The Hidden City Interview: A Full Transcript

On Thursday, November 29, I was contacted by Alex Vuocolo, a freelance writer for Hidden City Philadelphia. He was following up on a lead for a story about the 800 block of N. Opal Street, a small street that runs through Ogden Park and where I also own a piece of property. Since the 1970s (and perhaps before), the area on each side of the street designated for sidewalks has been unused and “adopted” by the owners, but over the summer, the Streets Department of the City of Philadelphia issued warnings to every owner on the block for potential encroachments on those sidewalks.

It’s a complex situation, and one that you can read about in Alex’s final published version of the story titled “In Fairmount, Neighbors Balk At City Enforcement Of Ancient Property Lines.” Here’s an excerpt from the opening:

Laid out in 1869, the 800 block of tiny North Opal Street in Fairmount was given generous eight foot sidewalks. Since then a house was built over the sidewalk at the southern end of the block and the western sidewalk disappeared beneath walled-off backyards and concrete driveways.

Looking up from the south end now, the encroachments from the houses on North Uber and North 20th, on either side of Opal, appear integral to the architecture of the street.

Before the story was posted on Hidden City, Alex and I had a lengthy email exchange. Here’s the transcript (minus some conversation about the timing and logistics of answering the questions):

Alex Vuocolo (AV): Hey Drew, Doug [Young] told me he talked to you, and that you [are] interested in helping me out. In particular, I was curious about the information you dug up on the history of the neighborhood, including a fire that devastated in the 60s. Would you be able to answer some questions via email or by phone?

Drew Kondylas (DK): Happy to chat, Alex. Most of my knowledge comes from talking to other residents, but I’ll provide what I can…

AV: How long have you been living on Opal? Were you ever made aware that your backyard was not in compliance prior to the citations?

DK: I purchased my property on Opal Street in 2010 from the city to use as a side yard to my primary residence. My house is actually on Uber Street. To be clear, I have not yet received a citation (as far as I know) and have only received a warning notice. Prior to that initial warning, however, I believed I was in full compliance. I believed that because I had to submit plans to the city before I could purchase the land, and after the purchase the city inspected the work I had done to make sure I followed what was approved. I purchased the land through the Redevelopment Authority with approval from City Council. The warning was issued by the Streets Department.

AV: Do you think that new development on Opal st. and Francisville generally are big reasons why these citations were given now?

DK: I don’t believe the notices/citations are due to development, although I do not know that for a fact. I suspect a neighbor may have reported a single property and when the inspector conducted a site visit he decided to issue warnings to everyone.  Again, that is only a guess.

AV: What kind of time and expense will be required of you, personally, to comply with the right-of-way?

DK: I will need to relocate a fence, moving it back from the curb line by 8 feet, and also demolish and rebuild part of a retaining wall. I won’t be able to move the fence until the retaining wall is complete since the wall will need to extend to the border of the cartway. I may also have to replace part of the concrete sidewalk that is currently behind my fence, to prevent a separate citation for a broken or dangerous sidewalk, once it’s open to the public. I don’t know how much it will cost, but I will likely do all of the work myself over several/many weekends.

AV: Are you taking any official steps to avoid having to comply?

DK: Doug and I have talked many times about it and I have also made about a dozen calls to various city departments trying to determine who I need to talk to and/or how I can come into compliance without moving the fence and rebuilding the wall. I’ve talked to several people in the Streets Department and each has given me a different answer. There seem to be two solutions: 1) an Ordinance of Council striking the sidewalk from the cartway or 2) filing for permission for an encroachment, which seems implausible at best. If I knew specifically what I should do, I would be doing it now.

AV: Final question: I want to get a sense of the neighborhood’s history. Whatever major events you can give me some info on would really help.

DK: As far as Opal Street is concerned, my understanding is that there were once row homes on the entire street. At some point in the late 1960s, the city used eminent domain to claim all of the properties and demolished the homes.  This may have been because of the fire you referenced in an earlier email but some neighbors have told me most of the houses were in pretty bad condition anyway. When I researched my Opal Street property, I learned that it had been owned by the city since 1968 or 1969. When I installed the fence, I had trouble placing the posts because the foundation of the old houses (basically a brick wall) was still there under about 6 inches of topsoil. After I purchased the land, I then found out that there were several outstanding CLIP citations (for tall weeds and trash). Cleaning and clearing the land to get it to a usable condition required removing about 7 tons of debris. I did that by hand with the help of some very nice friends. There are three properties directly north of my parcel that are also vacant and city-owned and they also have citations.

Moving beyond my property, there are 12 parcels of land (owned by 3 city agencies) in the middle of the block that make up a pocket park called Ogden Park.  I actually formed a non-profit — with the help and support of the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation (FNDC) — to protect the park.  That non-profit is called Friends of Ogden Park and I sit on the Board of Directors. Friends of Ogden Park is currently trying to have those parcels consolidated and transferred to Parks and Recreation permanently.  In 2008, Penny Giles, who is the Director of FNDC, spearheaded efforts to clean and clear the park. The mayor was even there at the dedication once the work was done. If my parcel had 7 tons of debris, imagine how much had to be cleared from 12 parcels.  See www.FriendsOfOgdenPark.org for more information and some stories/photos.

Before Penny and FNDC stepped in, Ogden Park was home to drugs and prostitution and not much else.  Today there is a beautiful garden cultivated by a landscape architect, a picnic table, and there are barbeques almost every weekend in the summer.  We still have a lot of work to do, but it gets better with every passing season.  Getting back to the citations for a minute, if the violations stand on the other properties on Opal Street, Ogden Park may have to come into compliance as well.  That could require about 120 linear feet of sidewalk (possibly 1000+ sq ft of new concrete, total), new curbs, removal/relocation of fences and retaining walls, and a reduction in green space.

DK: Are you planning to use this as background or quote it verbatim in the story? I imagine you will have more questions and need some clarifications.  If you want to talk by phone, I’m available after about 2pm [Saturday, 12/1] … feel free to call my cell phone.

AV: [No response. Story published Thursday, 12/13.]

Note: This section of Opal Street is actually in Francisville, not Fairmount.