Residents of Fairhill are fully aware that their neighborhood has picked up a distinctive nickname in recent years. “This isn’t Fairhill,” says a little boy as he rides his bicycle down Cambria Street, “this is The Badlands.”

Unfortunately for Fairhill residents, living in a neighborhood with such a repellant nickname comes with certain challenges. One challenge in particular is in transportation, which is often sparse in poor, urban communities–especially ones like Fairhill that are known for high levels of crime.

The Three-Wheeled Gang

The large Philadelphia taxi companies, for instance, almost never travel through Fairhill.

“Some people weigh the risk of delivering that service and being safe,” explains Captain Daniel Castro of Philadelphia’s 24th Police District, which is the district adjacent to Fairhill’s 25th Police District. Captain Castro says that he frequently gets calls from various service providers, such as pizza deliverers and taxi companies, asking for his opinion as to whether or not they should deliver in the area.

While some companies have ceased operating all-together in certain areas, other companies have implemented strategies that allow them to partly service these neglected communities. “What they will do, for instance, a taxi will take a fare to a designated safe location in the area in lieu of taking them to their destination,” says Castro. But these measures do little to replace the door-to-door service that is offered to other Philadelphia residents. Castro recognizes this inequality, saying, “It’s unfortunate that certain pockets in the community don’t enjoy the same services as other parts of the city such as delivery services.”

Residents, however, have in turn created their own taxi companies which service only the neighborhoods that have been neglected by the traditional cab companies. When asked about taxi services in his neighborhood, 34-year-old Fairhill resident Lou Crespo automatically skips any discussion of well-known Philadelphia companies and instead describes a small neighborhood company known only as the “Dominican cab service”. “They only go to the hood”, explains Crespo.

The service as Crespo describes it is much like what one would expect a cab service to be like, with a variety of low and high-end cars available to its customers. And while this “Dominican cab service” may or may not have a legitimate title, it certainly knows how to service its customers, as most residents on Crespo’s block knew of the service and could even spot the cabs on the street.

But while these taxi services can be reliable, they fail to answer Fairhill’s day-to-day travel needs, meaning that residents like Crespo have to come up with other creative methods to get from one place to another. Like many of his neighbors, Crespo has turned to bicycles, which are both cost efficient and relatively easy to maintain. This method of transportation is one of the most popular in Fairhill, as the neighborhood streets and sidewalks are almost always packed with young and adult bike riders alike as they peddle to their next destination.

Damian Rivero, a 14-year-old student at Julia De Burgos Middle School, finds that he rides his bicycle often, using it to get to school and then riding it around the neighborhood with his friends after school. These bikes are a source of pride for Rivero and his neighborhood friends as they are quick to show off their “rides” to anyone willing to listen. The frequency in which the kids use their bikes makes the up-front price of the bicycles well worth the investment.

Of course, there is always the option of public transportation, and South Eastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) has both a bus and an El system that stops in or near the Fairhill vicinity. But for residents like Rivero, who uses his bike to reach closer areas within Fairhill, or Crespo, who uses his bicycle as a way to cut back on wasting gasoline, the simplicity of the bicycle and its popularity in Fairhill makes it the obvious choice for traveling. And if Crespo or Rivero are ever in need of a taxi cab, they know that they can count on the “hood taxies” to get them to their destination.

So in reality, the neighborhood of Fairhill might not get the same amount of services as its neighborhood counterparts, but they still manage to get around just fine.

“Finding a Ride in Fairhill” Video


“There are three stages in the work of God: impossible, difficult, done.” ~ James Hudson Taylor

Commonly referred to as “the badlands,” the Fairhill section of Philadelphia often times gets a bad rap. When people hear mention of the neighborhood, more often than not, their minds paint a picture of drug addled, litter strewn streets where you can’t even make it a half of a block without a gun pointing in your face or at least some sort of lewd proposition being thrown your way.

