For a home the bell tolls: Mourning the passing of a bit of Philly history

Philadelphia’s Promise Zone™ hosts a funeral for a humble row house and its storied past

Artist Billy Dufala descends after placing a floral crown on the roof of the home at 3711 Melon Street.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of Al Jazeera America’s ongoing coverage of the Mantua neighborhood of Philadelphia, which President Barack Obama designated a Promise Zone earlier this year.

PHILADELPHIA — The flower arrangements were all in place, ornate sprays of artificial white daisies, pink roses, speckled lilies and bright carnations. Greeters handed out funeral programs and wooden fans as the sun beat down on the neat rows of white folding chairs. The gospel choir warmed up their voices, the drill team practiced their steps, and guests milled in, some dressed in churchgoing clothes, others in T-shirts and stretch pants.  

The coffin — a somber black with gold trim — was massive. In fact, it was an industrial dumpster.

After all, this funeral wasn’t for a deceased person but an old, boarded-up house on the verge of collapse at 3711 Melon Street. The classic two-story Philly row home — one of only three buildings still standing on its mostly vacant side of the block — was about to be demolished.

Relatives of the home’s former longtime owner, Leona Richardson, who passed away in 2002, flew in from Ohio and California  to share memories of their aunt and childhood visits. Pastor Harry Moore Sr. of the Mount Olive Baptist Church around the corner gave the eulogy, after which his choir sang a fitting gospel number: “There’s a leak in this old building,/ And my soul has got to move!”

The Rev. Harry Moore Sr. of Mount Olive Church in Mantua gives the eulogy for the house moments before it is torn down.

Meanwhile the excavator, with a black nylon armband fitted over its mechanical arm, took steel bites out of 3711’s roof, releasing black puffs of debris into the air and delivering scraps of wood and asphalt to the dumpster below.

Artists Steven Dufala and his brother Billy Dufala conceptualized Funeral for a Home. Though they’ve been in the neighborhood for years, they began attending Mount Olive church services, well, religiously, while planning the event.

“We had to figure out how funerals go here,” Steven Dufala said. “We can’t just make up that ceremony and expect there to be appropriate reverence.”

It was a rare mix of religion, art, demolition and historic preservation.

“Historic preservation and architectural preservation is usually focused on monumental, large-scale buildings that have a very elaborate architectural style,” said Patrick Grossi, lead historian on the yearlong Funeral for a Home project, a collaboration between Temple Contemporary and community groups, funded by a $160,000 grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. “And there’s kind of been a shift in the last 15 years to look more at less monumental buildings, to look more at the vernacular.”

He says the row home, a Philly icon, represents a postindustrial history, apart from the city’s more celebrated colonial and antebellum history.

This house on Melon Street was selected for many reasons: It was in a state of disrepair beyond renovation and was in a neighborhood where vacancy and blighted housing is a serious, visible problem. But Grossi says it’s also a house that reflects the historical demographic changes of its surroundings.

Mantua was primarily an Irish-American neighborhood when the home was constructed in 1872. Over the decades it became increasingly more Italian-American and Jewish. Then, starting with a trickle in the 1920s and growing during the latter stages of the Great Migration in the ’50s and ’60s, Mantua became a predominantly black neighborhood. “If you look at the census, you see those demographic shifts perfectly line up with the folks who were living at 3711 Mellon Street,” Grossi said.

So while it might seem ironic, Grossi said, the demolition is really in the service of preservation, to “re-emphasize the need to protect smaller structures like this, especially in a neighborhood like Mantua that’s in the midst of redevelopment.”


Mantua’s promise

In January, Obama designated a section of West Philadelphia as one of the first Promise Zones — 20 neighborhoods across the country that would be given technical assistance as well as priority when applying for federal aid over the next 10 years.

While the Promise Zone boundaries extend beyond Mantua — including parts of neighboring Belmont, Mill Creek and more affluent Powelton and West Powelton — Mantua is where many of the neediest residents in the zone live.

The median household income in Mantua is less than $17,000, according to American Community Survey census data. Unemployment hovers around 20 percent — nearly double the citywide rate. More than half its residents — and 96 percent of its children under 5 — live in poverty. According to census data, 1 in 4 area housing units is vacant.

The centerpiece of the floral crown placed on the roof was a hand-painted representation of the house at 3711 Melon Street.

Temple Contemporary selected the 3711 Melon Street home shortly before the Promise Zone designation was announced. But the two events are not unrelated.

Many of the reasons for the two selections overlap: namely, a neighborhood that, despite decades of poverty and decline, has a strong history of community organization and pride. “Plan or be planned for” is Mantua’s unofficial motto, a call to, as Mantua Civic Association president DeWayne Drummond put it during the ceremony, “not agonize but organize.”

