Philly Neighborhood Still Hurt From Police Bomb That Blew Up 61 Homes

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PHILADELPHIA – Gerri Bostic lost all her material possessions 25 years ago when police dropped a bomb on her block, killing five children and six adult members of the militant group MOVE and incinerating 61 row homes.

Perhaps her biggest losses were her peace of mind and sense of community.

Her West Philadelphia neighborhood — now nearly vacant and eerily quiet — never recovered from the city’s horrific botched attempt to arrest the MOVE members on May 13, 1985. The violent confrontation marked the first time authorities in the United States had dropped a bomb on American citizens.

Today, after spending more than $43 million on redevelopment, the city has two blocks of boarded-up eyesores to show for its efforts. The homes built to replace those lost in the bomb-ignited inferno were so shoddy that officials stopped making repairs and offered buyouts.

“There’s nothing nice about this block anymore,” said Bostic, 89. “All the people are gone.”

And now that a long-running lawsuit over the replacement houses has ended, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell says the city needs to put the past to rest on Osage Avenue and Pine Street.

“It’s time to make peace with it all and fix up the properties,” Blackwell said.

It won’t be easy; Philadelphia has many blighted areas competing for attention. And developers of these blocks will have the added challenge of winning support from embittered residents whose American Dream of homeownership has been a nightmare.

“We’ve been victimized twice,” Osage resident Milton Williams said.

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Some might say Williams and his neighbors have been victimized three times — the first being when MOVE arrived around 1981.

The revolutionary back-to-nature group came to the city’s Cobbs Creek section after a 1978 shootout with police at its previous home. One officer died in the firefight; nine MOVE members went to prison, and others moved to Osage Avenue.

They soon turned their middle-class row house into a fortified compound, with a bunker on the roof and wooden slats over the windows. Reeking garbage attracted vermin, and loudspeakers blared obscene daily rants against authorities for jailing their peers.

“You really couldn’t get any rest,” said Connie Renfrow, who still lives on Osage. “The kids couldn’t do their studies.”

Her husband, Gerald Renfrow, said neighbors at first tried to address the problems directly with MOVE members, all of whom used the surname Africa. When talking failed, residents called authorities — but to no avail.

“They just let it fester,” he said.

Police decided to move on MOVE in mid-May 1985, obtaining arrest and search warrants on the belief the group’s house contained illegal weapons and explosives. Authorities evacuated the block on May 12, telling residents there would be a police action the next day.

When they were refused entry to serve the warrants on May 13, police began an hours-long siege using water cannons, tear gas and bullets. A state police helicopter flew overhead carrying Philadelphia officers and a canvas satchel loaded with explosives.

The bomb ignited a gasoline-fueled conflagration that killed the MOVE militants and children and obliterated two blocks of homes. Ramona Africa, then 29, and Birdie Africa, then 13, escaped with major burns.

Residents, who had been told to take just a change of clothes with them, came home to find ruins.

“Nothing but brick and rubble,” recalled Gerald Renfrow, 64.

After more than a year in temporary housing, residents returned to their rebuilt homes in the fall of 1986. That winter, the roofs started leaking.

Next came discoveries of defective plumbing and wiring, bad flooring, nails popping out of walls, burst pipes, flooded basements and backyards and broken appliances. Replacement trees have since uprooted parts of the sidewalk and are strangling pipes.

Milton Williams, 61, has had five stoves, four roofs and two living room ceilings. Today, his front and back windows look out on boarded-up homes.

“It’s embarrassing to invite people over here,” he said.

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After 14 years of unending repairs, then-Mayor John Street decided in 2000 that the houses were beyond salvage. He offered owners $125,000 each plus $25,000 in moving expenses; 37 people took him up on it. The homes were then worth about $75,000 each.

But 24 residents sued for breach of contract for stopping the repairs, which had been promised by Street’s predecessor. A federal jury awarded each homeowner $534,000, but a judge slashed it to $250,000. An appeal brought the settlement to $190,000 per house in 2008.

Sixteen homeowners, including Williams and Bostic, accepted the deal. Bostic, though, said it is not enough money to move off Osage and, in any case, she is too old to start over. She turns 90 in September.

“I think if I have to move it will kill me,” Bostic said. “Why couldn’t they fix the houses like they should have?”

Williams said he won’t spend any money on his house while the city-owned homes are abandoned.

“I’m not going to invest any more in this place not knowing what they’re going to do with these homes,” Williams said.

Eight homeowners — including the Renfrows — have refused to accept the settlement, saying to do so would wrongly imply the city had made things right.

The Renfrows say the money would not allow them to buy an equivalent house in an area with the amenities they have now — a park, public transportation and proximity to downtown, shopping and entertainment.

And while they’ve paid off their mortgage, they cannot tap the home’s equity. The house is valueless and unsellable, they say, as long as it needs repairs and sits amid blight.

“They promised to make us whole,” said Connie Renfrow, 63. “They haven’t even made us halfway whole.”

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Blackwell, the councilwoman who represents the area, says developers have expressed interest in the lots but never followed through — in part because of the legal baggage and lack of support from the city.

Still, six months before the homeowners’ suit settled, Blackwell wrote to the new mayor’s chief of staff to say it is “long past the time that we have a plan for these properties.”

“I think we have all been fortunate that no one has broken into these homes and created another disaster,” she wrote in March 2008.

Neighbors agree. They say Osage, which once hosted huge community block parties, has become a street for illicit sex and drug deals because of the blight.

“They think that no one lives here,” Gerald Renfrow said.

Blackwell repeated her warning in a letter last December to Mayor Michael Nutter, the fourth city leader to deal with fallout from the bombing. But little has been done.

Nutter spokesman Doug Oliver said in a statement that, unfortunately, the city has many blighted areas demanding attention.

“In the long run, our best hope to redevelop these neighborhoods is to continue building a vibrant city with a strong tax base that will enable us to rebuild these communities,” he said.

The MOVE survivors and victims’ relatives collectively received about $5.5 million in compensation from the city. Some MOVE members now live in a blue-and-white Victorian in the city’s Clark Park section, about two miles from Osage Avenue.

There are no slats, no roof bunker, no loudspeakers — just a few dogs.

Ramona Africa, now 54, said the group of about three dozen members continues to fight what it considers the unfair incarceration of eight members for the 1978 officer killing. A ninth died in prison.

“There is no justice in the legal system,” Africa said. “Not just for MOVE, but for anybody.”

Meanwhile, their former house on Osage was rebuilt and sits among those boarded up.

For 20 years after the bombing, it was occupied first by the city’s redevelopment authority, then by a round-the-clock police detail to ensure MOVE did not return.

Today, phone books are piled on the stoop, a decrepit sawhorse sits by the front door and the window blinds are drawn.

The police, too, have moved out.

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