In one Kensington neighborhood, a documentary filmmaker is trying to halt the cycle of crime and drugs that keeps dealers on the corners and fearful law-abiding citizens inside. The plan is to raise money to buy abandoned buildings.

Filmmaker Jamie Moffett is using his inquisitiveness, outgoing personality and stubbornness to try to change this neighborhood.

"I'm a feature film director by trade. My latest one was on El Salvador, and it was narrated by Martin Sheen," Moffett said. "If I wasn't a documentary filmmaker, I would just chalk stuff up to, 'Oh it's just the city,' or 'The government sucks,' or, you know, '911 doesn't work.' That's just too simple of an answer for me."

One of the places he has his eye on is a trashed row house full of old cigarette butts, trash, and mattresses. It reeks of trash and urine.

"Tons of heroin needles upstairs," he said. "I mean this has been used as a shooting gallery for an awful long time."

Moffett and some community members are working on an initiative, Kensington Renewal, to raise money to acquire abandoned houses in the area to rehab, then sell.

"The 3300 block of Rand Street and the 3300 block of Argyle Street, there's somewhere in the area of over 30 properties just in these two blocks that are vacant or abandoned or just about falling down," Moffett said.

"We've raised $450 so far. Our goal is $10,000. We have a whole lot of folks who are willing to offer their services for free or donate Home Depot gift cards and sweat equity," he said. "This is a Kenzo version of an Amish barn-raising."

Ideally, the new owners will be long-term renters from the neighborhood, he said. By removing spaces where people use drugs, he hopes to make it less profitable for drug dealers to set up shop.

The filmmaker lived in the neighborhood for seven years and now calls Fishtown home, but he still has his business here. So why this neighborhood?

"My dad grew up maybe 10 blocks away. Our mailman is my cousin. And I didn't really understand how much of a connection I had until I moved here. But also, it became really clear to me that the kind of systemic problems in this area are solvable," he said.

Caution and courage

While Moffett conducted a tour of vacant houses and lots, a few residents stopped to ask him questions. While many lament the neighborhood's condition, they declined to be interviewed. One woman said she doesn't want to speak for fear of getting shot.

One resident who is not afraid to speak, or to put up a sign on her front door using a curse word to warn people not to sit on her steps, is 20-year-old Star Williams who has lived on Rand Street for two years.

"We have drugs, we have drug dealers, we have crack heads, and I have two kids," she said, explaining the reason for her courage.

By getting more homeowners in the area, Moffett said he hopes more people will feel they have a stake in the neighborhood and will help out with Town Watch, or stand up to a drug dealer selling in front of their house.

Standing just outside the house she owns, Williams says she's willing to help.

"When I first moved here, they were shooting, and they shot a bullet hole right here," she said, pointing to her door frame.

"It's not worth living around here. It ain't," said Williams. "I find needles on my property, and I got a three-year-old. Ain't nobody want to live here. Nobody. 'Cause I don't even want to live here."

Williams, who continues living on Rand Street because it's cheap, said she dreams of moving to New Jersey where it's quieter.


Video by Kimberly Paynter