“Mantua is one of the most special communities in the city,” said Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, a powerful five-term local politician who represents West Philadelphia and was seated in the front row. She said Mantua families have known one another for generations and deeply value their neighborhood. “These are people unlike any other community I know in their closeness.”

While few would argue Mantua needs an economic boost, some Mantua residents are wary of the national attention.

The concern is “based on a historical wound that’s very real,” said Andrew Zitcer, an urban planner and assistant professor in the department of arts administration at Drexel University, “that what happens in West Philadelphia in 2014 and 2015 is going to look like what happened to West Philadelphia in 1955."

In the 1950s and 1960s, the West Philadelphia Corp., whose major players included the University of Pennsylvania and the city’s redevelopment authority, was able to get a blight designation for a large section of West Philadelphia. Properties were condemned and seized, and many black families were displaced. Meanwhile, University of Pennsylvania expanded its campus significantly.

These days it’s Drexel University that’s rapidly encroaching on the neighborhood. Construction is underway on a 24-story student housing high-rise on 34th and Lancaster. Presbyterian Hospital and the nearby Philadelphia Zoo are also in the midst of ambitious expansions.

“We don’t want to outplan the people in the neighborhood,” said the Rev. Andrew Jenkins, a longtime resident and community organizer. He calls the Promise Zone designation a blessing but one in which the residents of Mantua need to determine the neighborhood’s future.

“The community had went kind of almost totally down, and now we have a rebirth, and it appears to be a blessing,” he said, “providing that it benefits the people who are living here.”

He said while the universities expand, the recent closings of two neighborhood public schools — University City High School and Charles R. Drew K–8 school — has many residents wondering how long they’ll remain Mantuans.

Still, most community members including Jenkins are hopeful.

“I’m happy President Obama chose Mantua,” said Blackwell. “I think the leaders just have to be in front of the planning and development so we can use it for the best.”

The community had went kind of almost totally down, and now we have a rebirth, and it appears to be a blessing, providing that it benefits the people who are living here.

the Rev. Andrew Jenkins

Mantua resident and community organizer

Farewell, 3711 Melon St.

Back on Melon Street, a blue and white taxi pulled over to drop off two women for the ceremony. Barbara Hall, 56, strolled the three blocks from her home, greeting neighbors with hugs, “Hi, baby” and “How y’all doing today?”

“I’ve never seen anything like this before, but it’s magnificent,” she said, her silver cross nose ring catching the sun’s glare. She’s a member of the Mount Olive church and is proud to commemorate the old house and the history of all its residents.

Charlene Gainey, center, who grew up on the same Melon Street block as the home, attends the reception after the ceremony.

Her cousin Charlene Gainey, 58, grew up on the 3700 block of Melon, in a home that has since been replaced with more modern affordable housing. She left the neighborhood in the early 1970s but remembers when it was a block full of homes and a racially diverse neighborhood.

Next to her building, she said, was a Jewish-owned store where the Millers sold candy. Facing it was a meat and candy shop run by the Roberts, a black family. Now it’s an empty lot. The kitty-corner vacant lot was where a woman she knew as Miss Amanda owned a cleaners for years.

“It was a beautiful neighborhood,” Gainey said, “very lovely neighbors.”

“When I grew up, we had everything in this [neighborhood]. Even Martin Luther King came here,” she said, referring to his historic visit in 1965. “Now there’s too much drugs out here for these children. A lot of these stores sell blunts to these kids all day long. It’s too much with the drugs and guns.”

After the ceremony, a drill team led a procession behind the truck transporting the now lightly filled dumpster. The drum rhythms beckoned neighbors to their doorways to observe the commotion or to take a seat on their front porches. A local youth orchestra played “Amazing Grace.” The procession looped through the neighborhood, past abandoned homes and well maintained homes, past empty lots and community gardens, past the Transfiguration Baptist Church and the J&R Perez corner store and back to Melon Street, where banquet tables were set with white tablecloths and pitchers of ice water and iced tea. Community volunteers served a menu of baked chicken, fried fish, green beans, mac and cheese and bread pudding made by a local caterer.

The Sunday-service-meets-summer-block-party vibe continued, with Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” mixing with wedding playlist classics over the speakers. But the singularity of the occasion wasn’t lost on anyone.

“It’s kind of weird,” said Gary Tyson, who had passed by during the morning setup and was later spotted joining the procession. “I’ve never seen nothing like it before.”

Brenda Mack was sitting on the steps in front of her home one block over after stopping by the ceremony. “It’s beautiful,” she said, “but I don’t understand why they didn’t take all that money and do the house over.”

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter