Philadelphia Still Feels Effects of MOVE Bombing

Twenty years ago Friday, police dropped a bomb on the Philadelphia headquarters of MOVE — a small group of armed separatists who preached a back-to-nature philosophy. Eleven people died, and the fire spread, destroying 61 homes. Member station WHYY's Brad Linder reports lawsuits between the homeowners and the city continue.

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Twenty years ago today police dropped a bomb on the west Philadelphia headquarters of MOVE, a small group of arms separatists who preached a back-to-nature philosophy. The bombing followed a daylong gunfight between police and that group. Eleven people died in the house and the fire spread across the neighborhood, destroying 61 homes. From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Brad Linder reports that lawsuits between the homeowners and the city continue.

BRAD LINDER reporting:

Milton Williams and his wife moved to a Philadelphia row house on Osage Avenue in 1976. They were in their 20s. They raised their two sons in that home, went to the rec center down the street and watched their children play at a nearby park. Williams, a retired UPS driver, says he didn't see his house burn down in 1985. Police had evacuated the neighborhood the day before and Williams was watching on his mother-in-law's television when the bomb was dropped. He saw the fire start at the MOVE house and then spread from roof to roof.

Mr. MILTON WILLIAMS: You know, I was starting to get ...(unintelligible). We're at least eight, nine houses down. The newer ...(unintelligible) lose at least the MOVE house and probably two parties on either side. No one expected that devastation.

LINDER: The next morning there was nothing left of the Williams' house.

Mr. WILLIAMS: We just bought new furniture, we laid carpet. We were ready to stay, you know, this is our first home and we were fixing--we were really starting to fix it up. Instead of going on vacation every year, any vacation money we had, we would use that for--so, one year we got a loan, put a new heater in. Then the following year, we put in new pipe.

LINDER: The only item Williams could recover from the ruins was the address plate from the front of the house. Within two years the city had built 61 replacement homes and Williams hung the plate on his new house. It was a modern two-story brick town house. But the replacement homes were plagued with problems. During construction the developer was arrested and sent to jail for stealing money from the project. And after the families moved back in, Williams says the real problems began starting with leaky roofs.

Mr. WILLIAMS: The first snow, almost everybody had a leak. As a matter of fact, I'm working on my fourth roof. Now most roofs will last 20 years. We've had four in 20 years.

LINDER: The roof was just the beginning. Some homes developed cracks in their walls, the plumbing was shot, insulation didn't work. The city responded by putting a 10-year warranty on the homes and promising to repair any problems. But Williams says nothing was ever fixed right.

Mr. WILLIAMS: We had problem with the drains. If I flush my toilet it runs into my neighbors next door, it fills up his toilet, you know, crazy stuff.

LINDER: Nearly 15 years after the bombing, then Mayor Ed Rendell told residents that he was committed to repairs and that future mayors would honor his promise. But in 2000, Mayor John Street had different plans. He said the city had a moral obligation to help the residents but couldn't continue pouring money into the homes. Street decided to demolish the homes and create open space. He offered homeowners $151,000 each, nearly twice the market value of the houses. About two-thirds of the families took Street up on his offer, but 24 families, including the Williams, stayed put and they sued Mayor Street for breach of contract. Last month the federal jury sided with the homeowners awarding residents nearly $13 million or about $500,000 apiece, and saying the city had broken a contract and disregarded homeowners' rights. Speaking at a news conference after the verdict was announced, Mayor Street said that his original offer was reasonable.

Mayor JOHN STREET (Philadelphia): We were not trying to compensate them for all their inconvenience and all of that 'cause I don't know that any amount of money could do that. But we did want to make it possible for them to relocate in other areas of the city and be able to get comparable housing with some ease. I think it was fair.

LINDER: The city is seeking a re-trial saying the amount of money awarded was unusually high for a breach of contract case. Street says the city was not legally bound to offer any money for the homes.

Mayor STREET: Because it was 15 years later when I became the mayor. The event occurred in 1985, houses were rebuilt, repaired, repaired again. The repairs were repaired. Nobody could get it right. It's now 15 years later. Is the city still legally obligated?

(Soundbite of traffic)

LINDER: Back on Milton Williams' block, there are 37 vacant buildings, their doors and windows boarded up with plywood, and the remaining residents say they're worried the abandoned houses will attract squatters or criminals. Milton Williams says he's not sure how long he'll stay. Even if he does get a check for a half million dollars, he says he won't repair his own home unless the city agrees to fix up the neighborhood. Williams says it was satisfying to hear a jury tell Mayor Street that he was wrong. But Williams says he wasn't looking for a large check, he wanted his house repaired.

Mr. WILLIAMS: It's not perfect but we could have lived with it. They had of fixed it up, we could have lived with it. I'd have been happy. You know, if they didn't give me another dime, just repair it so I can live here and die here and leave it to my kids, I'd have been happy with that, you know.

LINDER: Williams says moving would be easier for him than for some of his neighbors. He's 56 now, but several others are in their 70s and two are in their 90s. He says they have no intention of starting over in a new neighborhood.

For NPR News, I'm Brad Linder in Philadelphia.

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