The wall that runs along the SEPTA tracks between East Mt. Pleasant Avenue and East Durham Street.

by Jennifer Katz

In 1982 Dr. George Kelling and James Q. Wilson published a criminology theory titled “Broken Windows” in which the social scientists argued that urban decay erodes the well being of a community and leads to crime.

“A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other’s children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed.

“Adults stop scolding rowdy children; the children, emboldened, become more rowdy. Families move out, unattached adults move in. Teenagers gather in front of the corner store. The merchant asks them to move; they refuse.

“Fights occur. Litter accumulates. People start drinking in front of the grocery; in time, an inebriate slumps to the sidewalk and is allowed to sleep it off. Pedestrians are approached by panhandlers.”

The article, originally published in the Atlantic Monthly, affected policing policies and criminology studies throughout the U.S. For a group of neighbors in East Mt. Airy, a 100-year-old wall that stretches 428-feet along Sprague Street between East Mt. Pleasant Avenue and East Durham Street is their equivalent of a broken window.

“You see the wall, and it shows no one cares,” said Lawrence Canty, who has lived at 7208 Sprague St. since 1984.

The cement block and brick wall that runs along the SEPTA R7 tracks serves as a canvas for graffiti and a retaining wall for the new development, Devon Village.

Once known as the Enclave at Devon, the 16-townhome development was purchased in early 2010 by Regan Construction, owned by Chestnut Hill resident Jeff Regan.

On Monday night, Regan met with a dozen or so near neighbors and representatives from East Mt. Airy Neighbors at the community organization’s offices at the Lutheran Seminary. The neighbors, led by Kelly O’Day, who with his wife, Paula, lives at the corner of East Durham and Sprague streets, is concerned with several hundred feet of the wall’s façade that is alternately in disrepair or unsightly.

“It detracts from the quality of life and sends the wrong message,” O’Day said.

When Regan purchased the project from the bank, there were eight houses left to build and a new wall had been erected on the inside of the old wall to enclose the development’s parking lot. It is unclear why this was done, but to work on the existing wall, the contractors would have needed to obtain permits and safety training from SEPTA. The wall is situated adjacent to SEPTA’s property, with just inches to spare, making it virtually impossible to work on the outside of the wall without interfering with the train line.

Regan placed a decorative cement cap on the wall to join the new wall and the old wall together and recently rebuilt a 130-foot portion of the wall as it extends north along the train track.

But the greater portion of the wall remains an eyesore and a frequent target for graffiti artists and a source of ongoing frustration for the neighbors.

When the O’Days purchased their home four years ago, they knew they would have to work to beautify the triangular field that belongs to SEPTA.

A retired environmental engineer, Kelly O’Day moved back to Mt. Airy after an 18-year stint creating new storm water management techniques in Boston. A friendly and self-described “talkative” guy, O’Day quickly befriended his neighbors and the SEPTA representatives he needed to work with to improve the Sedgwick Station Area.

Over the last three years, the neighbors and SEPTA have worked together to clear overgrown brush, remove debris, plant new grass and repair cracked concrete along the sidewalk. The appearance of the station has dramatically improved.

The neighbors, now organized as the Sedgwick Station Neighbors, have put together a new five-point plan to further beautify the area. Their wish list includes removing the last remains of a chain link fence and extending a lower, black rod iron fence along the length of the area, gaining access that will enable them to plant and maintain the area, and planting other attractive vines along the base of the Mt. Airy Avenue bridge on the south side.

O’Day and his neighbors see the wall as part of their efforts and, in fact, as central to deterring urban decay.

“The goal is to have the wall look like it’s part of a cared-for community,” said Sharon Levy, who lives in the 400 block of East Mt. Airy Avenue.

Regan, who from the beginning agreed to paint the wall the color of the neighbors’ choice, was amenable to alternate solutions.

“I would like to improve the view of this wall from the street in a manner that does not damage the wall and is economically feasible,” he said at Monday’s meeting.

Before the meeting there was growing tension between Regan and the neighbors over what should be done with the wall. O’Day would like the older portion, approximately 70 feet, to be torn down and rebuilt. Regan said it would be too costly for him to consider.

At the meeting, the neighbors and Regan agreed that he would paint the wall as a first step. The timeline is to be determined by SEPTA, as it will likely be done in coordination with a planned outage at the Sedgwick Station this summer.

More importantly, the group agreed to look into the feasibility of planting attractive vines along the wall to further improve its appearance without the costs associated with repairing the brick.

“I’m open to any reasonable solution,” said Regan, who seemed to favor a “green” solution. “In my opinion cementing the wall will be inviting more graffiti, while making it green helps solve the graffiti problem.”