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Workers clear vacant lots along 62nd Street in West Philadelphia as part of Mayor Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. [Alyssa Cwanger/The Summer Pennsylvanian]

The residents of Hancock and Somerset streets in North Philadelphia awoke last Saturday to hear lawn mowers and garbage trucks piercing the morning silence.

Mayor John Street's assault on the city's 31,000 trash-strewn vacant lots had begun.

"People know you can't transform neighborhoods with tens of thousands of tons of trash in a community," Street said. "Starting today, we will clean every vacant lot. Every significant pile of trash in this city will be gone."

The lot cleaning program is part of the Mayor's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, announced in April, which seeks to redevelop the city by demolishing abandoned buildings and streamlining regulations to encourage new construction.

Similar in design to last spring's car removal blitz -- which took 40,000 abandoned cars off the city's streets in 40 days -- the goal of the lot clean-up program is to comb through 120 lots per day for one year.

"There's absolutely no margin for error," said city Managing Director Joe Martz, who designed this latest undertaking.

Yet after the hoopla of the kickoff subsided in North Philadelphia, some wondered if the intensity would continue.

"I hope they just keep on going, and that this isn't just for one day," said area resident Ronnie Santiago. "Otherwise, they're just teasing us."

But others were satisfied simply to see attention focused on an area of the city that they felt had gone unnoticed for too long.

"It's nice to have the Mayor here and everybody cooperating to bring the neighborhood into a better situation than what we are," said block captain Fernando Gaston, mentioning problems with drug dealers and vandalism. "My main concern is that kids can have fun outside instead of being locked in their houses."

Blight program crew chief Jason Williams -- eager to put his lawn mower to work -- agreed.

"It's important for kids to see nice things around them," Williams said. "When they wake up every morning and they see garbage and trash, that kind of distracts them."

While approximately 140 municipal employees will be assigned to the clean-up program, the message of the day was that community members had an important role to play in their neighborhood's appearance.

"The Mayor is issuing a challenge to us... that we have to take care of these lots after they're cleaned this one time by the city," said Walter DeTreux, chief of staff for Councilman Richard Mariano. "We accept that challenge."

However, Democratic Committeeman Craig Melidosian criticized the heavy volunteer component of the program, one that will involve the recruitment of community caretakers and block captains.

"When you take a look at these areas, they're working class communities, they're single parent homes, they're people working two jobs," Melidosian said. "When they come home, they're tired and exhausted, they're trying to take care of the kids, and now they have to go out and clean the streets too."

Even though City Council has yet to approve the $250 million in bonds that the bulk of the NTI requires, Council has already authorized the expected $6.5 million lot cleaning cost. The city will also lien the cleaned properties to try to recoup its expenses.

At the unveiling, Street defended his use of such funds to improve the neighborhoods, even while the school district faces a fiscal crisis.

"We should be cleaning up neighborhoods, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania should be doing its responsibility to fund the schools," Street said.

"We should never, ever sacrifice cleaning up neighborhoods because somebody somewhere else doesn't think our schools are important enough to fund," the Mayor continued, directing his remarks at Governor Tom Ridge.

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