From deep within the belly of this beast of a building—a hulking, decrepit six-story structure that takes up most of a ragged city block in Hunting Park—the sounds of industry ring out on a recent afternoon: the clanging of hammers on metal and pipes against concrete, ripping noises and distant thuds.
It’s not a construction crew inside but a small, brazen army of scrappers (as many as two dozen, according to some local residents) illegally harvesting copper, aluminum and steel from the 110-year-old building on North Fifth Street between Pike and Luzerne streets. It was once the Apex Hosiery factory, then the Roberto Clemente Middle School. Now it looms over the block, vacant and wrecked, and grows more dangerous by the day—a grim reminder that Philly’s epidemic of vacant lots and abandoned buildings is about more than just ugly aesthetics.
“Paul” is one of the scrappers, although he doesn’t admit it at first. “This is my home right now,” he says, slapping a palm against one of Clemente’s crumbling red brick walls. A skinny white guy who stands out in this predominantly Latino neighborhood, Paul claims he’s 39, though he looks at least 10 years older.
Clutching a Dunkin’ Donuts cup filled with half-smoked cigarette butts that he scavenged from the bus stop nearby, Paul explains how he goes up to the roof of the building sometimes to shoot dope or to sleep because “no one really messes with you up there—the cops ain’t goin’ up there.” He says he came here a couple weeks ago from Kensington—where he was squatting in an abandoned house— because he heard the building was a scrapper’s paradise. A couple hours’ work inside, he explains, can yield a couple hundred bucks’ worth of metal—just haul it out, dump it in your shopping cart and push it a few blocks to the scrap yard at Second and Erie for some quick cash. Enough for a steady fix. “[The scrap is] just sittin’ right in there,” says Paul, who, despite the warm weather, is wearing several layers of dirty clothes. “Why not take it? It ain’t hurtin’ nobody.”
That’s not what the locals think. Nearby residents and business owners estimate that scrappers descended on the Clemente building like vultures to a carcass about eight months ago, and since then have accelerated the deterioration of the already dilapidated structure to the point where it’s a daily threat to people’s safety and health. “There’s brick and concrete and broken glass falling off of there all the time,” says Abigail Smith, 38, who’s sitting on the stoop of her rowhome on the 3900 block of North Fifth along with her two teenage kids, staring up at the building. “I can’t believe nobody’s been killed yet,” she says. “It’s gonna happen, it’s just a matter of time.”
“My windshield got busted out by a piece of concrete last week,” says her next-door neighbor, Jeff, who points out that scrappers have made off with many of the building’s aluminum windows, leaving gaping holes so that even a moderate gust of wind dislodges pieces of pipe, fiberglass insulation, ceiling tiles and light fixtures that regularly tumble onto the street. So does all kinds of trash from squatters and junkies like Paul who occupy the building. Hypodermic needles litter the sidewalk. Smith says she sees crackheads smoking and hookers turning tricks with their johns on the ground floor (where ratty mattresses lay amidst the filth and rubble) virtually every day. She says scrappers work around the clock—throughout the night, the clanging of their hammers emanating from the darkness. “Even if I had to save my child I wouldn’t go in there,” says Smith, who’s planning to move by the end of the month because of the danger.
Just as dangerous is the asbestos. Elizabeth Childs, deputy of strategic communications for the School District of Philadelphia (which purchased the building in 1967 and is still responsible for its maintenance) confirms that the structure contains the hazardous material. Undisturbed asbestos isn’t necessarily a health concern, but once it’s broken apart by, say, a motley demolition crew, asbestos fibers and particles can, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “remain suspended in the air for a long time and be carried long distances by wind.” Asbestos exposure is linked to lung cancer, mesothelioma and other potentially fatal diseases.
The presence of asbestos comes as no surprise to 49-year-old Jose Lisojo, owner of JL Custom Shop on Rising Sun Avenue, which faces the back of the Clemente building. Standing outside his garage, Lisojo and his friend Ray—a carpenter who says he’s certified to remove asbestos—point to pipe wrappings inside the building that they’re certain contain asbestos. Both mention the white dust that comes out of the property every day. “[Scrappers are] poisoning the air around here,” Lisojo complains. He says he’s called the city’s 311 hotline repeatedly to report asbestos contamination, but claims no one takes him seriously. “One time the guy told me, ‘Don’t worry—you won’t get sick for 20 or 30 years,’” says Lisojo, shaking his head.
Smith and other residents say they’ve called the city or the police numerous times because of dangerous debris or illegal activity, to little effect.
Childs says that while the school district has no current plans to rid the building of asbestos, the district’s Facilities Management department checks up on the building daily and makes monthly visits to “clean up and secure the property.” But Lisojo says the patrols amount to little more than a conspicuous school district vehicle that parks alongside the building for a few minutes while scrappers—who come and go with little fear—duck out of sight before getting right back to work. And there’s little evidence of cleanup or other security efforts. Heaps of trash are everywhere both inside and outside the building. Ground floor windows remain wide open. There are gaping holes in the fence. And, almost comically, there’s a shiny new padlock on one rusty chain wrapped around a gate while just yards away, the front door to the building is unlocked and propped halfway open.
Police acknowledge that the shootings and assaults that plague this crime-scarred part of North Philly take precedence over going after scrappers, although a handful have been arrested this year for burglary or criminal trespassing. “Theft is probably middle of the pack in terms of priority around here,” says one PPD officer.
Calls to the city’s Air Management Services—which oversees the Asbestos Control Unit—were rerouted to the Department of Public Health, which did not return messages seeking comment.
Still, there’s a glimmer of hope: Childs says the school district just got the go-ahead from the Philadelphia School Reform Commission to sell the building as part of its new Adaptive Sale and Reuse policy for excess properties. “This building will be one of the first group of buildings that will follow this policy as we dispose of them,” says Childs, who expects that the process to find a buyer will begin this summer. For her neighbors’ sake, Smith says, “I hope somebody buys it and either fixes it up or tears it down. It can’t just keep sitting there, getting worse.”
Meanwhile, Paul is already thinking about moving on—he says it’s getting too dangerous, especially with the brutal fights that have started to break out between rival scrappers inside the building. “The ones who’ve been here a while, they don’t like new people like me who just show up,” he says, picking through his cigarette cup for the longest butt. “I’ll just go somewhere else.”
Click here for more photos of the abandoned school.