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Nightmare On Dream Street: When Your House Falls Down

The , collapsed. (Photo courtesy of Annette Earling)

The home that brought Annette’s neighborhood to a dead stop — collapsed. (Photo courtesy of Annette Earling)

After 23 years of living on a street that I loved — and after swearing that I would never be frightened or intimidated into leaving — I fled my neighborhood in fear for my life and the life of my family. A month later, the house that was the focus of my fear collapsed in the middle of the night, trapping everyone on our end of the block in their homes as electric wires sparked over piles of splintered plywood.

Nice job, city of Philadelphia.

My story — essentially one of governmental ennui — begins about two and half years ago when a lovely young couple bought a property on our quiet, dead-end street in the center of the fifth largest city in the U.S.

Honestly, you couldn’t find a better street in any town. We’re a half-block from Broad Street and some of the greatest cultural institutions in the world. We have five of Zagat’s top ten restaurants in Philly within a few blocks of our front door. We have great schools, great coffee houses, great shopping and great dive bars — all just steps away. And all this on a quiet street that on most days sees more squirrel activity than human.

We’re a pretty tight bunch of neighbors, numbering only eight homes. We have a pretty even split between renters and owners, and over the years we’ve had a diverse and diverting cast of characters. There was the atheist professor of religion. The bartender known for Philly’s best Bloody Marys who chased after a mugger when I was attacked on the street. The stage carpenter whose face bristled with hardware. The architect whose son was on The Real World Philadelphia. The stunning actress. The quiet journalist. So many great people who have moved in and out.

And a few, of course, who were not so great. But they tended to move on quickly and taught me the valuable lesson that I can wait out just about anything.

So back to this gorgeous young couple: the new owner and his partner. We were all happy to have them on the street and to have the house, which had been abandoned by a series of developers, back in circulation. It was a three-story double trinity that needed a fair amount of work, but they had gotten it for a decent price and told us all that they were psyched to be part of the neighborhood. They got their permits and started work, and everyone settled in for the inevitable inconvenience of major construction on such a small street, looking forward to the day when we’d all have a beautiful home and a beautiful new family to share our space with when the work was done.

[pullquote]Those of us who lived on the far end of the street were terrified to walk past the towering and unsecured bricks and jutting joists, but we had no choice — it was the only way in and out of our homes.[/pullquote]

The work started out strangely, to say the least. The demo company that showed up seemed to consist mainly of teenagers with hammers and crowbars. We knew that the owners were young and trying to save money, so we all looked the other way as this motley crew started knocking down bricks and pulling out joists. They blocked the street with their gear and those of us on the far end had to pick our way past wheelbarrows and piles of cinderblocks, but we shrugged and powered through. They were all pleasant, so were we, and the work moved along.

Suddenly the work stopped, and the street was quiet for over a week with the building partially pulled apart and looking like a giant dollhouse. Then one June morning, about a mile away from us, a building at 22nd and Market collapsed on top of a Salvation Army, killing six people and sending 14 others to the hospital. The demolition crew was the same one that had been working on our block.

Everyone was horrified at the loss of life and concerned on behalf of our new neighbors, who would no doubt be distraught at the fact that the people they had hired were culpable of such chaos. A “Stop Work” order was pasted to the front of the building, and we could only imagine the legal and practical issues that the owners were now facing. I saw one of the new owners the day after the collapse and went over to express my sympathy.

“I’m so sorry,” I recall saying.

“About what?” he asked.

“About the building collapse,” I faltered.

He brushed it off. Replied that it was no big deal. I assumed that he must not know the entire story.

“You know…that people died? Right?” I asked.

He replied: “Accidents happen. Surgeons lose their patients on the table all of the time.”

I nodded and walked away stunned, wondering but afraid to ask what he thought the odds were of my surviving his construction project.

Did I have a 90 percent chance? 95 percent?

I realized at that moment that I’d been taken in. We all had. Our new neighbor was a charming psychopath.

Things unraveled quickly from that point on. Neighbors on all sides demanded that the house, which was now a wide open construction pit, be inspected and secured until a new demo team could be brought in. Those of us who lived on the far end of the street were terrified to walk past the towering and unsecured bricks and jutting joists, but we had no choice — it was the only way in and out of our homes.

And the amazing part of all this wasn’t the unkind and downright hateful behavior of our neighbors — I’ve seen all kinds of crazy in my day, so this wasn’t anything new. What amazed me is that the City of Philadelphia did absolutely nothing to protect us but rather treated us like we were the problem. During my first meeting with someone from Licenses and Inspection, the rep yelled at me and told me that we neighbors had to stop calling about this because we were making his job very difficult.

