A few months back, there was a story in the Wall Street Journal about the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry. Only it wasn’t about basketball, per se. It was about how the point guard’s remarkable performance this season has caused an East Coast phenomenon known as “Curry insomnia.” As the article explained, those of us in the Eastern time zone tend to fall asleep between 11:30 p.m. and midnight. Half the Warriors’ games don’t even start till 10:30. NBA fans are sacrificing sleep to catch the Curry excitement — and paying for it the next day.
The Joltin’ Jabs gym on Sansom Street is just a few blocks away from Rittenhouse Square, but be forewarned, ye who enter — you won’t be pampered, coddled or comforted. You will sweat, and you will suffer.
The man responsible for your pain is sitting across from me on a folding chair, surrounded by heavy bags and speed bags hung from the ceiling — the tools of his trade. Joey DeMalavez — former pro boxer, current Philadelphia trainer du jour, future shoo-in for reality-TV stardom — wears red track pants, a white knit cap on his shaved head, and a Joltin’ Jabs long-sleeve shirt that doesn’t hide his ample biceps or the tattoos that run up his neck and down to his wrists. There’s a skull on his right hand, an open Bible with a heart on the left one, and a bold letter on each finger that together spell out JOLTIN’ JABS.
Congratulations on being named Philadelphia’s third poet laureate. What does the gig entail? It involves being an ambassador for poetry — an ambassador and advocate for poetry in Philly. Concretely, that involves doing some readings at City Hall, at the Free Library, visiting schools and doing readings in neighborhoods. Really, just spreading the gospel of poetry around Philadelphia. Read more »
Back in 1954, my neighbor John paid $8,000 for a 1,200-square-foot rowhome, one of 30 identical homes on the block, all built in the 1930s by the same developer. Over the next six decades, he’d share walls with a progression of neighbors that included a trio of police detectives, a beefy Democratic state senator by the name of Lynch, and an avid bird-watcher named Don, who lived next to John for roughly 30 years.
When my husband and I bought Don’s house in 2014, John quickly became a sort of adviser to us, a rowhome Yoda who warned us about the tendency of our houses’ gutters to freeze and knew exactly what to do on that horrific day when our sewage pipe backed up. At 85, he could often be found outside, sweeping both sets of front steps. “It keeps my blood pumpin’,” he would say when we’d try to take over. We’d get home from work on trash day to find he had already brought our cans back up from the sidewalk.
This wonderful, neighborly setup is, as countless Philadelphians can attest, one of the many perks of living in a block of rowhouses: You are never alone in your adventures in homeowning, either figuratively or literally. John, who once carted a field organ around Korea to provide musical accompaniment during Sunday services for his fellow soldiers, now practiced at home on a couple of jury-rigged keyboards; within weeks of moving in, I’d grown accustomed to hearing the muffled strains of hymns through the wall. Sometimes, doing dishes or folding laundry, I’d hum along to the ones I knew.
OF COURSE, not everyone gets to share a wall with a neighbor like John. You do hear of the occasional rowhome misadventure (floods, fires, pestilence) or some nightmare involving the meshing of lives and properties. One friend of a friend, Patty, bought a house connected to a home whose owner had passed away without a will, resulting in a years-long legal kerfuffle over the empty house. Only the house wasn’t entirely empty: A family of raccoons would come and go freely through the attic, brazenly eating Patty’s porch tomatoes along the way, undaunted by her efforts to chase them with a hose.
My point here is this: Whether you love your neighbors, hate them or chase them around with a garden hose, when your houses are connected, so are your experiences, your lives — at least on some level. And Philadelphia has more people living in connected houses than any other big city in the country — some 60 percent of us. Even by big-city standards, that’s a lot of life-meshing. We have more rowhomes than they have in Baltimore, D.C. or Boston. Definitely more than New York.