The members of New Kingdom Baptist Church on Mascher St, right in the heart of Fairhill, beg to differ, however. The church’s minister, Curtis Saxton, and his wife, Christina, see a lot of promise in the neighborhood and are working incredibly hard in any way that they are able to make sure that promise flourishes. The young couple has spearheaded the complete renovation of two of the church’s neighboring vacant homes and have enlisted the help of local youths with ambitious aspirations as to not only what the finished product will finitely provide for the community, but also the more profound goal of how the actual process as a whole may benefit the maturing young laborers.

Fairhill Youth Assist Church Housing Project

Christina, a former teacher at the Julia de Burgos Bilingual Elementary School, first became ensconced with the neighborhood while in college. An old factory located on the current site of her school burned to the ground and in its place formed a homeless encampment. The encampment eventually relocated to a nearby church, but Christina, raised by American missionary parents in Honduras, felt drawn to the obvious need of her fellow denizen and continuously returned to the neighborhood, bringing in food and supporting the group as a whole. That was over ten years ago and while things have changed remotely for the better in Fairhill, Christina, now a resident, feels the drive to continue her early efforts in a more formal and expansive manner.

Christina’s husband, a minister of the New Kingdom Baptist Church became exposed to the neighborhood only slightly after his wife, but in a more organized fashion. While attending Princeton University, Curtis became involved in an organization serving as a ministry to troubled youths by the name of Teen Haven. The focus of this coalition brought him consistently to Fairhill where he ended up relocating upon graduation and working in career placement and development.

The young couple’s theological mindset aided in their realization that a larger picture needed to be further sought out if any real change was going to occur. “You can have good jobs, you can have good schools, but if you don’t have any real reason for living – there’s no purpose to your life – there’s no meaning – you don’t understand why you’ve been created and what you’re purpose in life is, then life is hopeless and without that there is nothing.” Curtis explains that this is where his personal beliefs and faith come into play; serving as the key motivator to both he and his wife becoming involved with the New Kingdom Baptist Church and organizing a grassroots redevelopment project to help spread the hope that they have been so fortunate to experience in both tangible and intangible ways.

New Kingdom Baptist Church

According to the US Census, Fairhill hosts an overwhelming 598,401 vacant homes and contains a majority of the city’s displaced or homeless citizens. The neighborhood’s poverty rate, which ranks at five times the national average, causes community outreach to seem insurmountable.

“There’s so many dreams yet so much time and resources,” Curtis points out. Furthermore he says that “looking around we see a lot of [sometimes] good motivations that don’t work out practically because they’re not grounded in reality.” He refers to a housing development recently erected a few blocks away that has remained vacant for a significant period of time. Affirming that the intention to provide more homes for the community is laudatory, he emphasizes that the failure stemmed from the fact that the residences are ” too expensive for people who live here to buy, for the most part, and anybody that could afford to buy them wouldn’t want to live here.”

Through the acquisition of two neighboring buildings of the church, the Saxton’s have rallied their fellow church members as well as groups of young, able-bodied students and other church groups from near and far to provide the proximate community with not only a place to live but also a community center to conduct a variety of programs designed to benefit the area’s residents.

Curtis elaborates, “we’re small right now but growing. So, all the dreams we have right now, we don’t have [quite] the people to make them all happen right now, but we’re looking long term – into the future. I mean, obviously this project has been taking us a little while and its going to be going for a little while but as we look into the future, we have a lot of hope.”

View of the Stairwell in One of the Properties Being Renovated

Christina lays out more specific reasonings for the decision to make one of the buildings a rental home and the other a community center: “our church sometimes struggles with having all of the money we need to do the type of projects we want to do so it would provide some income and it would also hopefully provide a nice place for somebody to live.” She goes on to further explain that “there are some people who have the idea that we’ll just fix it up and rent it and just have a business relationship with whoever lives here but then i think, in my heart and in some other peoples hearts too, would be to have this as a connection to the church. we could build some relationships with the family that would live here. we could help serve them with whatever needs they would have, help connect them to wherever they would need to be connected.”

