Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Overlooked

Overbrook is one of Philadelphia's most venerable communities. Since the 1890s, people have called this area home. The Overbrook area is relatively large, pieced-into several distinct sections that traditionally were divided by economic class and ethnicity. That said, the community runs from about 59th Street on the east, to City Line Avenue on the west, Vine to Lancaster Avenue. Like the borders of most every Philadelphia neighborhood, they are open to dispute and discussion.

Prominently situated at 63rd and Lancaster, sits Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. This is the parish I call home and it is a landmark building in a community full of great architecture. It was after Mass this past week that I had the chance to speak with a fellow parishioner about the Overbrook community and its many changes during the last 15 years. For the sake of anonymity, I'll call this woman Dee, and she's lived in the area her entire life. She's in her early 50s and like many Overbrook residents of the past, is Italian-American.

I had figured out that Overbrook had a large Italian community long before anyone ever suggested it to me. To this day a few Italian businesses sit in the area: Ugo's Salumeria and Caffe Sportivo Italiano both at 64th and Callowhill. Haverford Furniture, a nice store owned by an Italian-American family still does business around 65th and Haverford. And there are two Italian-American social clubs, one near Ugo's, the other sitting quietly at 67th and Haverford.

Since the early 1990s, Dee told me, the vast number of Italian-Americans, as well as a sizeable Irish-American community, have left Overbrook for other places. Broomall in Delaware County, and of course, New Jersey, she said are the two biggest destinations.

I suggested to Dee that perhaps one major reason for this recent exodus was racism. Anyone that knows me can tell you that I firmly believe racism has been the biggest push factor in why so many stable, white rowhouse communities in Philadelphia have suddenly resegregated into usually African American neighborhoods. This process is often fueled by realtors that scare residents by barraging them with "Cash for Homes" ads and other tactics that fly just below old blockbusting strategies. These factors leave communities just as lacking in diversity as they were originally, and most of the fears of former residents never become reality.

Dee was more than happy to confirm that it was indeed race that played a major role in Overbrook's abrupt turnover of residents. She said it seemed as though everyone disappeared at the same time - and most people mentioned that the neighborhood was "going down," an old favorite of phrases in working class Philadelphia.

"People started getting jumped," Dee remembered. "You gotta watch now," she continued, suggesting that in the past one did not need to mind their surroundings in Overbrook. Dee said hookers and drug dealers infest certain corners along 63rd Street, and that shootings have popped up from time to time in the otherwise quiet community. "You didn't used to have that," Dee stressed.

I couldn't help but wonder if people got jumped back when Overbrook was all white. I couldn't help but wonder if maybe prostitutes walked parts of 63rd Street before non-white residents moved in. I refuse to tie the arrival of minority families to the types of urban ills that may touch Overbrook from time-to-time.

It is doubly humorous to me that while so many former Overbrookers feel the community they once knew is in decline, the homes are selling for more than ever. Rowhomes routinely fetch over $110,000 each now. Twins and singles can top $200,000 or more, especially in ritzier Overbrook Farms immediately east of City Line Avenue. The old fear that land values would drop has never been realized.

You can still buy Italian goods at Ugo's, find great water ice at Morrone's on 63rd or the Dairy Bar at 68th and Lansdowne. Children still play baseball at Papa Playground across from the Dairy Bar. Every street teems with children playing jumprope or riding bicycles. There is a feeling on most every street that there are stable families living in Overbrook. Indeed, this community seems to have changed in skin color only, welcoming new residents that were seeking a nice house, a quiet street, and a place for their children to relax outside. Why couldn't more of the longtime residents remember that?

Dee is a kind lady and I was glad to meet her. It was fun to recount stories about Italian stores and traditions in the neigborhood.

But I was left without an answer to the greatest mystery I know: Why can't white working class Philadelphia sit still when a few non-white faces move into their blocks? What makes so many rock-solid communities still today think they are at risk because the street is no longer Italian, or Irish, or even American-born for example? It is not an Overbrook problem, it is not even a Philadelphia problem, rather, it is an American problem.

Any outsider I have ever driven through Overbrook has commented to me that it's nice, the houses are well-kept, and it's got a lot of eye appeal. That's true, it really is a great community.