Ah, imposing, hierarchical New York, where the buildings (and the price tags) climb up, up, up into the stratosphere! In Quaker-rooted Philly, we’re more grounded. Blessed with more space and fewer bodies, we’ve always built out more than up, cramming crazy numbers of those connected houses onto tiny parcels of earth — houses and earth that are more affordable to your average buyer by, oh, about a million percent. (Which is why a little over half of us own our own homes, compared to New York’s 32 percent.)
Anyway. There are strict and loose definitions as to what, exactly, constitutes a rowhome, but I think the average Philadelphian would agree with architect Rachel Simmons Schade, who wrote the city’s official rowhouse manual a few years back and defined a rowhome broadly as “a one- to four-story house occupying a narrow street frontage and attached to adjacent houses on both sides.” That encompasses most of what you see in Philadelphia — the teeny trinities and the immense mansions, the porch-fronts, the townhouses, the straight-throughs, the workingman’s row, the G-Ho special. In the 325 years since someone built the first rowhomes on Front Street in Old City, the model has clearly deviated quite a lot. But Philly’s devotion to the rowhome hasn’t.
And why should it? It works — at least, most of the time, over time, it has. Even now, in the midst of a frenetic Center City building boom that has condos shooting up like gleaming glass Lego towers, boasting things like yoga lounges and saltwater pools — even now, they’re still building rowhomes. Because rowhomes are in our DNA. Sure, some of the newer models have vocal detractors, but the rowhouse still endures, because it has for so long created, reflected and reified how we live, who we are as a people. As a city. You know — down-to-earth, scrappy, stoop-sitting, real-talking, pennywise, not-New-York, up-really-close-and-personal Philadelphia. City of Brotherly Love, And Also Party Walls.
WE WERE, for a time, also the City of Homes.
That’s what they called us at the turn of the 19th century, when a model of Philadelphia’s ubiquitous two-story, $2,500 “Workingman’s House” was put on display at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. (Picture your average smallish South Philly rowhome; that’s what we’re talking about.) Exhibition attendees (there were some 25 million of them) marveled at this appealing alternative to the depressing tenements that populated other cities, delighted by the home’s relative comfort, the efficiency, the accessibility.
Journalist Talcott Williams wrote effusively about the house:
There is nothing more wonderful in all that marvelous Exposition than this proof that the laws, the habits, and the businesses of a city of one million people can be so arranged that even the day-laborer earning only $8 or $10 a week can own the roof over his head and call no man landlord. The result of all this is that Philadelphia is not a city of palaces for the few, but a city of homes for the many.
Sure, the house wasn’t really so “magnificent,” Williams allowed, but it was nevertheless “a triumph of right living in a great city, as the world never saw before.”
I don’t know whether the Philadelphians of 1893 thought of themselves as triumphant, necessarily, but there was no denying even then that the rowhome was a natural fit here. No matter that poor William Penn had designed a spacious, sprawling “greene country towne.” All that gridded sprawl turned out to be so easily subdivided that Penn’s idyllic vision never stood a chance. Especially once it became clear that rowhomes were so cheap(ish) to build, owing to the way Philadelphia landowners leased plots to people who wanted to build, and also because replicating one design in one spot with one set of workers was so cost-effective. (This is still true.)
And because they were cheap(ish) to build, rowhouses were also cheap(ish) to buy, at least if they were modest in scale, like the trinities were, with just three rooms stacked up on each other like blocks. (There were plenty that weren’t modest, too — big Federal or Georgian four-stories like you see in Society Hill, built for people who didn’t need cheapish.) Furthermore, the city’s level, rectangular plot of land allowed it to keep expanding outward as the population exploded — tripled! — in the early 1800s. By the end of that century, St. Joe’s University historian Randall Miller says, things like steel and elevators and new plumbing had made building upward possible. “But by then, Philly had grown so much through a flatter development, and that was our character,” he says. “A city of rowhomes.” Our fate — and possibly, by extension, the house you live in right now — had basically been settled.
Meantime, all the homeowners living in all those rowhomes had been working to turn us into a people who are, shall we say, invested.
“There was the sociological idea that home-owning people were committed to the neighborhood, more stable,” Miller tells me. (This, too, is still true.) Rowhomes themselves helped create communities, he adds, because those stable people had their homes, churches and businesses right there in the neighborhood. And also, he says, because of the porch culture. “The porch culture — dictated by design — meant that you were aware that you were living with other people, even depending on other people. The intimacy reinforced the sense of community.”
The porch culture! Has there been anything so influential in this town as our stoops, our porches, our patios? No, there has not. We leave our private houses, and we spill out into this alternately adored and cursed shared space, and that’s where it all happens. (It being the unofficial neighborhood watch and our kids playing with each other and the fights over un-minded dog doo and the impromptu shared beer and the discussions about who’s going to cut down that dead tree, because we know it’s not going to be the city, harrumph.)
Even in the 1700s, this is how it was: Small houses pushed people outside, creating what historian Sam Bass Warner in his book The Private City called “the unity of everyday life,” which in turn created a tight community of businessmen, artisans and regular folks, who together were able to “run the town and manage a share of the war against England.”
In Warner’s recounting, our neighborly interactions basically helped shape the entire republic. But his story also sounds a lot like the one a colleague of mine tells about life on Naudain Street in the 1980s, like so many modern Philly stories. “We’d climb up on a milk crate and call over the fence to drink wine with the neighbors,” she says. “One was Kitty, a 65-year-old who drank too much. And there were Val and Leo from Iowa. Under no other circumstances would we all have been friends. But we were.”
TO THE EXTENT that there is grumbling about some of the new rowhome construction (“new” being from, say, 1995 onward), much of it revolves around porch culture.
Don’t get me wrong: People have other issues, too. The new rowhomes are too big, or too ugly. They’re too modular, too cheap, too pricey, too suburban, too other in a place where other isn’t usually a compliment. In January, Inga Saffron wrote in the Inquirer about concerned citizens in Roxborough — not unlike concerned citizens in many other neighborhoods — looking to address the problem of “alien McTownhouses decked out with vinyl siding and gabled roofs.” Instead of the typical gardens and porches, she wrote, these places have “front-loaded garages and concrete parking pads.”
You can see how putting a garage or parking space or small parking lot where once a stoop or sidewalk might have existed could be perceived as a loss. What organic neighborly interaction ever happened in a garage? If you buy into the romantic and civic importance of shared space, as I do, it’s easy to work yourself into a lather over what a little stoop (or lack thereof) means to us all in the long run: Think of the republic, for God’s sake!
But then again, part of the charm of the rowhome has always been its ability to evolve with the needs of the people who are living in it. (I imagine there was plenty of consternation from the Old Guard when, in the 1920s and ’30s, developers built all those deeply unattractive back alleyways for garages, to accommodate the newly popular automobile.) The lack of porches or stoops on some of the new homes might be a shame, but I bet the closets inside are fabulous.
And anyway, regardless of the specifics of the individual architecture — no matter how traditional or trendy, how stunning or schlocky — living in a rowhouse isn’t only about the individual. It’s about the whole. And where the two meet. It is, as my wise neighbor Cece commented, “about feeling like you’re a part of something.”
Before I lived on my current block, I’ll admit, I found the sameness of the houses, well, a tad unmagnificent, to borrow from old Talcott Williams. Only after I moved in did I notice how wonderfully personalized each house really is: There’s the one with the stunning mosaic-tiled front porch. The one with the cheery yellow front door. The one with the AstroTurf. We are different, and we are the same, separate and connected. You know. Like the republic.
And speaking of being connected: Our friend John is no longer our neighbor, having moved recently to a retirement home where he shares more than a wall — he shares a room, divided with a curtain. No matter, he says. He’s delighted with his lot.
We visit him sometimes, bringing whatever neighborhood news we have. Many of our other neighbors do, too. And when any of us run into each other on the street, we agree that it’s good to see John well and happy in his new place. And it is. But inside my house, in the quiet of the afternoon, I do sometimes miss the hymns coming from the other side of the wall.
