- and upper-middle-class residents of Queen Village became increasingly edgy about some of their neighbors to the south. In early 1987, a QVNA officer wrote to then city Managing Director James White to warn him that some residents had considered demonstrating outside his home after numerous violent muggings — 18 in one month alone, according to an anonymous handwritten flyer circulated around town.

"By the way," the flyer warned, "don't go out at night alone."

Southwark wasn't mentioned, but that hardly mattered. Whether they discussed it openly or not, many Queen Villagers saw Southwark as a safe haven for the vandals, thieves and drug dealers who were dragging the whole neighborhood down.

Southwark's leaders were aware of this perception, of course, and resented the implications. The resulting tension festered for years, clouding and often derailing discussions on the future of the complex.

In 1988, PHA announced plans for a major renovation of Southwark, with $43 million from HUD and $5 million in community development funds earmarked for the project by Mayor Wilson Goode. Two of the towers eventually were emptied (Southwark has been well below capacity for years), but budget overruns, HUD's insistence on strict adherence to its arcane rules and PHA's general incompetence caused delay after delay.

By the early '90s, Southwark's physical woes — including raw sewage backing up into sinks — were becoming legendary, as was PHA's inability to provide even basic services. "This authority is a dinosaur," said Executive Director John Paone in 1991, "a managerial dinosaur that has not come into the 20th century." Even an $84 million cash infusion from HUD couldn't cover all of the holes; PHA, Paone said, lacked "the managerial staff to spend it."

Around the same time, everyone had seemed to come to the conclusion that highrises and low incomes just don't mix. That's part of the reason Queen Villagers were so reluctant to embrace the new proposal PHA pitched in 1992. With millions already spent on plans that for various reasons would never fly, the authority's plan was to tear down some of the lowrises and replace them with 48 new townhouses. The towers — even the vacant ones — would stand indefinitely.

Southwark residents approved — at that point, they were desperate to see any kind of change. But Queen Village residents were fixated on the towers. The previous year, HUD had nixed plans to raze one of them and renovate the other two for use by families due to flaws in PHA's budgeting and designs. Where is the master plan, Queen Villagers asked, for the complex and the underlying issues of poverty and crime?

Tension between the two communities reached a new high. Ironically, the dispute offered the perfect opportunity for two close friends to set a long-discussed plan in motion and hope the rest would follow.

 


Nearly two decades of soul-searching eventually brought Alan Hunter back to South Philadelphia.

An early career in stock brokering and living the good life in Huntingdon Valley left him disillusioned and detached, he says. A born strategizer, he eventually found himself consulting in what he calls "alternative sentencing" — helping business leaders and politicians find creative ways to atone for their sins. Not to avoid punishment, he explains, but to make sure some form of the punishment righted the wrong, if only indirectly.

Operating today under the name Urban Strategies, he still offers the same service. In recent years he helped a coalition of South and Southwest Philadelphia community groups convince the federal government to direct part of a multimillion-dollar fine against Sun Oil to local environmental projects. It was the first time, he says, that ordinary citizens had done such a thing.

The task took almost two years, and it turned out to be his first major pro bono case. But that sort of work was why he'd decided to return to the city.

"Living in Yardley, I was surrounded by people fleeing the city, and I always felt that was like fleeing your ill grandparent," he says in his office on Moyamensing Avenue, across the street from his home. "So we moved back to Philadelphia [in 1989], consciously, just to maybe be a part of trying to change things."

His wife, Sheila Reynolds, met Rebecca Washington while looking for a local place to donate some clothes. "I contacted the neighborhood association," she recalls, "and they gave me Becky's number."

A counselor who helps clients develop intuitive skills, Reynolds liked Washington immediately. "We usually had pretty quick conversations, but I liked her," she says. "I just thought she was a remarkable person, and as we became more involved in community issues, I said to Alan, you have to meet this person."

Brief chats soon turned into long discussions. Naturally, Southwark came up; Hunter was getting more involved with QVNA, and Washington had been fighting for her fellow residents half of her life.

"Becky knew about my work," says Hunter, "that I do strategizing and planning. But there was no thought that [Southwark] would be a project of mine. It was just two human beings talking."

"Every once in a while we would get past all [the differences in background] and get into a different kind of space, where we talked about purpose, and why we met each other, and what was possible. So we set out to look for that answer."

—-

For Washington, it wasn't always quite that simple.

