by Michael Burch
Located in the Parkside section of West Philadelphia is a quiet little block named Viola Street. Viola Street is one block south of Parkside Avenue. Many people don’t realize that much of Parkside was built after the country’s first world’s fair which was known as the Centennial Exposition of 1876. All of the 4200 Block of Parkside and part of Viola Street are listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to the many examples of Victorian style homes on the block. Unfortunately, like many other neighborhoods in this city, Viola Street experienced a serious decline during the 1980’s and 1990’s. The reasons for this decline can be debated by sociologists at another time.
For our purposes city neighborhoods need restoration and upkeep. A beautiful neighborhood can become blighted as home owners move out and reinvestment in homes decreases. Thus on Viola Street the neighborhood lost homes and residents. That, however, was in the past. Today Viola Street is on the upswing thanks to the efforts of concerned local residents and organizations like Habitat For Humanity!
Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia, is an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International which is one of the largest nonprofit homebuilders. They recently acquired the smaller The Other Carpenter, a much smaller concern with similar ambitions. The goal of Habitat for Humanity and the Other Carpenter is to transform lives and our city by building quality homes in partnership with families in need, and uniting all Philadelphians around the cause of affordable housing.
Sometime around 2007 residents on the block came together to form the Viola Street Residents Association, a group dedicated to reclaiming their neighborhood and putting an end to the Blight. Community Block Captain Lorraine Gomez gives us some insight into the formation of the Viola Street Residents Association. She states that “the Viola Street Residents Association is a grassroots collective committed to the revitalization of our street and the surrounding East Parkside community. VSRA’s aim is to reverse the tide that contributes to our community’s decline. We aim to reach our goal through resident participation in beautification, greening and restoration projects.”
Ms Gomez’s family has been on Viola Street since the late 1950’s and Ms. Gomez herself has been living bock on the block for the last ten years, and in that time VSRA was formed.
Ms Gomez goes on to say “Viola Street Residents made contact with The Other Carpenter in 2005 when they were doing the “Porch Rehab Program”.
This was the beginning of Viola Street’s current rehabilitation phase. We now fast forward to the summer of 2014 on Viola Street. For at least six weeks during the summer, Habitat for Humanity staff, volunteers, and Viola residents have been diligently and meticulously working on repairing sidewalks, fixing windows, removing weeds, working in their community garden , and scraping paint and repairing leaks. It has been a massive job and has created quite a stir in the usually quiet neighborhood. Viola resident and recipient of the Habitat for Humanity Home Repair Program, Mr Vannie Graham, commented enthusiastically on the program by stating “Its great work being done; you can’t beat it. I’m very happy with the program and its positive results”.
The Parkside Journal wishes to make its readers aware that there is an application process that residents must complete and there are specific guidelines that must be met in order to be considered as a candidate for participation in this program. Gomez goes on to add that “the reaction from my neighbors has been overwhelming. Habitat for Humanity and The Other Carpenter have been like a transfusion for our block. Viola Street is 51% home owner occupied. Our homes are well kept on the inside but may not be the healthiest on the outside. We have some neighbors who are on a fixed income and cannot afford to have all of the repairs done that are needed at the same time.
Habitat for Humanity has allowed us to afford to have the entire repair work done professionally and at one time. You can feel the energy on the block as the work nears completion.
In an effort to learn more about Habitat’s Home repair programs I asked Cassie O’Connell, the Director of the Other Carpenter to elaborate on their programs. “Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia has two branches of home repair; The West Philadelphia repair program (The Other Carpenter) performs block-based repairs in East & West Parkside, Mantua, Mill Creek, Belmont and Cathedral Park. Blocks may apply with a minimum of 4 homeowners at our office at 4127 W Girard Avenue or by calling 267-284- 0310.
We also have a special Weatherization and Home Repair Program which performs repairs in focus areas across the city and is currently searching for veterans to apply. Any Interested applicants can call 215-765-6000 for more information.”
In continuing to talk to O’Connell, I learned that Habitat’s home repair programs are funded largely by individuals, foundations, corporations and faith groups. “Thrivent Financial donated $40,000 for the Viola Street project and area faith groups raised an additional $15,000.
That’s a huge investment on Viola Street; I asked her what she thought of the reactions from the Viola Street community.
O’Connell says “Viola Street represents what Habitat is all about – bringing people together to do something none of us could have done on our own. I’m incredibly grateful to all the dedicated and joyful people who came together – Thrivent Financial, area Churches, individual volunteers, the VSRA, Historical Preservationists, the Historical Commission, skilled carpenters, the Laborer’s Union, youth groups, the Cement Mason’s Union, summer interns, our subcontractors and suppliers, Habitat’s staff and Partner Families, and most of all the Viola Street residents. A huge thank you to everyone for making it happen!”