Published as “The Rowhome Is Us” in the April 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.
Outside a leaky old candy factory in Juniata, the season’s first snowstorm is caking the sidewalk in slush. A fire-engine-red door opens with the push of a tattooed hand belonging to artist Alex Da Corte. He ushers me inside a cavernous space the size of a basketball court, past a series of installations in mid-assembly, up a flight of stairs, and into a room that has the makings of a David Lynch dream sequence. There’s a bushy-tailed dog ablaze in peach-hued sunlight, propped up on all fours, staring at me from the perch of a plywood table. It’s stiff as the Sphinx. “That’s Nicole Brown Simpson’s Akita. It’s the dog they say found the bodies,” Da Corte explains, showing me its scraggily wire innards with gleeful delight. The pup will soon be placed on a mechanical track and rotate in circles, as if searching for something. To add a touch of dementedness, Da Corte has adorned the replica with a rubber Halloween dog mask. The dog is wearing a dog mask. “It’s maniacal,” Da Corte says. “It’s just not right.”
On the third Thursday of every month, William Hite is subjected to four hours of ritual torture.
The sessions take place in an auditorium at the headquarters of the School District of Philadelphia, on North Broad Street. Starting around 5:30 p.m., several hundred education obsessives march in and locate seats. Sometimes they bring musical instruments. Hite sits at the front of the room next to the five members of the School Reform Commission, Philadelphia’s peculiar version of a school board. Well-built, impeccably dressed, perfectly composed, Philly’s school superintendent awaits the onslaught. Read more »
It takes three seconds for the champagne to spurt out once the bottle’s opened — four and a half if you’re lucky. Minutes before midnight, the foam will sop the flatiron-burned hair of girls in tight black dresses, splatter their dates’ Burberry ties. The floor — of a downtown club with bribable bouncers, a Center City ballroom, sometimes even the mansion of a frat on the University of Pennsylvania campus — will slicken and stick. The revelers are Penn students, some of legal drinking age, others not. They’ll roll their eyes, clutch their drinks, whisper to each other that the boy with greased-back hair showering the crowd with Dom Pérignon is such an idiot, God, who does that? But in those three seconds, the flash on Evan Robinson’s camera will go off 10 times.
Hooman Noorchashm would not shut up. The emails went sailing out from his laptop at all hours of the day and night, to physicians, to government regulators, to legislators, insurers, hospital administrators, reporters, anyone who might possibly listen to what he had to say. His messages were inflammatory, harsh. Court records show that he accused his fellow doctors of being corrupt, unconscionable criminals. The emails seemed a bit … unhinged. Those he was sending them to tried to stop him. They threatened legal action, then went to court. They described his messages as “disturbing and threatening.” They called him a security threat.
At the time, it seemed that a punch in Boston was the end of The Process.
Sam Hinkie, the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, had devised the bold, open-ended plan to build the team into an NBA champion — which was quickly dubbed The Process, as if it might go on for many years, perhaps forever. But when the Sixers’ young star, Jahlil Okafor, got into an ugly street fight, everything quickly changed. Read more »
Sam “Beyah” Christian died last Sunday without so much as a single headline to note his passing. Two weeks shy of age 77, he had been in declining health and was living in a local nursing home. He happened to be one of the most feared gangsters in the history of Philadelphia.
Christian was the founder of the city’s notorious Black Mafia, and under his leadership in the mid-1960s through the ’70s, its members operated a complex criminal enterprise wholly separate from the Italian Mob: numbers-running, drug trafficking, extortion and prostitution. Later, they’d develop high-level moneymaking schemes, tapping politicians for a cut of the windfall of federal funds pouring into impoverished areas. In consolidating power, Christian and his followers left a bloody trail of more than 40 bodies, including the decapitated head of a noncompliant drug dealer outside a North Philadelphia bar and the sawed-off hands of another dope peddler.