Places like Overbrook are overlooked by yuppies because they're not close in enough to Trader Joe's on Market Street or the Ritz Theatres. They are not red-hot with young people because they don't know any friends that are dying to move there. But maybe it's time all of us started considering these great communities that while they may not be the ethnic bastions they once were, are still great places to call home.

To visit Overbrook:
By SEPTA - use the 10 trolley from 15th Street Station and ride to the end of the line at 63rd and Malvern. Walk west into the neighborhood.

By Car - Use 63rd Street northbound from Walnut Street heading from Center City. Or drive in from the Main Line on Lancaster Avenue east across City Line. You're there.

Give it a good look - there's a lot to appreciate.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Mount Climbing

I had the pleasure today of helping a few friends move into their new home in East Mount Airy, Philadelphia. This is a great house - as are so many in this dynamic community. It got me thinking about what makes Mount Airy stand out among so many other parts of Philadelphia that could be just as appealing and engaging were they to find a new lease on life - or at least a new direction.

Some people insist Mount Airy appeals to many because it is racially and culturally diverse. The area is indeed so, and since the 1950s has made an effort to encourage integration and prosperity. For others, the draw of Mount Airy has been that it offers a semi-suburban atmosphere: trees, yards, parks, recreation centers, all amid a slightly urban character of rowhomes, twins and large single homes. One must also mention the entire area is steeped in American history - having been the sight of the Battle of Germantown and covered in structures dating back to the 18th Century.

I think that it is that feeling that everyone can meld into the wider community in Mount Airy that makes it tick. If you think about Philadelphia's 135 square miles, there are nearly no working class communities that seem to welcome racial diversity or find themselves free of class friction in the face of the urban changes of the 21st Century. Whole swaths of Northeast Philadelphia are going through changes Mount Airy long ago deemed unacceptable - racial resegregation, capital flight. It is not that Mount Airy and neighboring areas did not experience any of those things, but the community stands out in the city for spending so much time and energy fighting those destructive trends.

Perhaps the most troubling thing for some of us about Mount Airy, despite its many virtues, is that it is becoming harder to find homes that are affordable. This is not a new issue in urban America, where communities with very alluring aspects begin to no longer have space for those that may most want to live there. I recently looked at two homes in East Mount Airy, just steps away from the house I helped my friends move into. Both were rowhomes, one more modest in size than the other. The smaller one was in top-notch condition, with lots of upgrades and a really nice street to boost its attractiveness. The asking price? $169,900. I was never going to get in there on a beginner teacher's salary. The other home I looked at was higher, around $185,000. Both homes just three years ago would have sold for about $85,000. Back then, I felt certain I could become part of Mount Airy. Now, I am not so sure.

Sticker shock is truly spreading across "Manetoland." Note the new nickname for Philadelphia. Nearly all sections of the city have appreciated greatly the last two years. Realtors have told me that for decades Philadelphia was undervalued - and that's probably quite true. One only need drive to New York or DC to see how good we have it here when it comes to affording a home in the city.

It's just hard to imagine paying $169,900 for a 1200 square foot rowhouse. I think you know what I mean.

But I'll still keep looking in Mount Airy because I think it's a great place - it energizes me to be there and see its palette of residents and observe its historic feeling putting a strong foot forward in such a great city.

Let's hope more sections of Philadelphia embrace the challenges and efforts Mount Airy has succeeded at facing for so many years.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

8 is Enough

Live 8 promises to bring about all kinds of anti-urban remarks from those that make an annual pilgrimage into Philadelphia. Think of these people. As they drive over one of the bridges, or round the curve on the Schuylkill Expressway near Girard, they see the Center City skyline. (Cue the "Jaws" theme music) All the frustrations of city behavior clashing with a suburban mindset start fizzling to the surface of their consciences. "Where will I park?" "I hope there are places to go to the bathroom!" You could think of any number of comments that will cross the lips of those less familiar with Philadelphia on 2nd July. Yes, the "landing" of perhaps a million people on the Ben Franklin Parkway for America's piece of the Live 8 Concert promises to be a real trip.

Just today, 50 Cent announced he would be performing at Live 8. Why? The filming of a movie he's going to appear in conflicts with the concert date, so no Fitty.

