Out our front door, the sidewalk ends before it begins.
My husband and I live on South Franklin Street, in the heart of South Philly. When we bought our home in our 20s, this little cul-de-sac appealed to us as a quiet refuge in the middle of bustling Passyunk Square. Now, we’re discovering the street can be a terrifying place to raise our 2-year-old daughter, Tilde.
On paper, I live in a place made for walking. My address ranks a 95 out of 100 on Walk Score, a website that rates walkability in neighborhoods around the country, and whose criteria is based on proximity to amenities. Sure, I’m close to green space, grocery stores, and a popular restaurant row. But Walk Score doesn’t account for things like torn-up sidewalks or illegally dumped mattresses, all of which ought to knock my street’s ranking down a few notches.
During his mayoral campaign, Jim Kenney paid lip service to Vision Zero and promised to start holding contractors accountable when they block sidewalks. A year later, City Councilmember Helen Gym has taken up the mantle, introducing a bill that would open up more options for pedestrian walkways at construction sites. These are initiatives I can get behind. But a walk around my neighborhood, at least, reveals that very little real-world progress has been made.
We’re left wondering: Who in the City government is responsible for making sure our sidewalks are clear and safe? What recourse do pedestrians have when their routes are blocked by cars, construction or trash?
On a late sunny morning, with errands to run and playgrounds to visit, I put Tilde in a stroller and set off to find out.
First, South Franklin Street. We’re a narrow dead end, just eight properties long, that doesn’t even register on some GPS programs. A mini trash truck has to service our street. To keep cars from parking on our sidewalks, many neighbors have put up anti-parking poles. Only trouble is, the trash truck knocks most of these over, turning them into jagged trip hazards.
We leave the house and see the familiar sights: Our neighbor’s sign imploring people not to drive on her sidewalk. The unpermitted construction to create a driveway. The permitted construction to take down a garage and make a yard. The sinkhole (or three) that has been filled in with gravel and concrete, only to return as a sinkhole again.
The sidewalk itself was never fixed, giving way to a mound of rocks, trash and sprouting plants.
A few months ago, the Water Department did some work that involved digging up the sidewalk outside a neighbor’s property. But the sidewalk itself was left unfixed, giving way to a mound of rocks, trash and sprouting plants.
At the north end of the street hangs a sign announcing that there are kids at play with an oh-so-Philly pun to “Drive CarePhilly.” By this intersection, we navigate a sidewalk that customers at a nearby gym use as a parking lot. And we bump over an extra high, tire-popping storm drain that needs to be reattached every time a truck’s tires dislodge it.
All this before we hit the end of the block.
Let’s pause for a minute.
For the size of our block, we make a fair amount of noise — civically, that is. As soon as our trash pick-up gets skipped on a Thursday, we report to 311 through every available channel. We call, we tweet, we use the app. Usually this works, but in our 10 years as homeowners, there have been a few occasions where we see no resolution and need to escalate.
When trash sat idle for more than three weeks through multiple snow storms, for instance, we emailed our city councilmember, Mark Squilla. He tends to respond quickly and brings higher-ups from the Streets Department into the mix. “Sidewalk safety and trash, along with parking, is one of the biggest concerns that we receive from residents,” he told me recently. “I would say about 30 percent of the calls are about these issues.”
Trash, however, is a more straightforward problem than the Water Department’s rubble pile two doors down. We reported this to 311 a few times, but months went by without action. We only saw someone from the Streets Department when a neighbor moved out and trash bags piled higher than her stoop. The Streets officer wrote a ticket for the trash, but told me the rubble pile wasn’t under his purview. But wait, he asked, do cars always park on the sidewalk? He told me they could all be ticketed, just not by him. The parking, like the rubble pile, fell outside his jurisdiction. His advice: call 311.
I asked 311 about the Water Department’s unfinished work. A representative told me they would report it and ticket the homeowner. This particular issue, though the construction barriers bore the Water Department’s seal, actually fell under Licenses and Inspections. Yet when I reached out to L&I, I was told that the Streets Department deals with sidewalks. When I reached Streets, they told me, “Sidewalks are the responsibility of the adjacent property owner but the owner can be cited for a defective sidewalk.” But I didn’t actually have a neighbor anymore. A bank had become the owner.