On Tuesday, however, about 600 mourners at the Philadelphia Masjid mosque in West Philly paid homage to another side of Christian, known as Beyah. Imam Kenneth Nuriddin recalled how Christian loved his Islamic faith and instructed others in its practice in prison. Nuriddin asked Muslims “to pray for Beyah’s soul” and to “ask Allah to forgive him” so that he might enter Paradise. His friends on Facebook did the same.
Christian had changed his name decades earlier after joining the Nation of Islam, then headed by Elijah Muhammad. Along with several Black Mafia compatriots, Christian rose to the rank of captain in the Fruit of Islam, the NOI’s elite paramilitary unit. It was during those heady and complicated times, beginning in the mid-’60s, that Christian and his crowd terrorized scores of people along the East Coast, committing crimes that remain legend to this day.
An Inquirer columnist called what happened on January 4, 1971, “one of the most cold-blooded and inhuman acts in the long criminal history of this town.” Eight Black Mafia members entered DuBrow’s Furniture store on South Street. Before they left, the men shot a janitor to death, looted the shop, beat and bound its employees, and set them and the store on fire. Police observed Christian at the scene, but he was never charged. Among those convicted for the horrific crimes was Robert “Nudie” Mims, who was sentenced to life in prison. While incarcerated at Graterford, Mims became a leader in an underworld of drug dealing and prostitution so corrupt that in 1995, Governor Ridge ordered 650 Pennsylvania state troopers to raid the penitentiary. In hopes of disrupting his criminal network, authorities then “traded” Mims to Minnesota for that state’s worst prisoner.
Under Christian’s leadership, the Black Mafia’s presence was both felt and feared. Tyrone “Fat Ty” Palmer was one of the most consequential heroin dealers on the Eastern seaboard in the early 1970s. For reasons that remain debated, on April 2, 1972, Palmer was visited by five Black Mafia members as he enjoyed the music of Billy Paul from a stage-side table at Atlantic City’s iconic Club Harlem. The shootout that followed resulted in the deaths of Palmer, his bodyguard, and three women in their company. Police believed Christian was the person who shot Palmer in the face, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He successfully avoided capture by fleeing to Chicago and Detroit, only to reappear in one of New Jersey’s most infamous crimes.
Major Coxson was a career con artist with ties to thieves, drug dealers and mobsters of all stripes. Coxson was also immersed in the worlds of nightlife and urban politics and often served as an intermediary for various networking deals. The subject of much media attention, particularly during his failed 1972 run for mayor of Camden, he was best known to the public for his close friendship with boxing legend Muhammad Ali. When a deal Coxson made with the Black Mafia went awry, his luck finally ran out. In June of 1973, Coxson was found bound and executed in his posh Cherry Hill home, where three others were also bound and shot. (One died shortly thereafter.) Nearly three decades later, the Inquirer placed the murders on a list of “violent crimes of the 20th century.”
The two lead suspects in Coxson’s death were Sam Christian and another Black Mafia murderer, Ronald Harvey, who was later convicted for his role in the slaughter of seven people, including the drowning of four infants, in Washington, D.C. Of Christian and Harvey (who died in federal prison in 1977), Daily News reporter Tyree Johnson once said in a TV special on the Black Mafia, “Those are just two people you just didn’t mention. You were even afraid to say their names, because you didn’t want to get them mad at you.”
As a result of the high-profile Palmer and Coxson slayings, Sam Christian became the 321st person named to the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list. Christian, then 34 years old, had amassed a record of 33 arrests and had been charged with seven murders. With no witnesses willing to testify against him, Christian wasn’t convicted of either the Palmer or the Coxson murder. Unfortunately for him, though, there remained an outstanding arrest warrant from New York.
In 1971, Christian and two others had robbed the Charles Record Store in Harlem. When police happened upon the scene, a firefight ensued, with Christian shooting an officer in the arm. Though he was arrested, Christian used an alias and jumped bail until he was apprehended in Detroit in 1973, seven days after making the Most Wanted list. Christian was convicted and imprisoned for the robbery and the shooting of the NYPD officer.
By the time Christian was paroled in November 1988, the once-dominant syndicate he’d helped run had been decimated by law-enforcement pressure and internecine warfare, and the Philly underworld was fractured for good. He was arrested for possession of crack cocaine in 1990, while supposedly advising the ill-fated successor group to his own, the Junior Black Mafia. The last public mention of the once-feared gangster was on January 22, 2002, when he was nabbed for a parole violation.
Christian’s death follows those of other Black Mafia leaders who’ve passed away in recent years. Nudie Mims died in a Minnesota prison four years ago, at age 69. Eugene “Bo” Baynes took over the Black Mafia following Christian’s arrest, until he was convicted and imprisoned on a narcotics case in 1974. He died in 2012 at age 73, after many years of freedom and apparent law-abiding. Others, however, have remained active in their criminal pursuits, either in prison or on the street. Most noteworthy among them are Ricardo McKendrick and Shamsud-din Ali.
McKendrick appears in a remarkable December 1973 photo taken at the “Black Mafia Ball” that captures dozens of the syndicate’s members posing in tuxedos rented with pilfered government funds. His criminal history is marked with arrests for narcotics and one for murder. He was back in the news in April 2008 when he was arrested in South Philadelphia for possessing 274 kilos of cocaine worth $28 million — the largest cocaine seizure in the history of the city. McKendrick pleaded guilty that December and was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.
Shamsud-din Ali served time for murder in the early 1970s, when he was known as Clarence Fowler. His conviction was overturned in part because the lone witness refused to participate in the appeal process after she was visited by a Black Mafia henchman. Soon after Ali’s 1976 release, DEA informants revealed that the Black Mafia racket of extorting drug dealers was thriving, with tributes paid to Ali’s mosque. Decades later, FBI agents would hear wiretapped descriptions of Ali’s alleged shakedowns — including drug money he solicited supposedly for an aide of Mayor John Street. Agents pondered whether the funds were used in Street’s 2002 reelection campaign, prompting a much-publicized corruption probe that ended in dozens of guilty pleas and convictions for no-show jobs and pay-to-play contracting. For his role in the scandal, Ali was convicted in September 2005 on various racketeering, conspiracy and fraud charges and sentenced to federal prison. He was released in December 2013.
The far-reaching legacy of the Black Mafia was the backdrop against which Sam Christian’s death was announced this week, with former law-enforcement officials and journalists contacting each other in a buzz over the news. Longtime Daily News reporter Kitty Caparella, who covered the Black Mafia extensively for years, had long since retired, yet felt obligated to attend the ceremony celebrating Christian’s life on Tuesday. His passing marked the end of an ultraviolent and controversial era in the city’s history, a time when racial strife and distrust of law enforcement kept the Black Mafia’s victims and witnesses from talking to the police — a harbinger of the “stop snitching” street ethos. At the mosque, Imam Adib Madi recounted his longtime friendship with Christian and the deceased’s efforts to aid others, but urged attendees to “ask Allah to forgive our brother.” Another imam conducted the Janazah, or funeral prayers, before several mourners carried the closed casket to a hearse for burial in Upper Darby. Outside the Masjid, Caparella met Christian’s wife, Mahasin Beyah, who thanked her for attending and witnessing how much he was loved, then hugged her.
Investigative journalist Jim Nicholson penned dozens of articles exposing the Black Mafia, including a groundbreaking November 1973 Philadelphia magazine cover story. Contacted this week, Nicholson said, “Sam Christian was the embodiment of the organizing principle around which Philadelphia’s Black Mafia was built. The man was unique in that just the mention of his name could instill fear and compliance on the street. He also left here in another unique category — an organized crime boss who died of natural causes.”
Sean Patrick Griffin is the head of the Department of Criminal Justice at the Citadel in Charleston, S.C., and the author of Black Brothers, Inc.: The Violent Rise and Fall of Philadelphia’s Black Mafia.