But the loss of a singer that frankly very few people I know have been thrilled to see on the Live 8 bill, is not what I'm concerned about. I am intrigued by the idea that Philadelphia's leaders feel the city can handle all the wear and tear it will endure during Live 8.

There are today perhaps 7,000 Philadelphia Police officers serving 1.5 million City residents daily. For 2nd July, there will be perhaps one million more people in town. Will there be 7,000 more police officers? We know there won't be. This, friends, marks potential element of insanity #1.

Next, the "automobile-free" zone that has been enacted during the concert. This is an area that extends from Fairmount Avenue to Market Street, 16th to 23rd. Wow. This will be a sight to behold. The idea of virtualy no traffic, save for residents of that area, is exciting to any devout urbanist. I can hear the auto-savvy now, "I hate how you can't even drive through there! There could be so many parking places in there and we can't even think about getting one." You have to wonder how many people coming into the city from Marlton or Malvern, for example, may simply turn back because it's just "too hard" to deal with parking and the frustrations of people wanting to be in the city all at once.

It's exciting to see Philadelphia in the world spotlight for a purpose as important as helping African nations out of eternal economic downfall. But for those of us who live here everyday, it will be an experience that despite all the speculation abotu what might happen, will doubtlessly be memorable for reasons we never foresaw, afterward.

Besides, for many of us living in the City, we'll just be taking it in on television - from someplace we ran to outside town to avoid the suburban riffraff.

Friday, June 10, 2005

"Fun" With the Delaware Riverfront

The Delaware River made the settlement of Philadelphia possible. In the 17th Century, William Penn and his cohorts spent no shortage of time trying to pick just the right location for what Penn hoped would be a city of freestanding homes and businesses, and plenty of space for residents to enjoy.

For Penn, the Delaware was a tool, a means of transportation. It remained a tool up through the mid-20th Century, as industry lined its shores. Today, the shores of this river demand rethought and reuse. While most Philadelphians today enjoy the Schuylkill's waterfront paths and beauty - the Delaware is a river that most people in the area get to know most often from the deck of a bridge on their way to New Jersey and back.

It seems it is finally time to ensure Philadelphians build a real relationship with the great Delaware River. Yet, as is so often the case, the good intentions of the city's leaders to attract new investment could mean little space will be left to public uses on the riverfront.

If you have looked at Philadelphia newspapers of late, you have no doubt seen the coverage of what seems to be promising new residential development plans for sites near the Tacony and Bridesburg sections of the city. New, trendy development in Northeast Philadelphia? Yes, and you can bet it will become reality.

Inga Saffron reports in the 10 June Inquirer, that a 50-foot wide stretch of land will be left to public uses along the Delaware waterfront through Northeast Philadelphia, no matter what developments take place along it. This space could become a path, possibly some kind of linear park that would be a more modern version of the beloved Kelly Drive frontage on the Schuylkill. Yet 50-feet is hardly a massive width for grand landscaping ideas. You won't find much space in 50-feet for parks for recreational uses like sports or picknicking.

Saffron and many others highlight the issue that because the City of Philadelphia is so eager to encourage new home development, the city may not be taking care to ensure the new riverfront developments are designed with long-term attractiveness and functionality in mind. This may be so, and the city should take care to ensure this new development meets several key needs.

One major need, not an idea that is lost on any city planner or critic, is that all new riverfront development must have connections to the existing neighborhoods in the Northeast that sit slightly offshore from the river. For example, Bridesburg, long isolated as I-95 cuts it off from Frankford and industrial development hides it from the Delaware, should most definitely be connected to any new riverfront development nearby. Plans call for some 2,000 homes to be built in the future on the river near Bridesburg. The community has always been a stable and spotless section of the city evocative of what many parts of PHiladelphia looked like before deindustrialization and capital flight.

In a slightly different vein, Tacony, just a few miles northeast of Bridesburg, sits awaiting what could be a potentially great future. This community of middle and working-class Philadelphians has been largely Irish and Italian, and now African Americans and Hispanics are calling the area home in small numbers. There have been growing pains for some long-timers as diversity has realized itself there, but land values are up - following a citywide trend. Near Tacony, some 500 townhomes are envisioned and likely to soon be built along the Delaware on the site of the old Tacony Army warehouse. This new development, too, must find a way to link with the venerable and established Tacony long lingering along Torresdale or Tyson Avenues.

