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.
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