Monday, September 20, 2004

There Goes the Neighborhood

I don't know what the Lenelape people called this area above the riverbanks where they once fished. The colonists who chased them off observed that this, the highest point in the new city of Philadelphia Pennsylvania, was "a faire mount". They placed the municipal resovoir on the summit around 1800. Nearby, in the 1820's followed the Quakers massive, gothic, Eastern State Pennitentary(namesake and progenitor of the form and Victorian Grand Tour destination)and the Aethenic, white marble columned splendor of Stephen Girard's College for Fatherless Boys(himself an orphan, he died childless, leaving by far the new country's largest fortune). The expanding city's grid of red brick row houses replaced the surrounding farmers fields by the opening of the 1876 centennial Exhibition, held across the Schuylkill River. The Philadelphia Museum of Art supplanted the resovoir in the 1920's, and recently, taking their marketing cue from it's majestic presence at the top of the "Rocky steps", the realtors replaced "Fairmont" with the tony new designation, "Art Museum Area".

When I moved here nearly nine years ago, it was still largely white working class, scruffy, and a little bit scary. My fancy friends, who wisely avoided art school and instead earned degrees in finance or something to do with computers, lived on the other side of town in 'Olde' City, Queen's Village, or Rittenhouse Square(every four blocks in Philly is another neighborhood). It was impossible for them to imagine that anyone with ten fingers, ten toes, and all his natural teeth would EVER stray north of Fairmont Avenue, let alone LIVE there. But I loved it. My first apartment, on the top floor of a crumbling Victorian end of row was big and sunny, even if it was worn and sagging. It had views of the Center City skyscrapers from the back, the green fields and trees of the college from the front, and open sky above shorter buildings on the side. Two bedrooms, including heat and hot water, for $450.00 a month. On sunny afternoons they would drive out in their shiny Golfs and Civics, to sit on the eight foot long yellow silk chesterfield sofa my friend Mike and I had dragged up the narrow stairs. We'd drink and laugh and play music and drink and laugh. They were always sure to leave before sundown, though, not wanting to risk the loss of in-dash CD changers and alloy wheels. I wasn't the only one who thought Fairmont was great. More and more art industry laborers, working musicians, and single men with flair moved in, seeking cheap square footage, proximity to the park, and a twenty five minute walk to City Hall.

I bought my shabby little row house on Twentyfirst Street about five years ago. It and the neighbors' were built in the 1920's, forty odd years after the rest of the neighborhood, on the site of a small satellite resovoir. These three blocks of houses must have appeared strikingly modern and even grand to the foundry workers' and brewery men's families who first moved in; all uniformly cream colored columns and cornices, porches and bays, rhythmically spaced along the fifteen foot wide ochre yellow brick facades. They sit at the tops of L-shaped runs of concrete steps, railed and buttressed with walls and piers of rough, irregular sparkling grey granite blocks, mimicking the prison ramparts at the end of the street. Uniquely in this neighborhood, these houses back onto private alleys: no backyards, but each has a narrow, high, eighteen foot deep garage underneath, which perfectly accommodates a Model A Ford.

Back then, my immediate neighbors were mostly older Polish and Ukrainian couples. Their children had fled the city, to raise kids in greener pastures across The Delaware River. On Sundays, I'd see them pass by, some shuffling, tiny and hunched, others still strong and purposeful, to the gold domed church around the corner. They'd hold each other's arms as they filed past the vivid mosaics, to sit in sparsely scattered clusters in the raking rays of red and amber light. Afterwards, in the multi purpose room of the otherwise vacant and unused adjoining Parochial school, the ladies of the congregation would sell sweet sausages, thick noodle casseroles, and perrogies they'd made at home the night before. Sometimes, after I'd raked their sidewalks, freed snow bound mini vans, or kept an eye on the house during a Jersey Shore vacation, brown paper bags holding pastel Tupperware bowls or precisely folded foil packets of these same hearty delicacies, would appear on my porch by the door. Though I never lost my "not a local" status, the gifts made me feel that they didn't mind me living there after all. There aren't many of those neighbors around now. Some died, but most succumbed to the reams of realtor's flyers which jam our mail slots, sold their houses, and crossed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge into New Jersey to be nearer their grandchildren.

Our new upscale moniker attracted a new upscale demographic. As is so often the case, changes in the local motor pool were the first harbinger of the new residents' arrival. Sleek BMWs and Acura SUVs began to appear among the locals' unassuming Camrys and sturdy LeSabres, and my own wave of interlopers' occational 'seventies 2002, 'eighties Volvo wagon, or 'nineties Toyota pick-up. Recently, a Hummer, menacing and malevolent, as shiny black as an oil spill on Prudhoe Bay, appeared. Another change along the curbs is a fleet of full sized pick-up trucks and vans, emblazoned with the logos of contractors, restoration carpenters, and bath and kitchen specialists. Each weekday morning, burley men of all sizes and shapes, squeeze the trucks in by the black or dull grey green thirty yard dumpsters which sit on most every one of the increasingly crowded blocks. The tradesmen swarm over the fortunates' future homes, busily refitting them inside and out for the new lives, and lifestyles, waiting to commence.

