by Henry Randolph
Lorraine Gomez knows what it means to be rooted to a place. She has rich memories of growing up on Viola Street in West Philadelphia, on a block lined with huge trees and elegant Victorian-style houses built in the 1870s. Despite its beautiful architecture, the neighborhood has seen hard times since Lorraine was young. People moved away, businesses left, and much of the surrounding neighborhood has fallen into disrepair. But Lorraine and her husband Gerald refuse to let their street become another story of blight and neglect. Together with other block residents they formed the Viola Street Residents’ Association (VSRA), which is reversing the decline and becoming a model of community organization and optimism. For the Gomezes and their neighbors, investing effort into their block isn’t just about making it a nicer place to live right now. It’s about re-establishing the roots of the community and helping it thrive for future generations.
This summer Habitat gave Viola Street a major boost, providing façade improvements and exterior repairs to 18 homes on the block over a single week in June with the help of over 200 volunteers from local faith groups. The Gomezes also applied for additional home repairs funded by a special grant from The Home Depot Foundation, which awarded Habitat Philadelphia $150,000 to provide repairs to 10 local military veterans.
The Gomezes’ life story suggests that you can go home again, if you work hard enough for it. Lorraine served in the Air Force with her husband after college and then moved to New Jersey, but they soon realized that they missed the neighborhood cohesion that they’d grown up with. They moved back to Lorraine’s childhood home in 2003, and found that there were others on the block with the same idea. “There’s a group of us who moved back into our families’ homes. We call ourselves the ‘re-plants.’ And once we got back, we could see a vision of this block being great. So we all got together and started talking about organizing our block, and that’s how we formed the Viola Street Residents’ Association. And it’s just been picking up momentum.”
The block had fallen into major disrepair in the years they’d been gone. But the ethic that drove the VSRA was this: if you can envision it, you can achieve it. They started as a small but active group, scheduling regular block clean-ups and holding fundraisers, using the money to maintain the street and the vacant lots. Other residents started joining as they saw the efforts paying off, and the association has grown from five to 25 members. “This is what a community should be doing,” says Lorraine. “We’re all stakeholders here.” Besides its partnership with Habitat, the VSRA has secured support from other local sources like the Philadelphia Horticultural Society and City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. Just a few years after the VSRA began, the block is well-maintained and thriving.
“One thing I learned in the military is that you have to be civically engaged,” says Lorraine. “If you don’t, things will go right by. Everybody wants change, everybody wants things to get better, so you’ve got to do something to make it happen.”
Besides focusing on improving the block, the Gomezes and many of their neighbors had their own aging home to worry about, which is why Habitat’s repair program was such a good fit. Our work on the block helped the VRSA beautify and maintain the sidewalks and open lots, but it also addressed critical maintenance and safety issues for individual homeowners. “The rehab that they’re doing to my house—my husband and I could never afford it,” Lorraine says. Besides issues that they knew about (for example, an old roof leak had caused much of the third floor ceiling plaster to collapse) there were other unwelcome surprises. “It was amazing—they took up the kitchen floor and showed me where the joists were corroded. Five years from now we would have gone through the floor. My heater was putting off carbon monoxide, and we didn’t know. And the house is old, so the heat was going out through the cracks.” Habitat’s home repair team addressed each of these issues, replacing windows, insulation and the heating system.
The Gomezes are ecstatic. “The work that they’re doing is going to help us live longer and more safely—our house is going to be sealed, our energy bills are going to go down. This is the best thing that’s happened to us since sliced bread!” Accessibility upgrades are being put in with an eye towards the couple’s later years. “They’re going to put grab-bars in our bathroom, and a rail on the front steps. We’ll be 65 before you know it, and we’re going to need these things. And to have them in our house already is going to make life so much easier for my husband and I. It’s been truly a blessing.”
When asked why she puts so much time into the block and the Viola Street Residents’ Association, Lorraine mentions the future homeowners—the kids growing up here under the shade of newly planted trees, whom she hopes will continue caring for the block as she ages. She mentions her son and his family, who recently moved into the house next to hers. “You can’t just sit back—I can’t make it better for my grandson if I sit back and do nothing. These children—they’re my future. If I can’t help them, then what’s my purpose?”