Reaching out to Southwark, for a Queen Villager, is easy, says Hunter; anyone who questions your motives or loyalty is a knucklehead and should be treated as such. But Washington dealt with distrust from both sides.

She served on the QVNA board, and most members were "nice," she says. But, she admits, "I was called names." Her tone is unconcerned but final; she won't elaborate. "You've got to take some things to gain togetherness."

At home, the reception was sometimes just as hostile. She'd always felt that working with Queen Village residents would get Southwark a lot further than ignoring their concerns. But not everyone in the complex agreed.

"I'd come to this church every Sunday," she says, sitting with the Rev. William Green in his office at Phillip Temple Christian Methodist Church at Third and Fitzwater Streets. "I'd get to Fourth and Christian and they'd start: 'Here she comes. She's got new shoes. She's got a new suit. They bought it for her, Queen Village. They bought her. She's selling us out.'"

Washington smiles as she tells this story. "I was taught this by my mother," she says. "She said if something's bad and you don't like it, toss it out of your mind and God will help you forget it."

Hunter believes the accusations stung her just the same. Like many of Southwark's older residents, Washington grew up in what is now Queen Village, on the 300 block of Queen Street. "But now," she says, looking at Green and laughing, "I can't even pay the taxes to sit on the steps."

Hunter, she says, was a tremendous support.

"He knew I was depressed with the things going on," she says, and he helped in little ways — rounding up clothes for kids, or replacing a broken refrigerator for an elderly woman. One time as they walked together on Christian Street, a child asked her for some money to buy candy. "Wait till I get home," she whispered to the kid, "you know I got that jar of pennies." But Hunter slipped her two bucks to give to the child.

Little things like this, she says, convinced her that he could help move Southwark forward.

On one condition.

"I said, I don't want to be giving them nothing. They got to know they got to earn it."

—-

In early 1993, Hunter, Washington and another Queen Village resident were asked to co-chair the Queen Village Community Task Force on the Southwark Plaza Modernization Program, an ad hoc committee formed to decide how to deal with PHA's out-of-left-field townhouses proposal and other issues concerning the complex's revitalization.

Hunter saw an opportunity.

Washington, like most of Southwark, already liked the townhouses project. And despite the lack of a master plan — the sticking point for many Queen Villagers — Hunter and the other co-chair supported her.

"It was the first time anyone in Queen Village said publicly that the people of Southwark had the right to choose their own destiny, that this was their home, and who are we in Queen Village to tell Becky Washington and the people who live there how they should live and what they should do?"

"And that elevated my relationship with everyone there. They saw that I saw the real issue, which was their right to choose how they want to live and not the right of anyone else — including the neighbors one block away."

Besides that, he adds almost sheepishly, he knew the townhouses would never be built — the plan was so sketchy that it was bound to get bogged down in zoning and other technical issues. His main objective was to set an example — to show that it was possible for Queen Village to work in sympathy with Southwark.

The reunification effort continued, with many from both communities joining in. That summer, 35 Queen Village families "adopted" 35 Southwark kids by donating $100 to buy everything a child would need for a week at summer camp. Washington insisted, however, that Southwark raise the money to cover the trip, and some residents cooked up a chicken dinner that turned into a block party.

"There were no arguments, no nothing that day," she recalls. "It was beautiful."

—-

Bringing the communities together now was more important than ever. Less than a year earlier, the leaders of Southwark and Queen Village had found a radical new opportunity in Chicago.

Sheila Reynolds caught a 20/20 segment about Vince Lane, head of the Chicago Housing Authority, and what he was doing at a once horrendously run-down and crime-infested public housing complex called Lake Parc Place. She woke up Hunter, telling him Lane "might be the answer to the problems here."

A private developer who had taken control of CHA at no salary in 1988, Lane first gained a reputation in Chicago for his high-profile "sweeps" of the city's worst projects. Small armies of police and CHA workers first secured perimeters around the complexes, then went door to door throughout each building, conducting inspections, making repairs and throwing out or arresting anyone who didn't belong there. Central lobbies were constructed — most of the buildings didn't have them — and identification cards issued to every resident over 7.

Lane was criticized by some for creating a police state, but HUD was impressed. Federal funding for capital improvements, which had dipped to $2.1 million in 1984, climbed again, reaching $135 million by 1993. His successes helped push through federal legislation in 1991 that allowed him to get around some of HUD's strict guidelines and pursue his long-term solutions — de-densification, mixed-income housing, higher standards and tenant control.

Lake Parc Place became the showplace. With the new legislation, Lane was able to reduce the number of units in the complex — which includes two 40-year-old highrises — by replacing them with so-called scattered-site units in other areas. He also allotted half the apartments for traditional public housing residents, living on public assistance, and half for working-class families, so that welfare recipients were living next door to "people who get up and go to work every day."

Everyone, regardless of income, was required to comply with the strict lease or face eviction. In return, they could expect building, maintenance and security standards rivaling nearby private developments that cost several times more.

Six weeks after Lake Parc Place opened, 3,000 middle-income families were on the waiting list.

"It's not housing for poor people," Lane would later tell folks in South Philly. "It's housing poor people can live in, and there's a major, major difference."

—-

Hunter called Washington. She'd seen part of the 20/20 piece on Lane and was equally intrigued.

He'd never heard of mixed-income housing, Hunter says, "but it always seemed wrong to me that you take all the poor people and put them in one place and expect that energy to change in any way. And then here's this guy saying that if you relocate some of those people, and move in people who are getting up every day, going to work, and have experienced [upward] movement in their lives, that alone... could somehow be an influence."

Unsure how to proceed, Hunter finally just called Lane. They eventually connected, and Lane was "a perfect gentleman" — he answered questions about Lake Parc Place and listened intently to the story of Southwark. Still, there was no thought yet of Lane getting involved.

That came later, after Southwark and Queen Village leaders turned to State Sen. Vincent Fumo. Washington had known Fumo for years, but Hunter confesses he was surprised that the powerful South Philly pol not only listened, but offered to arrange an expedition to Chicago to meet Lane and see Lake Parc Place first hand.

Hunter canceled at the last minute due to illness, but was pleased with the reports brought back by the dozen or so Southwark and Queen Village residents who made the three-day trip. "The ladies of Southwark [tenant council] broke off and talked with ladies who lived in Lake Parc Place about their experience," he says, "and the Rev. Green talked to the church leaders. Queen Village community members found their way to talk to community groups that were anywhere near there."

"People were thrilled with what they saw — nurses and teachers living next to people on welfare. People on welfare living under different types of lease agreements than other places, and who were uplifted by the example of being in a place where their neighbors were working. And it was that early that we decided we wanted that here."

—-

After finding the essential ingredients in place — funding, a strong community surrounding Southwark and a working partnership between the leaders of both — Lane agreed to come aboard.

He met several times with Southwark residents to sell them on his concepts, then pitched a plan at a QVNA meeting at St. Stanislaus Church Hall on Nov. 18, 1993.

"That first meeting was kind of contentious," he recalls. "I think they were having their election that night, too. And I got into this whole thing, the concept about de-densifying poverty and having role models available for kids and how crime would go away and how you can't isolate poor people and think that's somehow going to change them or they're going to vanish."

"And of course there was a small contingent — as there is in every neighborhood project — [saying] 'We just don't want them at all, we just want those buildings demolished...' But what I found was that when you explain the concepts and when you talk to people openly and honestly about what the issues are, they generally come around. And at the end of that meeting, I remember, there was applause for the concepts."

"I was a little concerned because the core group that was opposed to this kind of revitalization, they weren't slouches... and you could never tell whether they would lead the other group away from [supporting the plan]. But my whole point was, 'Look, with [HUD's] one-for-one replacement rule on the books, you're either going to have what's there now for the foreseeable future, or you go with this plan which at least provides you with the opportunity — the possibility — of substantially improving conditions in the neighborhood. And I think that's what most people in Queen Village saw, that at least with this kind of plan, there's a possibility it might work. The question is, will it work as well as we hope it will, or will it be less successful? But in the case of Lake Parc Place, it even exceeded my wildest expectations."

"And that meeting ended with applause and a signal to go."

—-

The countless meetings that ensued — with politicians, developers and officials from PHA and the regional HUD office — were as tedious as they were necessary. Lane explained the plans and the theories behind them more times than he cares to remember.

He recounts these tales cautiously; the project is long past the point of no return, but, as he explains, "we still have to work with these people."

"You have to line up a lot of different constituencies, political and otherwise," he allows. "There is this perception... that white residents of South Philadelphia would like to get rid of all their poor minorities, including blacks. That's been a real problem we had to address... how we achieve that balance. And we achieved that balance by agreeing on a number of residents who would always be below 30 percent of [the city's] median income, so that there would always be that presence there for poor and presumably black residents at Southwark, while allowing the rest to come from a working-class environment. Politically, that was a compromise."