Debra Jones, a New Kingdom Baptist Church Trustee, also further clarifies the fact that these buildings have an even deeper connection to the church. “The first property, that we’re looking to use as a community center, was purchased from an elderly lady that was living in the neighborhood when we purchased the church. The other property – one of our members owned the property, and when he had passed away, he had left the house to us.” She believes that it might be best to keep the occupancy in the same tradition but agrees that the decision should definitely be based on need, stating, “well, if it would help, we would look toward a senior citizen who might need housing and then if not, maybe a small family because the house is not that large. It’s a two-bedroom with the second bedroom [being] not that large, so it would have to be a small family just starting out.”

Either way, it appears that whoever ends up occupying the building will find themselves nestled into quite a secure and tight-knit community for some time to come.

An Interactive Experience of Fairhill’s New Kingdom Baptist Church Housing Project

A cherubic face of innocence wept inconsolably while he looked on as his handcuffed father was placed in the back of a squad car. The echoing of the blaring sirens concealed his own wails while the sirens’ red and blue lights reflected off of his tear strewn face creating an image similar to a festive Halloween mask. Large brown doe-eyes poured tears down the front of his romper while this tiny barefoot boy listened to his father yell “I love you, son” through a drug-induced haze from the sweltering backseat of the squad car.

Kids Sitting on Steps of Dilapidated Building

Kids Sitting on Steps of Dilapidated Building

At around 9:45pm Saturday night, Oct. 3rd, 2009, police of the 25th District responded to a report of a burglary in process. The police cruisers sped through the streets of Fairhill with sirens screaming but as they approached the corner where the residence in peril was located, the lights and sirens shut off to provide a more stealth approach. A woman came running out onto the front steps and directed the officers down the street to where the as-of-yet unidentified man had fled, furiously describing his appearance. The squad cars instantaneously reversed direction and sped down the street where they quickly spotted the man described, exited their vehicle, and took the fleeing suspect down with one swift expert maneuver.

“Why were you running?” They repeatedly asked him to no avail as they frisked him up against an adjacent wall and placed him in handcuffs. While questioning him about if and why he had been trying to break into the residence only blocks away, the man claimed that it was his wife’s house and that he was only trying to see his kids.

The officers then drove the suspect back to the residence in question and pulled him out of the back seat in order for the owner of the house, who was perched on her front steps, to identify him. When she did, the officers returned the man to the back seat and proceeded to question the trembling woman surrounded by her five small weeping children whom were all under the age of 8-years-old.

When asked about the man’s claim to be the father of these children as well as her husband, the young woman explained that the man, who was indeed who he said he was, attempting to enter the house was in violation of a court sanctioned protection order. After presenting the proper documentation to the officers, it was ascertained that the PFA (Protection from Abuse) had expired on the 30th of Sept., 2009, only three days prior, after the suspect had failed to appear in court. The officers, under the supervision of Sargent Rosemary Petro-Ryder who had also responded to the scene, phoned in the PFA to headquarters, whom confirmed that it had indeed expired and that police could not hold the man on violation of the protection order. However, after the woman showed the police the location in the rear of the house where the suspect had attempted to enter, it was clear that the suspect had exerted force and that therefore the forced entry qualified as attempted burglary – a charge that certainly was grounds for arrest.

Police Cruiser of the 25th District

Police Cruiser of the 25th District

While the officers along with Sargent Petro-Ryder phoned in questions about the PFA, filled out the appropriate paperwork, further investigated the scene, and questioned the victim, the scene in front of the house became one of utter despair. A few of the children had followed the mother inside the house with two of the officers and Sargent Petro-Ryder had retreated into the comfort of her own squad car to take care of the applicable administrative measures involved in such a situation while keeping one eye trained on the police cruiser in front of her holding the handcuffed suspect. This left two of the smallest children alone on the front steps of the residence hugging each other and wailing. Their father, who had just asked one of the officers for “some air” before they had headed indoors, was in constant motion. His bloodshot droopy eyes rolling around his narcotic-infested brain and sweat gushing down his face and through his coarse facial hair, Dad moved furtively between the two windows trying to gasp some air from the partially cracked window on the drivers side to pressing his face up against the glass on the passenger side that was facing the house, shouting “I love you!” to his distraught children.

