The Local Lens: Developers Should Take the Character of the Neighborhood Into Account
Is there not a single space in my Riverwards neighborhood that has not been rezoned for rehab by developers?
The other night I was making my way to a friend’s house on Belgrade Street when I passed one of my favorite little houses. This tiny house sits by itself next to a large, fenced-in, overgrown wooded area. I’ve always called this house “The Last House Before the Bridge” or “The Little House That Could.”
It’s not a beautiful house, but the way that it is situated next to a small patch of urban wildlife near the Belgrade Street overpass has always given the house a unique look. For years I’d occasionally see the owners of this house working outside on their trucks and cars. At Christmastime there was always a simple string of lights placed on the home’s humble-looking door. The truly odd thing about the property is that the overgrown yard wasn’t always fenced in. For a number of years anyone could walk in and out of this area, which had the look and feel of a little house in the Poconos.
Riverward houses like this are a dying breed. They are small, imperfect structures that have no place in today’s world, but they have a charm that cannot be duplicated by the boxy, industrial warehouse design that has now become the signature look in Northern Liberties and elsewhere.
The little Pocono house used to have a twin. The twin house was often referred to as the Seashore House. The Seashore House used to be directly across the street from my house. It was set back from the sidewalk and had the look of a shore house because of its partial wooden construction and second-story deck that faced the street. It also had the odd look of a tugboat. Years before I moved here, the house even had a pond with goldfish in the front yard. The original owner was said to have built a huge wooden boat that he kept in the backyard. Strangely enough, the boat resembled a small Biblical ark.
I never met the original owner of the Seashore House because by the time that I arrived in the Riverwards the house had become a rental property. Unfortunately, all the renters there weren’t exactly nice people. One couple that used to live there used to have deck parties. They would get drunk and make comments about the people passing on the sidewalk. These people never made eye contact with other neighbors and they walked around like they had a chip on their shoulder. Some people are just born angry, I suppose.
One day the Seashore House was demolished. A few months later, an array of trucks and a construction crew arrived to build an out-of-scale, five-story monolith of a house that towered over all the other homes on my street. The huge new structure was like King Kong pounding his chest and laughing at all the other residents of the neighborhood in their tiny little Lionel Train homes.
The new monolith house imposed itself on the street like an occupying army. For months after it was built my life felt dwarfed. My little house was just under its huge shadow, a small garage or water closet by comparison. The house also blocked the view outside my bedroom window. I used to be able to see treetops, but now I saw bricks and mortar. Sometimes I’d sit on my stoop and stare at the house’s observatory deck that was so high in the sky it resembled an astronomy lab. Our street was now a little medieval village surrounded by a large castle.
Friends would visit and say, “Oh, wow, your street has had an upgrade. How tall is that house? A bit out of scale, wouldn’t you say?”
The new house became a magnet for other King Kong houses. Very soon I noticed a lot of cars with out-of-state license plates, most of them from New York.
New York, New York is a helluva of a town, the Bronx is up and the Battery is down, but Philadelphia is always an option, especially for real estate sharks.
Armies of slick-looking men in suits were now crawling all over the neighborhood. They were looking at every available space, but the main attraction was two vacant properties further up the street. The men would arrive early in the morning or late at night and walk up and down the street with that “take no prisoners” attitude. They accompanied surveyors who scoped out and measured the land and eventually plans were drawn up for two monolith 300K+ houses towering six or seven stories on the same side of the street as my house.
Things were on a roll. For months the sound of construction filled the air. The blunt, relentless crash of industrial hammers on steel made the ground and the walls of my house shake. Outside on the street, Brooklyn accents mingled with the clang of equipment and machinery. Suddenly it was a whole new world.
When the monolith houses were finally finished, female real estate agents with long blond hair wearing stilettos and killer skirts clogged the street with their silver cars. For months the sound of high heels on asphalt competed with the ring of those nearby Allegheny Avenue church bells as the agents showed the new homes to prospective buyers. Prospective buyers were New Yorkers in their twenties and thirties or Californians who came in groups of five and 10.
Buyers were finally found, and then construction started on a house further up the street. This house had been boarded up for decades. The rehabbed design for this boarded-up structure was the same utilitarian warehouse design that all new houses have. This means lots of wires, cable gizmos and PECO meters on the front of the house, a terrible look that calls to mind a modern housing project in China. The building materials used were generally cheap despite the one constant: granite kitchen countertops.
My little street was changing faster than global warming. In conjunction with all this, the oldest indigenous family on the block moved off the street, meaning that all the original people that were on the block 15 years ago when I moved here from Center City were now lost to the ages. Where did the time go?
It’s easy to wax nostalgic, especially since I numbered myself as one of the first “gentrifiers” from Center City. I thought about the old neighborhood that I knew then, especially the look of the broken walls of the old paint factory at Thompson and Huntingdon.
I recalled the Port Richmond Shopping Center when it was a real shopping center with a first-class Chinese restaurant, a user-friendly Dunkin’ Donuts, a restaurant other than Applebee’s with a salad bar, a Hallmark Card variety store that sold gourmet chocolate and one of the best thrift stores in the city.
Today the shopping center has more for-rent spaces than active businesses. One can hardly even call it a shopping center. Who needs so many dollar stores? I blame the New York outfit that owns the shopping center and that charges so much rent. They would rather have empty stores sit for years rather than lower the rent.
But back to that humble little Pocono house on Belgrade.
Recently I was shocked to discover that developers had purchased the little woodsy lot next to the house and had put in foundations for two new townhouses. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, Huntingdon Street and East Thompson Street are also booming with a slew of new 400K townhouses that look like housing projects from China.
When finished, all of these homes will bring in more people, more congestion, more traffic and more parking problems. In the 1950s, Henry Miller called America the air-conditioned nightmare, but what will we call this area of the Riverwards when it becomes so congested that people will be living on top of one another?
Naturally I’m wondering what these new neighbors will be like. Will they be disaffected New Yorkers? Or will they be students who are here today and gone tomorrow? Everyone knows that many students are not from Philadelphia, but rather transients who view the city as an amusement park for their weekend pleasure.
This brings me back to my first days in the neighborhood when I’d ponder the obscurity of the area. This was when you couldn’t find a taxi to save your life, and when nobody lived here except old families with ancient roots. In those days I prayed for rapid-fire gentrification, and sadly, I got my wish.
Now I’m stuck in an area that will soon be more crowded than Shanghai, China.