UNRESOLVED PROBLEMS. Philadelphia looks back on MOVE fire
Philadelphia — Berdian Payne sits on her stamp-size patio on Osage Avenue, chatting contentedly with a neighbor on this picture-perfect block. They both look a little reluctant when approached by yet another reporter. Exactly two years ago, city officials dropped a bomb on a row house up the block in an attempt to dislodge members of the radical group MOVE - and ended up destroying 61 homes and killing six MOVE members and five of their children.
Since then Mrs. Payne and the other families on Osage and Pine have watched their private lives - their grief, their frustration, even their mixed joy in returning - become public fare. ``There are enough memories to haunt you,'' says Payne. ``We want to be at peace.''
Today the new homes on the street present a much happier picture than the stark, devastating scene of homes so obliterated that only a few walls remained standing.
But the story is far from complete. A number of families in the neighborhood have filed suits against the city and state for the bombing fiasco. Last week a grand jury called Mayor W. Wilson Goode's administration ``a morass of incompetence, ineptitude, and mismanagement'' that in effect allowed two building contractors involved in rebuilding the destroyed homes to steal city funds. Cost overruns have ballooned the price of the project, completed far behind schedule, to $9 million.
And while an investigative commission selected by Mayor Goode last year accused the city of ``gross negligence,'' two grand juries are still examining the incident to determine whether any officials should be indicted.
For Berdian Payne, the new house ``feels like home. It's nice.'' She moved in last August, and just recently finished furnishing it. She says she has few, small complaints. But she says her return has not been too hard.
Like several other neighbors, she admits she sometimes feels nervous, that it could all happen again. And she is not happy at reports that MOVE members will be involved in a march down the street on the May 13 anniversary. She still remembers the frequent yelling from the MOVE house that helped drive the neighborhood to pressure the city to take some action.
Anthony Dennis Jackson, a lawyer who represents 17 families in a $20 million civil suit against authorities, points out that the neighbors have been ``very, very tired since before the bombing.'' Tensions between residents and MOVE had been simmering for several years. Although some people among both groups were prepared to coexist, says Molefi Asante, a professor of African-American studies at Temple University, the difference in life styles lead toward the demise of MOVE.
City Councilman Lucien E. Blackwell, who represents the pretty, middle-class, black neighborhood near Cobbs Creek Park, says the residents have been quiet in recent months. He's not quite sure what that means.
``I think people will always remember, but also move ahead,'' he says. It's not over until it's over, he adds, noting the outstanding grand jury investigations and the recent indictments of contractors.
There are still MOVE members in Philadelphia, who were not at that MOVE house at the time of the bombing. Ramona Africa, who escaped the blaze with one child, was tried and sentenced on riot and conspiracy charges connected with the confrontation. She is serving a 16-month to 7-year sentence.
Mayor Goode is seeking a second term as mayor and faces a May 19 Democratic primary, in which the MOVE incident is, not surprisingly, a big issue. He has apologized to the city for the police bombing, and says that if the recent grand jury accusations on the botched rebuilding are proved, he accepts full responsibility. Despite heavy criticism from some sectors, he is expected to win next Tuesday.
The last house was transferred to its owner last January, long after the Christmas 1985 date originally set by Goode. Barbara Farley of the City of Philadelphia Office of Housing says that trying to satisfy 61 families' tastes means that not every resident will be happy.
Residents on Osage and Pine realize that they will still be in a fishbowl as they get used to their new homes and watch the tourists and the media watch them.
``My husband says when people come to Philadelphia, they want to see the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross house, and Osage Avenue,'' one resident says with a wry laugh. But the neighbors have one another, and the people in cars that drive down the street are often friends who call out greetings as they pass.
``We were glad to see each other; we're all friends,'' says Payne of the reassembling of her neighborhood. ``I think the neighborhood is doing the best we can.''