Yes, he did.

It turned out that his colleague, the L&I inspector responsible for the 22nd & Market site, had committed suicide earlier that day. So I tried — I really tried — to be understanding. But the level of responsiveness never progressed one iota, and the next three years became a nightmare of anger, anxiety and outright fear.

Over that time, I learned that some things can’t be waited out.

I won’t bore you with details. Allow me to offer a few vignettes instead:

My young son and I stepping over fallen bricks and running past lumber stacked seven feet high on either side of our path.

The owner’s partner “pretending” to try to run me over with his car on an icy day.

A neighbor’s child reduced to tears after having been cursed at by the same person.

Nails popping out of the building and falling to the ground as we walked by.

The week that several of us went away on vacation and returned to find a four-story monstrosity suddenly erected on the site, towering over all of our homes and in clear violation of the building permit.

Countless calls, emails and visits to city officials and being glad-handed from one person to the next.

Finally, the department of Licenses and Inspections underwent a shake-up and new people came on board. They sent out an inspection crew who looked around in head-shaking wonder at the disaster that the site had become and slapped a tear-down order on the building. We were all thrilled. For a minute.

The building then sat idle for months, with rain, snow, wind and critters eating at it from every angle. It became clear that the city, despite all its talk of reform, was taking no responsibility for the chaos that it had allowed to take over the lives of every single one of us on the street.

I talked to my lawyer.

His advice was unequivocal: “Annette. Move.”

I accepted the lesson then that I had been avoiding for years. A truly terrible neighbor can make your life a living hell, and there’s little that you can do about it. What little recourse we have with our government, which is supposed to protect us from the very worst human behavior, dwindles to naught when that government is underfunded and overworked and — still worse — led by people who place their own interests above that of their constituents.

So we packed it up. Left a neighborhood that we adored. Left the school that my son was crazy about and where I was president of the PTA. Left the city that had forged my identity for more than two decades.

As we packed up the car, I prayed that we wouldn’t be hit by falling debris. We hustled our son past the house at a full run, yelling at him to stay to the far side of the street in the hope that anything that fell might hit the small crab apple tree first and avoid his body. The week we left, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I slept well for the first time in years.

About a month later, we had some vacation time coming up. My mother had gotten a place at the shore and had a spare room for us. My husband, not relishing the idea of spending an entire week with his mother-in-law, wondered if we couldn’t spend some of that time back at the Philly house, just bumming around town and enjoying the city in the summer. I loved the idea, but I told him that I was too afraid of spending time in the house now. I had visions of the construction site catching on fire and of all of us being trapped at the end of the street with no way out. I had all sorts of elaborate escape plans that involved climbing over rooftops and scaling balconies, but I didn’t want to test them out with a 12-year-old boy and a labrador retriever. So I said no, maybe another time.

While we were at the beach, I got an email from a neighbor around the corner, along with a photo of our street that blew my mind. Our entire block was a jumble of plywood and beams, a fallen Jenga set of raw wood that spanned the width of the street and blocked all access to our home and the other homes that sat on the far side of the site. A few calls confirmed it: The construction site had collapsed, trapping everyone on our side. They’d had to be evacuated by climbing out of their windows and into the windows of neighboring houses and finally onto an adjoining street. In the meantime, one of the trapped neighbors had seen snapped electrical wires sparking over the carnage.

You may think that I feel good about my decision, and it’s true that I feel deeply relieved not to have had to experience such a disaster. Relieved that no one lost their lives or homes. Relieved that we didn’t have to live and work in that house as the construction crews removed the debris and fed it piece by piece into a wood chipper at the end of the block. Relieved not to have to face the burning rage of the owner and his partner as they glared their way through the process.

But I had run away, and that will never feel good.

I’ll never feel good about being hated by people of ill will. I’ll never feel good about not having the strength to stand my ground and protect my territory. I’ll never feel good about being ignored and brushed off by the people who were paid to protect me. Simply writing about it brings it all back and fills me with anxiety — even here in our new place, surrounded by my family and by new neighbors who cherish me as I cherish them.

The site is now completely cleared. The lumber was removed, the foundation broken up and the land filled with dirt and leveled off. We return to our house often and use it as best we can, but I never feel safe there. The owner and his partner show up on occasion and whisper unkind words to me when they catch me alone. I shudder a bit but ignore it as best as I can.

Last we heard, they have acquired a new building permit. The city didn’t bother to let us know.

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