The per-unit cost — now estimated at $100,000 to $106,000 — was a hard sell. Political leaders, he says, anticipated being forced to answer a tricky question: "Why should we spend that kind of money on people who have traditionally done nothing but wreck the public housing communities they've lived in? This is not a black or white issue, this is a middle-income issue. 'Why should they get that kind of investment made for them, when they haven't worked a day in their lives, and I've been working hard all my life and I can't even afford an air conditioner?'"

"That's a political issue that the mayor and John Street and [PHA chief] John White and all the others had to take a position on, [and say] this is an investment we have to make for this class of citizen, or else we will continue to spend far more over the long haul if we keep them in places like Southwark indefinitely."

The same issue haunted the plan to turn over 51-percent ownership and $1.5 million for social programs (at closing) to the Southwark tenant council.

"The traditional way to deal with that is, just don't give them any money, and you don't have to worry about any misuse," says Lane. "But on the other hand, if you don't give [power] to them, what you have is people you have to take care of for the rest of their lives, and their children and grandchildren, and the cycle never ends."

The mixed-income strategy was watered down in a compromise. After telling area residents that doctors and lawyers would move into the reborn Southwark, Lane encountered resistance from politicians who saw this as a form of creeping gentrification that eventually would push out all the low-income tenants. Now, the units designated for working-class residents will go to folks earning up to 60 percent of the median income in Philadelphia — or about $34,000 a year for a family of four.

Eventually, city officials gave in due to the structure of the limited partnership that, next month, will begin purchasing the site from PHA. The 100-year-old, non-profit Housing Association of the Delaware Valley (HADV) will help the resident leaders plan and implement the social programs (like job training and day care). National Housing Partnership (NHP), a former federal entity that went private and manages about 150,000 units nationwide, will oversee day-to-day operation. Lane's own company, American Community Housing Associates, is the fourth partner. (To date, he says, he has not seen "one red penny" from the Southwark deal.)

"There's still a lot of skepticism," he concedes. "Everybody's going to be waiting to see, what are the residents going to do with this money?"

—-

Leading the Southwark residents through the process was almost as trying.

"We talk about resident empowerment," says Lane, "and how important it is for people to be a part of the process, but it's painful. It's painful because residents are paranoid, they have been 'messed' over, for years if not decades. So they don't trust, and so what has evolved here is a hybrid ownership with the residents, with HADV, [headed by a tenant leader from another Philadelphia project] who they do trust and who they can relate to; with me, who is a developer but not the traditional developer, you know, in it for the money and run; and NHP, which is a billion-dollar entity but is willing to work in an entity where the residents basically have veto power over everything. Which means you've got to convince the residents that this is in their best interest for every decision that's made. Now that is painful. Very painful and very time-consuming."

"If we didn't have to go through that process, we probably could have finished the pre-development phase of this a year to two years sooner. But then again, you wouldn't have achieved the other thing, and that's resident empowerment and resident input. So that's the price we have to pay."

"And once other resident groups around the country see how successful this was, and that commitments were kept... there probably will be less paranoia down the road in other situations, because there will be people they can go and talk to about the process. So this is setting the learning curve, and I think it's the price we have to pay."

—-

An example, says Becky Washington, is what Southwark should have been all along.

"Years ago," she recalls, "they said Southwark was going to be a role model for the whole United States."

"But it wound up being the biggest embarrassment in the United States," adds the Rev. Green. Washington agrees, but as always, looks also to the future.

"Why can't we do it here?" she demands. "I think Southwark is going to be the one. Because we're going to be watching."

Lane expects the work to take two and a half to three years. Demolition of the two vacant towers is tentatively slated for summer 1998. Builders are still assessing whether they'll be brought down by wrecking ball or implosion.

Hunter already is looking much further down the line. He speaks enthusiastically of using the momentum generated by this effort to begin linking Southwark and Queen Village with other nearby neighborhoods, Bella Vista, Greenwich and Pennsport, then later with others in an unbroken chain extending down the east side of South Philly and across Broad Street to FDR Park. He muses about this alliance tackling seemingly intractable problems like rotting, abandoned homes and inadequate schools and the stifling lack of trees and grass in old urban neighborhoods.

"How do we reinvent a whole section of the city?" he asks rhetorically. "That experiment is just beginning. But Southwark is enough to spark something, if we're smart."

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