Tough as Nails: Tenants Displaced by the Penn Wynn Mass Eviction Move Out — and Onward

Photos and text by Geoff Reed

In June, all 239 tenants of the Penn Wynn House apartments in Wynnefield, West Philly were evicted so the owners can renovate and dramatically increase rents. Many of the tenants, including veterans and those on disability, had trouble moving because they live on fixed incomes. Many had Section 8 vouchers that new landlords often refuse to accept. Philadelphia has lost a substantial amount of affordable housing, according to PlanPhilly. “The mass eviction basically destroyed a whole city block,” Philadelphia Tenants’ Union (PTU) organizer Geoff Reed says. “The city didn’t have the resources to place everyone.” Community Legal Services negotiated a later eviction date for some of the tenants. Over the summer, Reed helped the remaining tenants move, sometimes staying up all night to fill up his truck and make repeated trips across the city. In the process, he got to know them. With their permission, he photographed them and wrote these brief poetic sketches of their stories. —The Editors

Dominic.jpg

 

Dominic (right); massage therapist, model, actor and another victim of Penn Wynn’s unjust mass eviction who I, with fellow PTU organizer Andrew C. (left), helped move. A month earlier, when two other PTU members and I canvassed the building after we learned about the mass eviction, Dominic was one of the first tenants to open their door when I knocked, before the management got wind of our ruse and asked us to leave. I obliged, of course, even if I took the scenic route down the stairs and thru each floor on the way, shoving PTU pamphlets under every door until I ran out.

 

Regina Taylor.jpg

Regina Taylor, another victim of Cross Properties’ unjust mass eviction of the Penn Wynn apartments. This is her second displacement, and I’ll hazard a guess that suffering through another dose of it figured heavily in her decision to join the Philadelphia Tenants Union. Her move started late (my fault), and with my lone pickup truck to handle a three-bedroom apartment, we worked well into the night, making three trips from West to North Philly. During all the driving to and from her new place, we talked about Philadelphia, the changing face of its neighborhoods, and in particular about its vaunted boxing history. We wondered why no one bothers to open more gyms and rec centers instead of useless entrepreneurial-class stores like the Lil Pop Shop. We wondered why boxing great Smokin’ Joe Frazier’s gym sells furniture now — and even if no longer operating as a gym, how it deserves the protected status of a historical monument. After all, at least part of this city’s working class ethos — though in this instance, more mythos — remains preserved in a bronze statue of a white, fake-ass boxer with a story that sounds similar to Smokin’ Joe’s.

 

Tara.jpgTara, one of the mass evicted tenants from the Penn Wynn apartments turned Philadelphia Tenants Union organizer.

 

PTU truck.jpgWaiting to finish moving a single, disabled mom, another of the unjustly mass evicted from Penn Wynn, I found some paint in the dumpster and thought my side panels needed something… temporary sign until I can cut a stencil.

 

Mrs. Gwen.jpgMrs. Gwen, whose elegant fashion sense defies the subhuman treatment she and the other unjustly mass evicted Penn Wynn tenants suffered at the hands of Cross Properties. Not only a style maven, this Tyler School of Art graduate dedicated her life to enriching the lives of young people as a music and art teacher. This level of community outreach and civic-mindedness never figured in Cross Properties’ final calculus. I sat overnight in the ER with the tough-as-nails Mrs. Gwen. Another Penn Wynn-tenant-turned-PTU-organizer, Leon, and I moved her in a 36-hour no-sleep marathon that a last-minute designed-to-make-you-fail deadline laid out by a court settlement for a $1,000 moving incentive from Cross Properties forced us to undertake. The resultant chaos and clutter from cramming a larger apartment with over 30 years of accumulated things — hastily packed, too boot — into a smaller one; the effects of sleep deprivation, in particular on an elderly person experiencing the onset of dementia; the typical stress of moving; the emotional fallout caused by this level of dehumanization — all set the stage for Mrs. Gwen’s trip and fall that fractured her C5 vertebrae and slammed her teeth thru her lip and cheek while she and I worked on setting up her new digs. A perfect display of trickle-down economics at work. And remember this: AN INJURY TO ONE IS AN INJURY TO ALL.

 

Leon.jpgTo survive racism, prison, police brutality, the damage from years of manual labor, addiction, HIV and — as one of the unjustly mass evicted Penn Wynn tenants — displacement… the last place you expect to find such a beaten soul is sitting across from you in an Empire Diner booth at 3am after you both just finished moving another one of the Penn Wynn evicted. Leon, as a new PTU member/organizer, never shied away from lending a hand when his time and body allowed, a magnanimity that falls in line with his impressive activist resume that includes prison reform work and AIDS advocacy. From my perspective as an organizer, to work and become friends with someone like Leon you further appreciate the additional challenges marginalized organizers face during times of crisis caused by the very oppression they so often step up to combat.

 

Anthony and Shorty.jpgAnthony and Shorty, two more of the unjustly mass evicted Penn Wynn tenants moving to their new digs. Yes, pets suffer displacement too.

 

Chaz.jpgThe only payment I asked Chaz to make for another storage run to pick up and bring back an additional bed to his Penn Wynn apartment was that he also take his guitar and start playing again during his remaining month at Penn Wynn — an extra month he and his mom needed as they waited on their new place’s re-inspection after the landlord fixed the problems that failed it. In acknowledgement of such unforeseeable events and their role in creating the conditions to lead to them, Penn Wynn proved themselves a real class act in their verbal commitment not to evict any other remaining tenants in similar situations PROVIDED THE TENANT PAYS FOR ANOTHER MONTH’S RENT even if they need less than a month’s time. And this, in case you never knew, is how you figuratively and literally kick someone to curb in the same breath. Despite all this horrible bullshit — and I need to preface this with how my hair has grown too long to charge, so I’m sporting a mini devilock — when I meet Chaz and we’re about to roll out on our first trip to his storage space, he asks me specifically if I’m into horror punk, and I know I just made a new friend. We head out, barreling down Parkside Ave shooting the shit about punk rock with the Cramps blaring in the background. Even better, on the way back, on the same road, as the conversation switches to activism and community outreach, he points to the Philly Pumptrack [bicycle track in Fairmount Park], which he helped build. So yeah, two souls from different circumstances bonding over punk rock, both engaged in class struggle — this red punk will take that kind of base building every fucking time.

 

Greg and Nory.jpgNory was way stoked about her new digs that she and her owner, Greg, moved to after their unjust eviction from the 18-story Penn Wynn apartments on Bryn Mawr Ave.

 

willie mobley.jpgWillie Mobley, after we finished moving him to his new digs. His story, like several others of the unjustly mass evicted from Penn Wynn -— veterans on fixed incomes — takes a unique twist. He held the title of Last Tenant Standing.

. . .

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