Funeral for a Philadelphia Rowhouse

On the eve of its demolition, a memorial service remembers the life of one of the last homes on a single block in the Mantua neighborhood. 

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3711 Melon Street, just before it was torn down on May 31, 2014. (Mark Byrnes)

The voices of the Mt. Olive Baptist Church choir echoed off the buildings on Saturday along the 3700 block of West Philadelphia’s Melon Street.

Their usual pulpit sits around the corner at 37th and Wallace. But this past weekend, they sang at the funeral of an unusual neighbor: a small, dilapidated rowhouse at 3711 Melon, torn down that night.

As the choir sang the gospel hymn, the words seemed fitting – “Precious memories, how they linger.” Soon, memories would be all that’s left of the two-story home, a narrow rowhouse that long ago lost its partners.

Demolition begins while the Mt. Olive Baptist Church choir sings a gospel hymn. (Mark Byrnes)

Behind them, the jaws of the heavy construction excavator opened up. The truck’s arm, shrouded in a piece of black fabric, lifted and came in for the top of the home. A crunching sound interrupted the music. Soon, the crown of flowers that had been placed above the gutter sat in pieces in a black, coffin-like dump truck.

More than 600 vacant and structurally unsound homes are torn down in the city of Philadelphia each year, according to the organizers of Funeral for a Home, the name given to Saturday's unusual memorial service. Administrators at Temple Contemporary—the gallery at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art—had been looking for a way to mark this neighborhood-based sea change. So they drafted local artists Jacob Hellman and Steven and Billy Dufala, who began developing the idea of a funeral. Soon, the “homegoing” ceremony became a community partnership, as neighbors and representatives from places like Mt. Olive Baptist and the Mantua Civic Association got involved.

The official program for Saturday's "Funeral for a Home" that took place in the Mantua neighborhood of Philadelphia. (Mark Byrnes)

Most residential demolitions are decidedly less ceremonious. That’s certainly the way many neighbors in West Philadelphia’s Mantua neighborhood felt when they first heard of the idea earlier this year. But as Mt. Olive’s Pastor Harry Moore, Sr. reminded those who came to celebrate and mourn the life of 3711 Melon, “These homes are like individuals—up one day and down the next.”

So the community gathered, to remember one of its own. 

'This House'

A eulogy, Moore reminded his makeshift congregation that morning, means merely to “praise highly and speak well of.” As his eulogy for a rowhouse picked up steam, he began a refrain, praising the many things that “This House” has done over its long history. “This house has kept us safe, kept a roof over our heads,” he shouted, as the organist picked up the patterns in accompaniment. “This house kept us warm in the winter,” he continued, “This house kept us cool in the summer.”

3711 Melon served all these functions and more during its long years of service. A structure has stood at that site since at least the 1870s, when real estate speculators worked to get ahead of the demand for industrial worker housing.

Mt. Olive’s Pastor Harry Moore, Sr.  delivers his sermon during "Funeral for a Home." (Mark Byrnes)

A row of houses on this block had been continually occupied since the turn of the last century, according to Patrick Grossi, the Funeral for a Home’s project manager and a history graduate student at Temple.

Mantua, which today is situated north of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel campuses, has long been a residential hub for working-class families. For its first few decades, the neighborhood followed a “50-year carousel of demographic change,” as Grossi put it. First came the Irish workers, then came the Jewish and Italian newcomers as migration from Southern Europe ticked up during the early 20th century. By the 1940s, the neighborhood began to turn over to African American migrants from the South.

“What’s so perfect is that you go through the census records to get the little plot points every ten years, and all of the names kind of perfectly match” with this demographic history, Grossi says. 

In 1946, the woman who Grossi calls the “patron saint” of 3711 moved in. Leona Richardson, part of that wave of black newcomers in the post-war Great Migration, bought the house and became its first real owner-occupier. Originally from the small city of Thibodaux, Louisiana, Richardson first went to Baltimore to work as a welder, part of the boom of female employment during World War II. After the war, she made her way north to Philadelphia with her young son Roger.

Leona and Roger lived there for nearly 50 years together. Two of Richardson’s nieces, both from Thibodaux but now living in Ohio and San Diego, came out to 3711’s funeral this past weekend. Grossi and members of the Funeral for a Home team interviewed Leona's niece, Annie Hunt, in Ohio this past winter. She tells me that, when she was first approached, she “couldn’t wrap [her] brain around” the idea of a funeral for a house. But she's come to see how important telling her aunt’s story was to commemorating the house. “When you think of a home,” Hunt told the crowd, “you have to think of the residents.”

Her sister, Julia LeBlanc, remembers girlhood trips up to Philadelphia from Thibodaux. She told the crowd that the event helps mark what the Richardsons meant to 3711, and what the house meant to them. “It’s about the legacy of a single mother being able to purchase her own home, raise her son, give him a good education.”

Near the end of her life, Richardson purchased a second home around the corner and rented 3711 to tenants. Since she passed away in 2002, followed by Roger in 2009, the home has stood alternately vacant and rented. As Grossi worked on the project this past year, he occasionally found evidence that squatters had used the house—condemned as structurally unsound—until quite recently. Though they were there illegally, he thinks of them as the final residents. 

