Philly is falling down With 24,000 vacant, deteriorating buildings, city's on verge of collapse.

May 09, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

PHILADELPHIA -- Everybody talks about how Philadelphia is collapsing. But Mike Fink has the pictures to prove it.

A city inspector, Fink was standing in front of a vacant and leaning house in North Philadelphia one morning in March deciding how to get rid of the accident waiting to happen when suddenly gravity began doing its thing.

"While I'm standing there with the camera, I hear boom, boom, boom, boom. The thing is moving. We stopped traffic, cleared everyone out of the way. I aimed my camera and got pictures of it going down," Fink said. "It just collapsed in a big cloud of dust."

On average, seven to 10 buildings a week collapse in Philadelphia, the victims of neglect and decay. ("It's kind of hard to absorb that number at first," one city official conceded.)

"As we speak, buildings fall," said Don Kligerman, head of the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections. "It happens all the time. It's not always an entire building going kaboom like a movie set. It's a back bay or a front porch that just falls off."

Usually, they are old, vacant houses with obvious flaws. But sometimes they are occupied buildings that tumble with hardly a warning, such as the facade that fell off stores on Market Street in September, killing three people, or the church that came thundering down one Sunday in March 1990, injuring the preacher and two others. That same weekend, two other buildings fell.

In December, a construction worker was killed when a building collapsed on him. He was part of a crew trying to demolish the building before it fell.

The city tries to detect buildings on the brink and have them either repaired or destroyed before they fall, but money is short and the candidates for collapse are numerous and mounting.

There are 24,000 vacant buildings in Philadelphia, ranging from rowhouses to rotting industrial structures covering full square blocks. Thousands more occupied buildings are ravaged by time but have yet to catch the eye of the city inspectors whose job it is to deal with those buildings.

"We're a city that's going through changes, and we're left with vestiges of an earlier age," said Kligerman. He sees the collapse of buildings as almost symbolic of the draining of social and financial investment in portions of the city.

"It's a manifestation of the same problems you see on the human services end of things," Kligerman said. "Why are kids hungry, why are kids dropping out?"

Philadelphia has one of the worst problems in the country with vacant and collapsing buildings. Baltimore, with slightly less than half Philadelphia's population, has 6,000 vacant buildings and reports virtually no experience with spontaneous collapses. Detroit, with one million residents, or 600,000 fewer than jTC Philadelphia, has attacked its dangerous building problem with vigor, demolishing 6,000 in the last two years, twice what Philadelphia has in the past three years.

Philadelphia officials explain the widespread deterioration here as a combination of the city's aging stock of houses -- 80 percent of the houses were built before 1950 -- and the exodus of jobs, people and money over the last 30 years.

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