The youngest boy, outfitted in a powder-blue one-piece romper stood and started to descend the stairs. Rubbing his teary eyes with both fists, the boy moved his bare feet across the litter-strewn sidewalk towards the glass window his fathers face was pressed up against. Fighting back the tears and trying to show his 28-year-old father the man he thought he should be, the boy reached out and pressed his hand up against the steamy glass of the squad car’s window and gazed into his fathers delirious eyes with the intensity and despair that should never have to be seen in the eyes of a child so young; an intensity that embodied the most desperate knowledge of utter abandonment and acceptance of needing to take on the role his father was leaving behind.

Abandonment Inside and Out Audio Slideshow and Video

By Becca Lane and Danielle Harvey

Though it has yet to become a full citywide initiative, the push to go green has spread throughout the Philadelphia School District, with grants being given for the construction of new, green schools and incentives being offered for already existing schools that make an effort to become more environmentally friendly.

Julia de Burgos Gardening Project

Julia de Burgos Teacher and Gardening Project Founder, Christina Saxton, Guides the Beginner Student Gardeners

One such school that has experienced the green initiative is Julia de Burgos Middle School, which lies in the Fairhill section of Philadelphia.  Though the school has been in existence for quite sometime, it moved to Fourth Street and Lehigh Avenue seven years ago, reusing what was once Edison High School.  The design of the building was part of the Philadelphia School District’s “Children Achieving Agenda”, which combines learning with community involvement.  “It’s a green building,” explained former Julia de Burgos teacher Christina Saxton, “so it was made for solar heat, and you can see that with all the windows in the building.”  Also, the lights in the building, including the ones in the bathrooms, all have motion detectors so they turn off when nobody is in the room.

The Commodore John Barry Elementary School in West Philadelphia is another prime example of a school being built using sustainability strategies.  Natural light from the many windows of the building keep the rooms well-lit, and the building has a rainwater harvesting system that keeps the school in line with the City of Philadelphia’s storm water regulations while also reducing the school’s overall water use.  This project was part of a larger, statewide green effort by Governor Ed Rendell.  Over $200,000 in grant money was allocated to several Pennsylvania schools, including Commodore John Barry, in order to move the state’s schools toward better sustainability.  The Wisconsin Building Green Alliance determined that green buildings can reduce energy consumption by 20 percent to 30 percent and lower landscape expenditures by $3,000 to $4,000 per acre per year.  Measures to become sustainable also save the taxpayers money, as the operational cost of these schools are substantially lowered by the school becoming green.

The Garden Plot at the Julia de Burgos Middle School Before Planting Began

The Garden Plot at the Julia de Burgos Middle School Before Planting Began

“It’s not a district-wide initiative,” says Jennie Wu, Deputy of Strategic Planning and Implementation for the Philadelphia School District, when discussing the effort to add sustainability in Philadelphia’s schools, “It’s more project-by-project depending on school sites and any sort of partnerships or relationships they may have with external groups or organizations.”

Programs focusing on the environment have also gained popularity in Philadelphia schools, with teachers like those in Julia de Burgos taking the initiative to educate themselves on green issues in an effort to better educate their students. At Julia de Burgos, Christina Saxton and a few of the teachers came together to create the Nature Club, which is an interactive after-school group that allows the students to get hands-on gardening experience by planting in the small garden by the playground.  “They absolutely love it,” says Julia de Burgos teacher Erin Kelly, one of the teachers involved in the Nature Club, “Anything that allows them to do hands-on work, they just gravitate towards it.”

The entire Nature Club program, along with the school garden, was conceptualized after the teachers went to a program called Green City Teachers.  The program, which is a product of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), is a free training course that gives Philadelphia teachers the skills needed to integrate horticulture and environmental information into their classrooms.  The teachers participated in the courses, and as a result, received a $1,000 grant from the PHS, which went toward the start-up costs of the garden.

