Stories about life in Liddonfield housing project and its impact on the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg. These true stories reveal how government policy affected the lives of real people, from the project residents to area homeowners during the 5 decades of Liddonfield’s existence. Stories and articles are written by a former resident of the project.

FIGHT THE STIGMA!

FIGHT THE STIGMA!
Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

Mar 17, 2013

Part 6 of Liddonfield: One Neighborhood’s Struggle With Public Housing


By Rosemary Reeves

Part 6:  Senator Heinz Visits Liddonfield’s “Golden Road” of Drug Deals

If you missed the first five parts of this series click on the links below:

Part 1:  A Politician's Legacy, An Architect's Vision 

By 1989, the drug problem at Liddonfield spilled over into surrounding neighborhoods.  There was litter and graffiti in the once immaculate public housing development.  Long-time Liddonfield tenants blamed the housing authority’s lack of new tenant screening and the formerly homeless people who began to inhabit the project.  The housing authority asserted that new tenants were properly screened.  Federal Preference Guidelines for public housing now gave priority to homeless families, even in cases where low-income families with working heads of households had been on the waiting list longer.  This policy resulted in a growing number of formerly homeless living in Liddonfield at the time of its rapid decline.  Public housing underwent so many policy changes since its inception that it had become a warehouse for concentrated extreme poverty, giving rise to hopelessness and drug addiction. 

In an ironic twist, only two hours before Senator John Heinz was scheduled to tour Liddonfield on June 28, 1989, the 8th District Police Department’s Narcotics Strike Force arrested two men selling cocaine in the project.  Councilwoman Krajewski had arranged for the senator’s visit.  Heinz intended to introduce legislation that would speed up the process of evicting drug dealers who lived in public housing and the tour was a way to get press coverage.  Liddonfield Tenant Council member Gwen Brown was eagerly awaiting the senator’s arrival.  She needed to drive it home to him how serious the drug problem was there and how the law-abiding tenants, many of them single moms with children, had become frightened of the dealers.  According to a Northeast Times article, Heinz Wants to Boot Dealers Out of the Projects by reporter Jim Albert, minutes after Heinz arrived at Liddonfield, he had to sidestep a used needle lying on the ground.

Krajewski led the senator on the tour, accompanied by Philadelphia Housing Authority Executive Director Greg Kern, Gwen Brown and representatives of the local police department.  At one point, Ms. Brown stopped the senator.  In Albert’s Northeast Times article, Ms. Brown is reported as telling Heinz, “This is the golden road” while she pointed to a walkway that winds through an open area in the middle of the project. “They park their cars, come right through here, get their drugs and leave.”

During the summer days that followed, leaders from neighborhoods surrounding Liddonfield strived to organize and come up with a strategy to deal with the drug dealers that were now a daily presence.  “We feel the northeast is being cheated in practically every city service you can imagine,” said William Harden, President of the Tacony Civic Association in his interview with Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Larry King.  King penned the September 17, 1989 article, Strength Found In Numbers, reporting on a coalition of 13 northeast Philadelphia civic groups who decided to mobilize politically as one unified force.  As yet, the coalition was so new it didn’t have a name. 

Several organizational meetings were held previously, however, and 8th District Councilwoman Joan Krajewski was at one of the meetings.  “We are a low priority area,” said Krajewski.  The councilwoman and the coalition of civic groups wanted to put the current administration on notice that the northeast deserved and demanded more city services, most of all increased police patrols.  By the time November came, they were ready to make a move.

Meanwhile, In the winter chill of a November day, an Upper Holmesburg mother of two took a good look at the used needles lying on the ground in front of her house and wondered how long she and her family could go on like this.  The dreams she once had of her children growing up safe and happy in that house were being destroyed.  Her driveway had become a dumping site for junkie’s discarded syringes.  There were nights when she could hear gun shots just outside her door. 

