Boarded-up homes served as stash houses for drugs. Vacant lots were filled with trash. Children took detours on their way home from school to avoid the area. Those images defined a neighborhood for years, making Madison and Rose Streets some of the most dangerous in the city of Chester.
Today, Christmas lights and wreaths hang from brick rowhouses. Freshly painted red doors have replaced the wooden boards that covered the abandoned properties. A park with benches and flower boxes fills a plot of land that was known as a meeting place for drug dealers.The park, built by a private landlord on property owned by the Chester Housing Authority, is perhaps the most tangible sign of efforts to transform a notoriously dangerous neighborhood into a family-friendly one. It is also the kind of effort that could "save Chester for Chester," said Chester Housing Authority Director Steve Fischer, and allow lifelong residents of the struggling city to reclaim their own neighborhoods.In one corner of the park, landlord Debbie DeSimone painted a message that she said was a new mantra for Chester's east side: "Prove them wrong. "With her husband and brother-in-law, DeSimone founded a real estate company called Best Homes and purchased and renovated scores of homes around Chester, including 16 in the neighborhood around Madison and Rose Streets.DeSimone, who lives in Glenolden, said she saw an opportunity to refurbish old homes and rent them out at the same rate as other properties in Chester - but in better condition.She was drawn to Madison and Rose Streets because the Chester Housing Authority was already working to improve the neighborhood. The Chester Towers, between Madison Street and Avenue of the States, were demolished in 2007 and 2008 as part of a massive overhaul of the troubled public-housing agency. The last of the housing authority's new senior apartment and office buildings on the site opened in 2013.Though it took several years and millions of dollars in federal funding to remake the agency and reconstruct its buildings, "that's, quite frankly, the easy part," Fischer said. "So now, as we look to what surrounds us, the vision [was] that the redevelopment that happened on this site would hopefully spread its wings and have even more of an impact on Chester." He especially hoped that change would come to Madison and Rose Streets.This fall, the neighborhood was the site of one of the largest drug busts in the city's history. In what officials called the takedown of a drug-trafficking ring that had contributed to a spike in homicides, 35 suspects were arrested in late September. Prosecutors said the drug ring used stash houses in the area of Rose and Upland Streets - just a block from the new housing authority's senior apartments.Standing in the courtyard of a 10-unit apartment building that she is renovating on Madison Street, DeSimone grew quiet and raised her eyebrows when asked what the property looked like when she bought it. "It was dilapidated," she said. "It was used as a drug den. "This week, she worked to complete renovations in time for tenants to move in Monday. The one-bedroom units rent for $700 per month - a typical rate in Chester, she said - and have new floors, paint, and appliances. Cheryl Mitchell, 45, has spent her entire life on the east side of Chester. She used to avoid Madison Street. This fall, she moved into one of DeSimone's apartments there, and she looks forward to letting her grandchildren play outside. "They really made it safe," she said. "And clean and beautiful. "DeSimone covered a vacant lot on Madison Street with gravel, built a tall wooden fence, and filled the area with flower boxes, benches, and trees. But the neighborhood has not completely transformed. The new park sits between DeSimone's apartment building and a bar. Building a park next to a bar may not be typical, Fischer said, but the new trees and flower boxes send an important message about saving the neighborhood. "It's a statement for the community," he said, "that we're going to preserve this, come hell or high water. "Jayson Gethers, 37, is a barber who has rented one of DeSimone's homes on Madison Street for nearly two years. He met DeSimone before his current home was renovated and heard her vision for the neighborhood. It was difficult to imagine then, he said, but he has watched it take shape. "If you stand on this street and go maybe one or two blocks over," he said, "you can really feel the difference.