An extraordinary champion who made an incredible impact on Chester, federal Judge Norma L. Shapiro, passed away over the weekend at the age of 87.During her 20-year oversight of the Chester Housing Authority, Judge Shapiro took control of a beleaguered institution destroyed by decades of patronage and mismanagement and turned it into a high-performing agency.
She proved that things could, in fact, be set right in Chester if its leaders were committed and willing to put in the work.She began by making sure the people she hired were dedicated to converting a corruption-riddled agency that did not serve poor people's needs into one that built and maintained only the highest-quality homes. Most of us at CHA today – all hired by the judge - are in our second decade of service to the city, thanks in large part to the example she set for us.
I met monthly with Judge Shapiro as she played the role normally served by a board of commissioners. These were intense meetings. She wanted to know every detail of our operations. I learned that no matter how small an issue might be, she wanted to hear about it and was going to ask questions about it in a relentless pursuit for detail.One of my favorite stories about Judge Shapiro – and one of her favorite stories — involved the time she was touring the properties well into the receivership and saw children playing outside in the developments.
At the beginning of her tenure as judicial receiver, people were afraid to come out or send their children out. A tear in her eye, she said the sight of children in the newly built and refurbished communities was the indicator that we had turned the corner.Think about it - a federal judge, driving through what were called the "projects" at the time. She wasn't sitting in her chambers in Philadelphia pushing papers from the bench. She personally visited on a regular basis.
She touched people.What drove Judge Shapiro? I think she identified with residents of public housing. Born in the Depression era, she knew what it meant to live within modest means. She was determined to help the dispossessed. That empathy resonated with me and explained why she stuck with it for so long. As much as she identified with residents, I believe they identified with her too. Residents could see her and talk to her. They would write to her and she answered.
They respected that.The five members who now make up the CHA board of commissioners carry the judge's legacy forward. She selected them and made sure they were prepared to uphold her expectations. Sheila Church, Tonya Warren, Catherine Feminella, Sheridan Jones, and Rod Powell take the judge's legacy very seriously and continue to work with me to ensure that assistance and services are delivered efficiently and respectfully.and did not abuse it.What Judge Shapiro did for the city of Chester goes beyond remarkable.
Today the CHA provides a stable source of affordable, modern housing with no vacancies and long waiting lists for admission, not to mention the development of health, educational and security initiatives employing community residents. Prior to her involvement, CHA was a collection of slums, unsafe and undesirable. I feel privilaged to have worked under Judge Shapiro.
May the effects of her efforts continue to make Chester a better place in which to live.