Months passed. We returned from a trip abroad to find water in our basement. We called the Water Department. After multiple visits in and around our house, a crew of five arrived on our street, determining that the now-vacant neighboring house was the culprit and that the street and sidewalk needed to be torn up, again, to shut its water off. One of the crewmembers made a point, upon seeing Tilde, to tell me not to let my daughter approach the rubble pile. It could collapse at any time.
The next day, they dug up the street and sidewalk and filled in the holes with some asphalt. South Franklin Street’s signature 2016 issue had finally been resolved.
OK, back to our walk. Tilde and I have swings to swing and groceries to buy. Finally, we leave our block.
Nearly every 50 feet, I find something I could write about for this story. At 6th and Reed streets, a city truck blocks a curb cut. On Reed between 6th and 7th, bags of dog poop litter the ground. On 5th between Reed and Dickinson, street closures due to construction. We cross the street twice mid-block, and duck under a two-by-four suspended horizontally between a fence and a tree.
All I’ve really done is gotten my neighbor fined.
We find ourselves on the 1400 block of South 7th Street, just north of Kirkbride Elementary School, where Tilde will attend. Days before trash day, we come across a mattress — one of many we’ll see blocking the sidewalk today. I’ve heard of specific ways to dispose of a mattress in the wild, and when I call 311, I’m told this process: If you see someone dumping the mattress out of a car, call 911 with a license plate number. If you see the mattress alone, call 311 with the address. The mattress is a sanitation issue, and the property owner will be fined.
But who, I ask, will pick up the mattress?
Here’s where things get circular. The property owner must dispose of the mattress, but the Streets Department won’t take it if it’s not sealed property. Streets will give the homeowner a ticket and time to fix the issue, but not a bag to seal the mattress.
Sounds to me, in this six-minute phone call, that the mattress will be there in perpetuity. All I’ve really done is gotten my neighbor fined.
On our way back from the Columbus Square playground, we skirt around cars parked on a curvy block just south of the 3rd District police station. Then we come to 11th and Reed, an intersection we cross regularly as it falls between the playground and an Acme supermarket. The corner has no markings, signals or curb cuts.
Another block over, at the intersection of 10th, Reed and Passyunk, we see our friend Jess and the two boys she nannies. She warns me just before we cross to look out for a truck parked outside the East Passyunk Market, unloading Stroehmann bread and blocking the entire sidewalk. There’s no way to get around it other than walking directly into the traffic of Passyunk Avenue.
The finale of our walk is across 10th Street, past a series of auto body shops that treat the sidewalk as a natural extension of their garages.
Two years ago, this walk wouldn’t have bothered me. Able-bodied and alone, I could fit past obstructions or bravely waltz into traffic. I could ignore the potential obstacles that some of my neighbors, bound to a wheelchair or without the language skills to call in a complaint, could not. Now, with stroller wheels on the ground and a kid under my watch, I can’t look away. Every obstruction creates an inconvenience or potential danger. But where do my responsibilities as a habitual 311 caller end, and where do those of the City begin?
Officials have told me over and over that City agencies are understaffed and need help from private citizens to enforce the law. “We need more manpower for enforcement from Streets Department, police, and help from the residents to call in the dangerous problems,” Squilla said.
Keisha McCarty-Skelton, public relations supervisor for the Streets Department, said, “Please do not assume the department is aware of problems.”
Where do my responsibilities as a habitual 311 caller end, and where do those of the City begin?
Streets does have SWEEP (the Streets and Walkways Education and Enforcement Program), employing officers to investigate 311 requests as well as address violations of the sanitation code during routine patrols. Chronic offenders are given citations, and Streets even uses camera surveillance at some of the more troublesome locations. The primary way to identify chronic issues? Chronic reporting from people like me.
If I see a problem every 50 feet, though, couldn’t this be my full-time job? In my zip code alone, 311 logged 7,809 total requests in 2016, more than 1,000 of which related to trash pick-up. That means every week, about 20 people in our area have an issue with trash. We use the system just like we’re asked, but the issues I report persist for months. We need the City, and those entrusted with our safety, to meet us at least halfway. ◆
Photos by Kate Raines