'Lonely Rowhouses'

3711 Melon Street was built as part of a long row of homes, in a neighborhood filled with blocks and blocks of these small, two-story housing units. But over the years, the rowhouses surrounding it were all taken down. Grassy lots are a common sight in Mantua, as are these kinds of “lonely rowhouses.”

Too often, it seems there’s little to be done about these stretches of vacant lots and abandoned houses. Some may be owned by developers, and some still by the estates of those who bought them in the 1940s and 1950s, unable to be torn down or redeveloped. Observers have called this the “gap tooth” phenomenon. Though the western half of the block has far more houses, until Saturday, the Richardson’s old home was one of those last remaining teeth on this stretch of the block, with vacant lots on both sides.

“Now we gather to return its brick, mortar, wood, and steel back into the earth,” local educator and performer Ardie Stuart Brown, who lives around the corner on Wallace Street, said in a poetic speech Saturday. “3711 has done enormous tasks during these 140 years. 3711 will be missed.”

Following the initial demolition of the crown of flowers—the rest would be taken down later that afternoon, after the crowds left—a staccato drumming began from behind the audience. Two drill teams, made of kids from the neighborhood, led the celebrants out into the streets of Mantua for a funeral procession. We headed down 37th Street, the pounding of the bass drums reverberating out.

Scenes from the procession. (Mark Byrnes)

Along the way, the procession passed more of these “gap tooth” lots. Steve and Billy Dufala, the local artists who designed the program, had hung wreaths of flowers, small versions of the crown on top of 3711 Melon, to mark these vacant lots that once held beloved homes.

At the corner of Brown St., with a community garden to one side and the railroad tracks straight ahead, the coffin-like dump truck from Revolution Recycling stopped, and a string quartet of local high schoolers began playing “Amazing Grace.” It was an abrupt change from the fast-paced frivolity of the drill teams. Ronnell Hodges, the violist and a tenth grader who first joined the quartet as part of the after-school program Play on Philly!, says she’d never performed at an event like this before. But the strings, she says, created a special moment. “They’re coming down, and it’s loud and exciting,” she says. “Then you get serious, mellow down, and think about what the house means.”

The procession rounded back up the corner and onto Melon. Tables and chairs had been set up along the closed-off block for a happy, family-style wake. “It’s a positive thing that brought the neighbors out,” says Tammy Davis, president of the Mount Olive Baptist Church choir, over lunch. “Some people that have been living here for decades, they’re telling their stories.”

A Resurrection?

A funeral is about more than an ending. For those who believe, it marks the passage of time, the transition to a better place, and a new beginning. In his introduction, Moore explained that “this funeral ceremony is a symbol of a resurrection that will take place.”

There was much talk of resurrection for Mantua that day. The neighborhood stands at the center of the West Philadelphia Promise Zone, one of five neighborhoods chosen nationwide as pilots for an Obama administration anti-poverty initiative. The total zone, which covers 35,315 residents, including all of Mantua, has a poverty rate of 51 percent and an unemployment rate of 14 percent. The housing vacancy rate is nearly 15 percent, double the city-wide average.

The Promise Zone initiative is designed to attack poverty on multiple fronts, including education, crime, and employment. The designation comes with no money itself, but the neighborhood has already received several hundred thousands of dollars in support for local social service activity, and the Promise Zone moniker will make it easier for them to compete for more federal resources.

Mantua’s rich civic life, led in part by the newly formed Mantua Civic Association, seems as poised as possible to take advantage of these opportunities. The density of local organizations that can serve as community partners, many of which participated in the funeral this weekend, was a key part of winning the Promise Zone designation. As Grossi reflects, so many stories of Mantua often focus on the fact that it is “long impoverished.” While this narrative is undoubtedly true—“a project about vacant homes is in Mantua for a reason”—Grossi says that “what it neglects is this legacy of investment and planning.”

Wreaths were placed on vacant lots along the procession route to honor the houses that once stood there. (Mark Byrnes)

As for the future of the now-vacant lot at 3711?

Most immediately, the demolition of 3711 Melon, the last remaining structure on a long row of empty lots, will free the space for new use. The lot is now owned by West Philadelphia Real Estate, and Grossi says there are plans to erect new affordable housing units on the site.

This call for better housing options continued throughout the funeral service. Moore declared that the event would be the “start of affordable homes coming into this community.” He paused, then noted, “If I were in a church, I’d get an ‘Amen,’ right here.” From the audience came laughter, and a few "Amens."

This wish to replace Philadelphia's abandoned houses and vacant lots with quality, affordable housing has never seemed more likely to come true. This winter, Mayor Michael Nutter signed into law the Philadelphia Land Bank, which will make it easier for the city to sell government-owned and tax-delinquent properties—nearly 30,000 in total—for redevelopment purposes.

The community hopes that this will make a difference. At the end of his eulogy, Moore offered up a prayer about what the demolition of 3711 would mean: “May this not be a needle dropped in a haystack, or a Band-Aid put over cancer, but the start of affordable homes.”

 

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