She carefully collected several of the used needles and wrapped them in a napkin.  She planned to bring them to the Monday meeting at St. Dominic’s Parish Hall as evidence of her personal nightmare.   Community members were going to discuss the rampant drug problem at Liddonfield, the housing project adjacent to her home.  The meeting was called by 8th District Councilwoman Joan Krajewski, who invited 23 leaders and public officials to attend.  It was a desperate act for the mother of two to take the needles with her to the meeting, but the distraught woman wanted Police Commissioner Willie Williams to see for himself what she lived with every day.

Tacony Civic Association Board Member Joseph Sannutti was also going to attend the meeting.  He was busy making a protest sign.  Upon it he wrote the words, WAKE UP PEOPLE OF THE NORTHEAST!  Sannutti had it up to here with drug dealers in his neighborhood and was determined to march up and down Frankford Avenue in front of St. Dominic with that sign to get the message through.  He was a member of the coalition of civic groups, which had come up with a name for their organization – the United Civic Associations of the Northeast (UCAN).

St Dominic Marian Hall in Upper Holmesburg
On the evening of November 13, 1989 over 300 people from neighborhoods surrounding Liddonfield descended upon St. Dominic Marian Hall to protest drugs in the project and the lack of police in northeast Philadelphia.  Sannutti was there, marching in protest outside the building along with fellow members of UCAN.  When the meeting commenced, Sannutti and the other protesters went inside to confront the public officials who showed up.  They included City Council members Joan Krajewski, Agusta Clark and Francis Rafferty, Police Commissioner Willie Williams and Philadelphia Housing Authority Executive Director Greg Kern.  The mother of two was also there, an ordinary citizen among many, summoning up her courage to do what she felt was necessary to get her life back.

Kern walked onto the stage to address the crowd and was immediately assailed with questions as to why the housing authority didn’t provide more security at Liddonfield.  According to a Philadelphia Inquirer article dated November 15, 1989 entitled, All Talk, No Action Sparks Protest, Officials Grilled on Housing Project Drug Strategy by reporter Sydney Trent, Kern told the crowd that it was hard to find security guards willing to work “dangerous territory” for the low pay offered by the housing authority.  He added that he would ”assign a couple [of security guards] at Liddonfield on a temporary basis to work staggered shifts” but they would have to wait several months.  

“Booooooooooooooooo!”  Kern kept his composure as the crowd of angry citizens booed him.  Commissioner Williams was up next.  This was the moment the mother of two was waiting for.  She came forward from the sea of onlookers carrying the napkin full of used needles, walked slowly up to the podium where Williams stood and laid the napkin at his feet.  Trent’s article reports that the unidentified woman told the commissioner, “There are people running in front of my house shooting guns.  I have two children.”

Williams was in a tough spot.  People from the project wanted to know what happened to the Liddonfield police mini-station they had petitioned for a year ago.  The Commissioner admitted he didn’t know anything about that.  Trent’s article on the meeting states, “He [Commissioner Williams] warned that the officers used in the mini-stations would have to be taken from car patrols, which respond to emergencies.”

“Talk, talk talk!  You gotta do more than talk!” shouted someone from the crowd.  It seemed that the people of Northeast Philly were getting nowhere with city officials.  Summing up the meeting, Trent wrote, “many residents left as angry as they had come.”  In his interview with Trent, Sannutti called it “lip service” and added, “but we’ll let our feelings known by hitting the streets.”  If city officials thought this was the end of it, then they had greatly underestimated the people of Northeast Philadelphia.  

Part 7 of this series will be posted next week.

SOURCES:

Strength Found In Numbers, Philadelphia Inquirer, September 17, 1989 by reporter Larry King

Heinz Wants to Boot Dealers Out of the Projects, Northeast Times, June 28, 1989 by reporter Jim Albert

All Talk, No Action Sparks Protest, Officials Grilled on Housing Project Drug Strategy, Philadelphia Inquirer, November 15, 1989 by reporter Sydney Trent

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