The neighborhood looks better every day. I've certainly benefited from the increase in property values, and now(on paper anyway)the sudden equity puts me on the very bottom rung of the ladder of upward mobility. A recently completed renovation across the street has already sold(for more than four times what I paid for this place), and a stylish young couple has moved in. I haven't met them yet. I see them climb the long run of steps to their porch, arms full of shopping bags from Whole Foods Market, Pottery Barn, and Williams Sonoma, feathering their nest. I'll introduce myself next time I see them, welcome them to the neighborhood. I'll keep an eye on the place if they're away, and help them dig out their Lexus this February, if they catch me out with the shovel in my hand. I'm sure they'll be great neighbors, and that we'll get along just fine. Maybe even become friends.

I don't think that they'll be making me perogies.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Weather Report

We had a new hurricane this past weekend.

I walked the few blocks to the diner in The Philladelphian to sit outside and enjoy the perfectly uniform dove grey sky and increasingly gusty winds as it approached. The Philadelphian is a ten story zig zagging apartment house overlooking The Philadelphia Museum of art. It forms a wall between the neoclassical monuments of The Benjamin Franklin Parkway and my neighborhood of three story Victorian rowhouses. Out front is a sweeping curved drive and a port cochere. Inside, it contains vastly scaled international modern public spaces of marble, walnut, and bronze. It's all overlayed with enthusiastically baroque furniture and grandly scaled decorations. Kind of a blend of Phillip Johnson and Lisa Douglas (from"Green Acres"). Twin salons flank the foyer, one vaguely French and the other suggesting the orient. Each is walled in plate glass punctuated by swirling gilt Louis XV carved wood boiseries stuck to the glass like decals. My late friend Bucko(baruch shalom)referred to it as "a 1950's Jewish imperial palace" and aspired to spend his twilight years there in all it's ersatz period splendor. We visited the building often, and would stride through the vestibule, nodding to the door man and smiling familiarly at the 'other' residents we passed, then wander down the ramped terrazzo corridor past the florist, pharmacy, and travel agent, to breakfast at Little Pete's. Little Pete's is less richly appointed than the rest of the place, even after recent renovations added floral wallpaper, mirror strips and styrene cornices, but in some ways is more aesthetically impressive than the grand halls out front. To me anyway. This is due largely to the presence of a pair of eighteen year old Greek boys, football players, who bus tables for the middle aged waitresses working the floor. When I arrived this weekend, I positioned myself under the shallow portico that runs alongside the terrace(to maximize the view)and focused alternately on the grey sky undulating above the chalky stone rowhouses across the street, and the muscles rippling under the boys' t-shirts while they shouldered the heavy trays and weighty buspans. Morris Lapidus had built places just like The Philadelphian in South Florida in the 'fifties. While I ate my two hotcakes, two sausage links, and two eggs (up), I wondered how the folks down there were doing with the storm and if they had been able to sit outside at breakfast today.

In my youth, I delighted in hurricanes. My brother and I would drive to the beach in one of his string of decrepit Chevy Vegas, before the National Guard arrived, to view the devastation first hand. After one storm, we visited the Atlantis II Discotec. The year before I had assisted my child molester in installing the lighting and sound systems. It was thrilling to see it now; the green lacquer and satin chrome tables ankle deep in sand with candle holders still in place. The wall facing the Atlantic had been ripped away, and the denuded beach swept uninterrupted from the cocktail lounge to the breakers below. We stood where the dunes had been, looking out at the grey green sky merging into grey green sea. I picked up a spherical compass, jetsam from one of the splintered yachts along the sound. The dial spun behind the scratched acrylic, seeking north, and I recalled the turntables spinning in the club's DJ booth, while my child molester blew me under the console. I didn't share the memory with my brother.

But now I was far inland, this new hurricane was hundreds of miles away, and my only access to it's unfolding drama would be the television.

My knowledge of current events comes almost entirely from NPR, the Sunday NY Times fluff sections, and outdoor advertising. I try never to consume commercial radio or TV news. It makes my brain hurt. I broke down three weeks ago, wanting to gape at the last hurricane's damage and see if they'd discovered any additional pictures of Governor McGreevey and his boyfriend(preferably shirtless and liplocked). But I couldn't remember when the news was broadcast(ten o'clock? eleven?) and by the time I tuned in, all the "good" pictures of roofless gas stations, crumpled mobile homes,and sloops aground in the parking lot of Wallmart had been bumped by "live on the scene" reports by soggy second string weekend reporters urgently describing the advancing deluge. They stood in yellow raincoats on boardwalks in Atlantic City and Wildwood and street corners in Cape May and Margate; the pitiful splashes of un-dramatic softly rolling breakers, lightly quivering street signs, and rain spattered emergency vehicle doors their only visual aids. Desperation to maintain the drama and excitement of impending peril grew in inverse proportion to the storm's dwindling fury. The McGreevey thing was also a wash, just the same tired clips and that tuxedo picture. After a short while I started surfing the dozen or so channels my Mitsubishi gets over the rabbit ears, and watched the storm approach "live" through the raindrops just beginning to streak my bedroom windows. Never again.

So, this time, I didn't make much of an effort to see what the hurricane was up to. Maybe with age, i'm becomming just slightly empathetic enough not to be able to rationalize my voyerism. Anyway, I'm sure the pictures were just the same as every other year's, and the stories and accompanying pathos just as touching and sad. I hope the people in Florida can bear up to this reconstruction, fixing everything just-in-time for the next one. Looks like that one is spinning north right now.

I wish them luck.
Who Links Here