Crystal CornitcherPresident, Mill Creek Coalition (1990s)
Crystal describes how she got involved with WPLP and our partnership on a pilot research project to assess damage to homes built on Mill Creek’s buried floodplain. From an interview in 2002.
I had gotten involved in the West Philadelphia Landscape Project through Sulzberger Middle School, that's where I had met Anne Spirn. I was Vice President of the Home and School Association and the children had been working with her for a while. At that time, I had spurred off into community work. I took a community involvement class at Community College. That's where I met Frances Walker- she was the guest speaker there. I didn't know that she lived in my neighborhood.
I had been telling Frances Walker about the dampness in my basement and she expressed that she had also had dampness in her basement. We just thought that was really strange, that all of us had the same problem. Then we connected with Professor Spirn through Sulzberger and that's how we got all intertwined. We'd meet every Saturday and we would brainstorm and we put together the idea of the Watershed Project. We submitted that proposal and it was approved. We had classesthe Coalition had classes educating the neighbors about the Creek. We'd educate them about where it was and what part exactly it plays in their life. That went off pretty good so that's where the Watershed Garden came about over there on 48th Street. From that point it's just been going ever since.
One time, Anne and I and my Vice President, Preston Nasir and Laura and Rafael [research assistants], we went and we did a six block survey where we went door-to-door one summer, going into people's basements. We went door-to-door and people let us in and we examined their backyards, their basements, and the front of their houses for dampness. We did about five or six blocks. It gave Anne a different perspective of it, seeing it up first hand how people are actually forced to live. Then we started meeting again and Donald Fuller came up with the idea about putting in clay pots to catch the water. So it's all been like a community initiative.
Anne took pictures and we got back in touch with the people who houses we had went to and she took their phone numbers and that brought out the media, The Inquirer came out and I met with them. An editor from the Inquirer wanted to go out and look for herself and so she came out and looked in the community, the blocks that we surveyed.
That's when I met Joanne Dahme from the Water Department. She's been the one who really brought the whole thing full circle. I don't really know what I would have done without her because she came out herself and she went through the same blocks that we went through, she counted the abandoned houses. She was saying that the sewers could have been coming from abandoned houses that they filled up but they don't cut the water off. And once they board a house up, you have the drug addicts that go in there and strip the pipes and that water just runs freely under the ground. They did a whole complete tour of the sewer with the camera and we saw the sewer lines on all of the streets that we had done. So they cut the water off, if it wasn't cut off in those abandoned houses. We're still meetingthe Coalition is still meeting with the Water Department on a regular basis.
A couple of those blocks were picked by the mayor's initiative to get the clay pots with the water draining, new downspouts and gutters and then Habitat for Humanity is going to come through there and do whatever work needed to be done. It was really a good project and I really enjoyed working on it. What I hope to see is for it to go further, you know, for it to go further down into the Mill Creek, where everybody who lives in the Mill Creek has, you know, their homes have been inspected.
There are reasons why you have vacant spaces in our community. They either find that it's a tributary underneath of there or something wrong there. And if we could get one of those Watershed Gardens on every block where you have vacant spaces at, not only would it be economically sound for us the residents but it looks pretty, it'd give the children something to do. I mean the people over there that are actually using it. You can go get the key and go in there. They sit down and they sit down with their grandchildren and they talk much like back in the days before the drugs took over the street. People were able to sit outside on their porches or on their steps. People stopped coming outside and this is kind of bringing them out. They're coming out and they're neighborly and you know it's a good thing.
My biggest concern now is Sulzberger Middle School. It's an old school. I went there when I was a teenager and they have like real, real serious problems over there, with the roof leaking. What they say is that kids who go to school at Sulzberger are bad. But I know for a fact that environment and the quality of the environment has a direct impact on children's behavior. So what's going on is that the children are in an environmentally unfriendly atmosphere. And my thing is this: why does our school have to deteriorate? The creekit really does it's damage on the school. Whenever it rains and the creek rising up, that whole basement, it floods. The children aren't allowed to use the gym. You have classes there that they're not allowed to use because the ceilings are falling in or the floors are swollen up.The kids they can't even drink water over there. They can't even turn on the water on to get water. They have a computer lab that they can't even use because of the ceiling leaking, wetting the wire when they turn the computers on. It sparks, it short-circuits, you know, the whole nine yards.
I think that with this project people have changed the way they think about the Mill Creek. I think that with this project here people aren't as afraid. As you know, a couple of blocks went under ground in the past. For the last 10 or 15 years people have been scared. There's a parking lot over there where the market is which was maybe just laid it down about 12 years ago and you can actually see where it curves and where it sinks in there. Well, people have concerns about that. But I think with us having the classes and giving them hand-outs on what was going on, they understand what was going on. We had a great big meeting at Sulzberger with the Water Department. They showed the film of the sewer, where it was running good and everything and I think that that kind of put their fears to rest. In other words, you don't have to worry about going to bed tonight and your house will be 10 stories under.Based on an interview in April 2002 by students in an MIT class on Media Technology, and Youth, and City Design and Development. Crystal died in 2010.