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Block captains keep watch over Philadelphia’s neighborhoods

Alicia Colombo

By Jay Nachman

Gloria Blair, 75, doesn’t precisely know how long she has been a block captain on Portico Street in Germantown. She began when her son was a baby. He’s 50 now.

As a block captain, one of her primary responsibilities is to keep her block clean and tidy, which brings her benefits like exercise, and encourages neighbors to work together and get to know one another.

“I care about where I stay at,” the veteran block captain said. “I was cleaning up anyway.”

Now, her neighborhood cleanup effort has been magnified. When official clean up days arrive, Blair alerts her neighbors with flyers and distributes bags, brooms and rakes supplied by the City of Philadelphia.

“It’s a gift. If God gives me the strength and everything to do this, it makes me feel good when I do it. When you can turn around and you can look at what you did and accomplished, it makes me feel real, real good,” Blair said.

She also provides information to her neighbors, such as articles related to voting and a listing of churches that provide food banks. She makes sure her neighbors have recycling bins and provides fans when the weather in the summer is sizzling.

People know she has the answers, even if they don’t know her real name. Blair is known on her block as “Sugar” and everyone knows to call her when they need help. “They do it all the time. Anything that you want to get done around the neighborhood, they say, ‘Go ask Sugar. She’ll get it done.’”

One of the main duties of volunteer block captains is to organize block cleanups, according to Shere L. Anderson, a clean block officer for the City. Among their other duties are to bring neighbors together to set goals and share ideas for improving the block and to act as an advocate and speaker for the block.

Retired math teacher Dorothy Perrine has lived in the same home on Manton Street in Point Breeze for all of her 82 years, so she is absolutely invested in the neighborhood. When she neared retirement about 20 years ago, she volunteered to be a block captain.

“I didn’t like the way the community looked,” Perrine said. “The area was devastated. It was terrible.”

There were empty and dilapidated homes, as well as filth in the street. “Now, we have members on the block who come out voluntarily to help clean,” she said. “We pick up, and put it out for the trash.”

A clean block also deters drug dealers, Perrine added. “If they see that you have a clean, organized block, you don’t have drug dealers standing on the corner,” she said.

Like Blair, Perrine does more than keep the block clean. She works with her neighbors to decorate it on holidays. They’ve put up a large screen on the block so everyone could watch boxing matches together. They’ve had parties with bounce houses for kids.

“We have had community dinners where everybody puts out tables with a tablecloth on the sidewalk,” she said. “It was very nice.”

Every Thanksgiving, working with the Police Department’s 17th District, Perrine makes sure every older resident on the block gets a food basket, filled with a turkey, all the holiday trimmings, vegetables and beverages. She has 10 people on her list and believes several hundred people in the district receive holiday meals.

“We make sure we take care of those people wh o are within our reach,” Perrine said. “I guess I’m a serviceperson. My mother lived here. My satisfaction comes from safety for people who live around here and the beauty of the area.”

Joyce Lloyd, 73, is also a Point Breeze block captain. She started in 2018, after retiring from the federal government. Like the other block captains, the South Taylor Street resident serves as a “mini mayor” by working to beautify the block and disseminating information to her neighbors.

Lloyd is aided in her efforts by new residents in her gentrifying neighborhood.

“It makes me feel good when everyone is cooperating,” Lloyd says. “Even though we come from different backgrounds, we come together to have a nice neighborhood.”

Jay Nachman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia who tells stories for a variety of clients.

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