by Jeff Gammage, Philadelphia Inquirer
Updated on DECEMBER 4, 2015 — 1:08 AM EST
A group of Philadelphia Youth Basketball players were there for the announcement at Cooke School, where area residents spoke of their hopes for the neighborhood.
That one piece of ground, weedy and empty and broad, Charlene Samuels said, exerts an outsize influence on the whole Logan neighborhood.
Not just because it has been used as a 35-acre trash dump, or because people up to no good often make it their playground, but because its flat expanse serves as a big public symbol of failure and blight.
“When I say, ‘I live in Logan,’ I don’t want to hear the sarcasm – ‘You live near the Logan Triangle,’ ” Samuels said. “We all are in some way connected and tied [to the site], whether we live close to it or further.”
The Triangle is infamous as the place where whole blocks of houses sank into the ground, a slow-motion 1980s disaster that cost millions of dollars and forced hundreds of families to abandon their homes.
On Thursday, Mayor-elect Jim Kenney joined a veritable hall of fame of Philadelphia basketballers, who gathered in a school gym not two blocks from the Triangle and imagined a new future for the property. To claps and cheers, the nonprofit Philadelphia Youth Basketball announced plans to build a $25 million basketball and education center on the land.
“Anything the city can do to make this happen, we’re going to do,” Kenney said.
PYB executives say they intend to break ground in two years. But huge obstacles remain, including fund-raising. The list of previous proposals for the land – supermarket, senior housing, shopping mall, tree farm – is long and unrealized.
Attempting to build on the land is difficult, for the same reason the houses sank: The ground consisted of a 60-foot layer of coal ash and cinder piled atop the buried Wingohocking Creek before the first houses were built in the 1920s.
By the 1980s, rowhouses and porches listed and leaned. On Valentine’s Day 1986, a ruptured gas main exploded, wrecking two houses. Authorities discovered that 957 houses across 17 square blocks were sinking as the fill eroded.
Most residents were urged to leave their homes permanently, commencing a sorrowful 10-year exodus. The city spent $38 million, most in federal money, to buy and demolish houses, and pay for relocation and environmental remediation.
And then, nothing.
“I feel bad the Triangle is still in the state that it’s in after 25-plus years,” said Samuels, 48. “It’s been heartbreaking, frustrating. Some folks are angry.”
The Triangle, she and others said, drags down the neighborhood like an anchor.
“It makes the whole of Logan look pitiful, even though it’s not,” said Helen Hutchins, 58, who has lived in Logan more than 30 years. “It’s depressing and it’s embarrassing. Because we’re so much more.”
Logan, she and others said, is a place where many people have lived for decades, a place where leaders emerge and persist even when institutions fail.
The Logan Community Development Corp., for instance, ran into financial trouble and abruptly shut down, and Logan EPIC Stakeholders went under when its funding ran out.
Logan also suffers from ills that plague other parts of Philadelphia.
In November, the combined Logan, Ogontz, and Fern Rock area ranked 15th out of 55 neighborhoods in violent crime, according to an Inquirer analysis. Unemployment is 19 percent, the poverty rate 30 percent. Only 41 percent of residents graduated from high school, fewer than 10 percent from college.
Changing that won’t be easy, with or without a big, pricey facility.
The neighborhood was named for James Logan, a secretary to William Penn, and later mayor of Philadelphia and chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In the 1800s the area was seen as outskirts.
Industry arrived near the turn of the century, and Logan became home to Mrs. Smith’s Pies and the Fleer baseball gum card company. Subway lines arrived in the 1920s as homes went up on the flattened ash.
Sherita Glenn, 49, is forced to look at the Triangle every day – her 11th Street home faces it.
But, she said Thursday, she “never gave up hope for a time such as this,” when a meaningful plan for the site would emerge.
She, Hutchins, and Samuels joined more than a hundred people at Cooke School, sharing their hopes with PYB supporters, who included Olympic gold medalist Dawn Staley and former NBA player Aaron McKie.
The program uses basketball as a way to help young people, particularly those from poor communities, develop as athletes, students, and citizens. The planned 120,000-square-foot facility would encompass eight indoor and six outdoor courts, classrooms, a library, a wellness office, and a city basketball hall of fame.
“It is the very thing I wanted in North Philadelphia when I grew up,” said Staley, now women’s basketball coach at the University of South Carolina.
Temple University men’s coach Fran Dunphy said, “It’s an awesome, awesome project.”
PYB leaders said they plan to kick off a fund-raising campaign next year and expect to release news of major donations in the coming months.
In the meantime, the Triangle waits. The land is owned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, which in September chose the Goldenberg Group to develop the site.
Samuels and her husband raised two daughters in Logan, one of them a graduate of Shippensburg University, the other a freshman at West Chester University. She loves Logan, Samuels said, loves its easy access to public transportation.
She has long been active in community groups, elected this week as president of the new Logan Civic Association.
She has seen politicians come and go, seen plans rise and fall. The PYB proposal seems different, though, more tangible and better supported.
“I see light at the end of the tunnel,” Samuels said. “I have hope.”
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