So often, new development in major cities turns its back on the very residents that made the community a great place in which to live. It is possible in many city neighborhoods that have long been stable and recently gained new, trendy housing, for newcomers to have little to do with established residents and vice versa. It is a sad situation that creates needless division and mistrust in communities that could soar if there were unity between classes and ethnicities.

The city owes the residents of existing sections of Bridesburg and Tacony assurance their neighborhoods are part of, not distinct from, new residential development on the Delaware that could send area home values ever higher. There are too many people in these solid neighborhoods that have worked too hard to keep them safe, clean and functional to be ignored. Often this work has been in spite of high taxes, and a city government that often does not remember how valuable the contributions of Northeast Philadelphians are to the city's well-being.

This residential growth along the Delaware is a very fine thing for the city, make no mistake. But before we all start taking jogs up the Delaware on that new 50-foot path and oohing and aahing at new homes along the water, let us stop for a moment and push to let city leaders know that a great city will only become greater if what exists today is joined with what may come tomorrow.

The Route 15 Trolley Debacle

Yesterday, 9 June, and today, Carla Anderson from the Philadelphia Daily News ran pieces about the continued pain of getting the Route 15 Girard Avenue trolley line up and running again. Anderson is the DN's "Urban Warrior" and does a fine job of shedding light upon those in the city that would like Philadelphia to remain a perpetually confused underdog.

The focus of the story was Democratic Ward Leader Carol Campbell. She is quite powerful in the city's Democratic circles and is the secretary of the Democratic City Committee. Campbell has spearheaded the delay of this massive project to restore trolley service to Girard Avenue. The issue at hand, for those unfamiliar with the issue, is parking along North 59th Street outside Callowhill Depot, where the trolleys for Route 15 are stationed. Since the trolleys stopped running back in 1992, residents have enjoyed more parking along both sides of this street. Restoring trolley service requires elimination of parking along one side of the block to allow trolleys clear exit from the car barn.

There are many guilty parties here, as Anderson states in her article, but as a resident of the city, this is one more bag over the head for Philadelphians.

It is astounding that ward politics are left to be so strong today in a city in the 21st Century. As voters and residents, is that what we truly want? I think this leads to the ongoing issue of apathy in local political affairs.

Many believe that the reputation of the Philadelphia City government is so marred by past embarrassments and malfeasance, that residents cannot imagine taking part in such a troubled arena. Then there are those that seem to buck the system from time-to-time, people that irritate those in the political machine that would rather the public have no idea how incompetent some city government officials remain. I will digress from naming who people on either side are as I am sure many reading this will have their own ideas.

Route 15 promises to be a hallmark of positive change in the city. It stretches across a palette of communities that reveal all of Philadelphia's dirty laundry and all of its promise. Port Richmond, Fishtown, Northern Liberties, Fairmount, Parkside, Carroll Park, all the way to Haddington in West Philadelphia. It was once a line so busy that more transfers were issued to riders than on any other transit line. From the windows of the trolleys to come, one will see a city rebounding and a city still stuck in urban ills like drug dealing, decimated streets of homes, and apathy.

This reinvestment in this great street will only help cement the progress of some communities, and perhaps spark positive change in others where none could have been previously foreseen.

If you care about this issue, and about how our politicians handle the final realization of this $90 million project, talk to everyone who will listen about it. And remember come election time who took a stand, or who put their heads in the sand.

An Urban Warrior reader wrote, "Your $82 million trolley screw-up story is a poster child for what really kills this poor city of ours: Bad politics well implemented."

He couldn't have put it any better.

Welcome

I intend this blog as a place to write about issues in Philadelphia. I used the City of Phiadelphia's motto, "Philadelphia Maneto," as the title of the blog for a very simple reason. This is a city that so many people malign and criticize, but they would have to admit that they love it very much. With that, it's important to remember that the city's motto translates roughly into English as "Let the City of Brotherly Love Continue."

I hope to share ideas here about city governance, development, planning and design. You will also find rants of all kinds about just living here - which is never dull because of the amazing variety of people here.

Enjoy...share your thoughts, etc.
R. Chas. Caviglia