Julia de Burgos Nature Club

Julia de Burgos Nature Club Students Learning About Silk Worms

This green effort has been almost entirely funded by private sources like PHS and a number of helpful volunteers.  Unfortunately, despite a great deal of focus being placed on making the schools green, little-to-no extra money is available for the Philadelphia School District to broaden its goals.  In the City of Philadelphia’s 2009 Operating Budget, the Philadelphia School District received a slight increase in funds, with their budget widening from $37,000,000 to $38,490,000.  According to Jennie Wu from the Office of the Superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, the school district did not receive as much funding as Governor Rendell had initially talked about giving them.  Extra funding could have been used to aid projects like the Julia De Burgos garden, or to widen the efforts to make schools sustainable–which, as it was previously mentioned, would gradually save the taxpayers money.

But for the kids at Julia de Burgos Middle School, where the money comes from is the last topic on their minds as they pick up their shovels to beautify their playground garden.  They are all eager to learn about their environment and are quick to talk about their favorite plants and activities.  “I liked digging the holes and putting in the plants,” says student Marinellys Rodriguez enthusiastically when asked about her gardening experience.  With awareness for the environment beginning at such a young age, one would have to think that the future of the sustainability movement in both our schools and in our neighborhoods is bright.

The Julia de Burgos Gardening Project Video and Audio Slideshow

Throughout the semester, we’ve been taught to seek out those who play a major role in the community. These people are usually church leaders, community activists, or just “unofficial mayors”, and they always have a pulse on what’s happening in the neighborhood.

Former Julia de Burgos Teacher Christina Saxton Shows Urban Kids the Importance of Gardening

This week, we happened to come across a person who defines what it means to be “involved in the community.” Christina Saxton, a former teacher at the Julia de Burgos Middle School, only moved to Fairhill two years ago (from Lancaster) after her marriage. Yet she is involved with the local school, takes care of the school’s garden, is involved with a local church, and volunteers at The St. Francis Inn – a soup kitchen on Kensington Ave.–and on top of it all, she has a newborn baby of her own.

Despite the fact that she is not currently working at the middle school because of the birth of her son, Saxton took the time to visit the school to talk to us about the garden project that she started. The project itself started because due to Saxton’s love for gardening, inspiring her to rally fellow teacher, Erin Kelly, to get involved with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. According to Saxton, the idea came about due to the fact that her students are mostly Puerto Rican and Dominican, and many are used to rural areas. She thought the students would enjoy a garden, so she worked tirelessly to make it happen.

In a struggling neighborhood like Fairhill, it’s great to see someone like Christina Saxton working to better the community.

Audio Slideshow of the Gardening Project in Motion

By, Becca Lane & Danielle Harvey

(Extracted from, posted Wednesday, October 21, 2009)

For more on Christina Saxton – check out blog entry: Kindness and Helpfulness are Both Next to Godliness

Fairhill: Code Blue!

May 12, 2010

Julia de Burgos View

View From the Julia de Burgos School

Going to school in an impoverished neighborhood such as Fairhill raises more concern for the students than just your typical academic inequalities. Teacher Erin Kelly at the Julia de Burgos Bilingual Elementary School recounts numerous occasions where “Code Blue” has been called during school hours. She explains that “Code Blue” refers to when “we have heard gun shots!”

“This has happened several time since I’ve worked here where we have had a ‘Code Blue,'” she elaborates, “and the kids are taught when there is ‘Code Blue,’ it comes on the announcements. We need to shut all of the doors. No one can be in the hallways. The doors are closed, the lights are off. The kids have to be down on the floor in the corner, as far away from the doors and windows as possible.” She says there have even been instances where she has seen people running in the streets below with guns in their hands.

Even outside of these in school instances, Kelly says there is a tremendous amount of violence in the neighborhood. “It’s amazing to me to hear what these kids have witnessed,” she says. She is thankful, however, for some of the strides the

Fairhill Street View

Street View From Julia de Burgos

new Imagine 2014 program has already begun to take by implanting more counselors in the school for the children to utilize.

Children in this school district have enough issues to face these days simply in terms of the rigorous academic plans being implemented that adding violence to the mix only places them at an even further disadvantage.