Spring Garden has limited bus service and few places for elders to shop, but there's a trickier issue that impedes access to the few places they have: deplorable sidewalk conditions whose responsibility belongs mostly to private owners.
At a community meeting several months ago, residents brought up the issue with the expectation that the city should repair the sidewalks that have been reduced to rubble in places, with weeds and overhanging trees. These sidewalks are challenging enough to force someone on a walker onto Spring Garden Avenue.
City council President Darlene Harris, who was at the meeting of the North Side neighborhood she represents, said that out of 27 properties that lie along the avenue between Waltmire's Pharmacy -- a destination for the neighborhood -- and the Firth Street intersection, two belong to the city. The rest are the responsibility of private property owners.
It may surprise many residents to know that even though the city has authority over sidewalks in requiring permits for things such as cafe tables, the home owner can be cited for sidewalk damage and bears the brunt of the cost of repairs. The city, which owns sidewalk street trees, does reimburse property owners for a portion of sidewalk damaged by tree roots -- $4 per square foot.
The average person's conundrum is finding out who owns portions of sidewalk that border empty lots and woods, and it's a problem shared by the city's Bureau of Building Inspection in issuing citations.
It is a citywide problem where numerous properties have become derelict and owners prove hard to find.
Ms. Harris said this dilemma has another quirk: If a resident calls 311, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's non-emergency hotline, to report a sidewalk impassable, a city crew might come out and cite up and down the street, fining neighbors the callers know and commiserating with them over the problem.
"That makes me anxious," Ms. Harris said. "I tell my neighborhoods that if they ask for something that I think is going to hurt other neighbors they should make sure the neighbors are aware that the whole street could be cited. The neighborhood should let me know the direction they want me to take after they talk to other property owners."
In Spring Garden, 124 of the 884 people counted in the 2010 census were 65 and older.
Among them, Peg Mance and Mary Graff are neighbors in St. Michael's Village, a housing development near the avenue. They take the risk of skirting the sidewalks in favor of the street along Spring Garden Avenue, where cars speed and there are a few blind curves. They know people who take that risk in wheelchairs, too.
Like Ms. Mance, Ms. Graff uses a walker to maneuver the several-block trip to Waltmire's Pharmacy. Marshall's, a department store farther up the avenue, is another destination, and on both sides of the avenue the sidewalks make the going rough.
"Gosh, I can't tell you how long it's been like this," Ms. Graff said, adding that access is a problem with cuts in bus service, too. "We only have bus service in the morning and late afternoon."
"When I first moved here, we had the Shop 'n Save and bus service," Ms. Mance said.
Bob Herbert, who works with his wife, Jean, at a neighborhood food bank, said he recalls a grant that then-city Councilman Ben Woods acquired in the late 1970s or early 1980s to repair about a half-mile of sidewalks along the avenue, "and there hasn't been any since."
Information about that project was not available.
For large streetscape improvements undertaken by the state Department of Transportation with federal money, the city will allocate a portion of funding, and these overhauls improve sidewalks as well as roadways. Such projects are ongoing along Warrington Avenue in Allentown and Brookline Boulevard in Brookline, with one scheduled to begin next month along Penn Avenue in Garfield and Bloomfield.
There are other projects that the Urban Redevelopment Authority does with a community development corporation, but a private-property owner can get subsidies or loans to finance his portion.
Ms. Harris said the challenges for seniors extend to "not having people who will shovel their sidewalks in winter. I don't want to see anyone who is handicapped not be able to go up and down the street. But if someone gets cited [for a busted sidewalk], the inspector could also cite downspouts and high grass. I don't want to open a can of worms unless the neighborhood is ready to do something."
The Community Alliance of Spring Garden/East Deutschtown has had no luck getting response to the group's requests for maintenance from property owners, but Rob Kaczorowski, public works director, said that "if little old ladies are walking out on Spring Garden Avenue because a sidewalk is in disrepair, we will look into it."