There’s not a single vacant space in my Riverwards Fishtown-Port Richmond neighborhood that hasn’t been rezoned for rehab by developers.
The other night as I was making my way to a friend’s house on Belgrade Street, I passed one of my favorite little houses. This tiny house used to sit by next to a large overgrown woody area. I’ve always called this house, “The little House That Could.”
It’s not a beautiful house by any means, but the way it is situated next to a small patch of urban wildlife near the Belgrade Street overpass has always given it a unique “house in the mountains” look. For years I’d 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 was that the overgrown yard wasn’t fenced in. For years anyone could walk in and out of the wooded area which had the look and feel of a little house in the Pocono Mountains.
Then developers invaded the area, bought up the small woodsy area and built two unsightly out of scale 4 story cookie cutter houses with large picture windows and exterior steel prefabricated stairs with inboard rails. The new houses dwarfed the little old house but one could easily see that the old house was built of solid materials while the new houses looked to be built with cheap materials from Home Depot, especially the cheesy clapboard interior doors that one could easily punch a hole in with their fist. Despite the exorbitant price, the new houses were built with little or no insulation and without a garage.
Classic Riverward houses are a dying breed. For the most part they are small, imperfect structures (no insulation, antiquated plumbing) that have no place in today’s all style and no substance world. Despite their out- datedness, they have a charm that cannot be replaced by the boxy, industrial warehouse new house design that has now become the signature look all over the city.
The little Pocono house used to have a twin house on the street where I live. I often referred to the twin house on my street as the Sea Shore House, which 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. In some ways the house evoked the look of an odd-looking tugboat. Years before I moved to the Riverwards, the house 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. Things don’t get much stranger than this.
I never met the original owner of the Seashore House because by the time of my arrival the house had become a rental property. The fate of most rental properties is well known. Renters don’t set down roots in neighborhoods, and they come and go like door-to-door salesman in the 1960s.
Unfortunately, all the Seashore House renters weren’t exactly nice people either. One couple that rented the place had a lot of deck parties. They’d sit on the deck that faced the street and make comments about the people passing on the sidewalk below. The neighbors tolerated these upstarts because they knew that, as renters, that their days on the street were numbered.
One day the seashore house was demolished and a few months after that an army of trucks and a construction crew arrived to build an out of scale 5 story monolith Northern Liberties style house that towered over all the other houses on my street. The huge new house was like King Kong pounding his chest in victory while laughing at all the other residents of the neighborhood in their tiny little Lionel Train homes. The new house at least had real exterior steps rather than those abominable steel prefabricated stairs, but that was the only plus.
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 new house also blocked the view outside my bedroom window. I used to be able to see treetops but now I saw big picture windows and grey slate. Sometimes I’d sit on my stoop and stare at the monolith 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.
How did this happen to our fine little street?
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—it figures.
New York developers had discovered our hidden away neighborhood and now real estate agents, many of them young women dressed to the nines in tight dresses showing plenty of cleavage, swaggered from expensive cars in a rush to show these new cheap homes to potential buyers.
Armies of slick looking men in suits began crawling all over the neighborhood. Most of them were eyeing the two vacant properties further up the street. These men would arrive early in the morning and walk up and down the street with a ‘take no prisoners’ look. They accompanied surveyors who scoped and measured the land. Eventually plans were drawn up for two monolith 300k+ houses towering 6 or 7 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.
Some neighbors could be heard muttering under their breath: “Go back to New York! We don’t want you here!”
When the monolith houses were finally built, more female real estate agents returned in stilettos and killer skirts, their long blond hair complimenting their new silver cars. For months all I heard was the sound of high heels on asphalt as the agents showed the new homes to prospective suckers. The suckers were New Yorkers escaping a doomed city, most in their twenties and thirties, or Californians (escaping a doomed state), arriving in groups of five or six. Many also had dogs, which meant a lot of dog poop.
Construction started on a house on the far end of my street. This house had been boarded up for decades. The rehabbed design for this structure was the same utilitarian warehouse design that all new houses currently have. This means lots of wires, cable gizmos and PECO meters on the front of the house, a terrible look that calls to mind housing projects in China. The building materials used were generally cheap (Home Depot again) and of course those steel prefabricated exterior stairs.
My little street was changing faster than climate change.
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 “gentrifyers” 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, 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? Or nail salons? 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.
Everywhere I walk in my neighborhood now I see 400K townhouses that look like more and more like housing projects in China.
All of these homes when sold will bring in more people, more congestion, more traffic, and more parking problems. Henry Miller in the 1950s 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?
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 students are not authentic Philadelphians but 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, 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.
And now I hate it.
Now I’m stuck in an area that will soon be as crowded as the city of Shenzhen, China, the fifth most crowded city in the world, trailing India's Mumbai and Calcutta.