The Rowhome Is Us

Grad Hospital |Photography by Cory J. Popp.

Grad Hospital | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

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.

West Philly | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

West Philly | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

Manayunk | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

Manayunk | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

South Philly | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

South Philly | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

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.

Fitler Square | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

Fitler Square | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

Northeast Philly | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

Northeast Philly | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

West Philly | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

West Philly | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

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.)

Fairmount | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

Fairmount | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

Old City | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

Old City | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

Manayunk | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

Manayunk | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

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.”

Kensington | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

Kensington | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

West Philly | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

West Philly | Photography by Cory J. Popp.

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.

5 Things to Know About Pew’s “State of the City” Report

Pew has released its annual “State of the City” report for Philadelphia — really, just an update of the more comprehensive 2015 report. Here are five things you should know about the city based on this year’s edition:

Philadelphia is getting younger: “As the United States has gotten older, Philadelphia has become younger — largely because of the growth of the city’s young adult population, the much-discussed millennials. A decade ago, Philadelphia had a median age of 35.3, only a year below the nation’s 36.4. In the most recent census, the city’s age was down to 33.8, while the national figure had risen to 37.7 — a difference of nearly four years. Remarkably, this happened over a time in which the number of children in the city was declining.” Read more »

Study: Segregation Is Bad for Your Health

Economic Segregation

Different worlds.

Segregation makes you sick.

That’s one of the conclusions of the 2016 County Health Rankings released earlier this month, and it’s a bit of news that doesn’t bode well for Philadelphia.

Why? Because the study’s own rankings suggest Philadelphia is very segregated — the county scores a 71 on the study’s 0-100 segregation score, with 100 being “most segregated — and that’s just the latest in a long series of reports suggesting that blacks and whites in the area live separate lives. (The study doesn’t directly compare big cities, but Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, scored 65 on the index, while Chicago’s Cook County scores 79. New York scores a 68, while Washington D.C. also scores a 71. Boston’s Suffolk County scored a 70.)

The result is likely taking a toll on our collective health, according to the study. “Residential segregation of blacks and whites is a fundamental cause of health disparities in the U.S.,” the authors write. Segregation was added as a measure to the rankings this year because of those health implications. Read more »

Study: 670,000 Philadelphians Live In Economically Distressed Areas

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Forty-three percent of Philadelphians live in “distressed” ZIP codes, according to a new report from the nonprofit Economic Innovation Group.

That adds up to nearly 670,000 people, the report says, giving Philadelphia the fifth-highest number of residents living in such conditions among U.S. cities. The proportion of residents living in those areas — the aforementioned 43 percent — ranked fourth among the 10 cities with the largest numbers of such residents. Detroit, Memphis, and Baltimore had higher percentages of distressed populations.

This chart, the report’s authors said, “provides an estimate of how many people have been left behind by economic development”: Read more »

Astronaut Posts Amazing Photo of Philly From Space

This is what Philly looked like from outer space today:

Ah yes, a cheesesteak comment. Funny thing, he’s not even the first astronaut to make that kind of comment lately. Read more »

The Washington Post Sets Food Critic Tom Sietsema Loose In Philly And He Comes Back With Something Beautiful

Reading-Terminal-market

Tom Sietsema came to Philly and he did it right. He got it–which is so rare these days–and put it all down on paper (and tape, and in pixels and video). The cheesesteak? 2am drunk food. Go for the roast pork sandwich, from John’s or DiNic’s. Center City? Sure, for a little while. But then Fishtown and East Passyunk and, you know, elsewhere…

The WaPo crew (Sietsema, with photographer Melina Mara and videographer Jayne Orenstein) spent some time here. They talked to people–lots of people–and investigated what was great about Philly. What was special about it. What makes it (potentially) one of the best food cities in America because that’s Sietsema’s game right now. He’s bopping all across America, touching down in Chicago and Charleston and Portland and elsewhere, in order to decide which cities deserve to be on his list of the best. It’ll be another five months before we know whether or not we’ve made the cut, but in the meantime, we have the photos. The words. The video. And so much of it is beautiful.

Read more »

Philly Among Worst Cities for Drivers, WalletHub Says

Traffic on the Ben Franklin Bridge

Photo | Jeff Fusco

If it wasn’t already obvious based on your morning commute — or Sandy Hingston’s — Philadelphia is a really bad city for drivers.

WalletHub found that Philly is the third-worst U.S. city for driving, based on factors such as a vehicle’s operating costs, traffic, weather, and risk of theft, among other criteria, CBSPhilly reported earlier today. The ranking compared the 100 biggest cities in the U.S. (based on population), of which Philly is the fifth-largest overall, with around 1.5 million residents. Read more »

Is Pittsburgh Really Better Than Philly? (Spoiler Alert: No)

philly v. pittsburgh

So there’s this website, NerdWallet.com, that’s ostensibly a personal finance site but which often sends out press releases ranking cities compared to this or that criteria designed to make those cities feel smug and secure in themselves — or, you know, the opposite.

The latest ranking involves a straightforward comparison of Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia — and as you might guess, Pittsburgh comes out on top. Why? Well NerdWallet has a list of criteria. But really, it’s because NerdWallet says so. So we say NerdWallet is wrong — or, at least, not nearly as right as it presents itself:

Read more »

WATCH: Cory J. Popp’s “Frozen Philadelphia” Captures What’s Awesome About Philly in Winter

Philly videographer Cory J. Popp, who we’ve featured numerous times on our blogs, just released a new video that captures the essence of wintertime in Philadelphia. No, I’m not talking about the sludge, and the delayed trains and that grumpy, cold woman you pass on your way to work every morning. This is stop-and-smell-the-roses kind of winter in Philadelphia—those little touches that we often miss because we’re jetting from Point A to Point B before our nipples freeze off. Here, you’ll find the little elderly lady watching the snow from a window on her South Philly row home, a friendly neighbor about to pelt you with a snow ball, the Schuylkill frozen solid in the evening, creating a mirror of twinkling city lights on its steely midnight-blue surface.

Read more »

This Is the Only Store in Philly That Will Carry Alexa Chung’s Collection for AG Jeans

Image via Alexa Chung for AG/Avenue 32

Image via Alexa Chung for AG/Avenue 32

You’ve probably heard of Britain’s fashion icon Alexa Chung (basically the other Kate Moss) collaborating on a fashion line with denim royalty AG. The vintage-inspired line consists of killer sweaters, dresses, t-shirts, and endless denim, and it nails Alexa’s careless Twiggy style.

The line is stirring up lots of buzz, but you’ll only be able to snag it in one (yup, just one) Philly shop. The lucky spot? Skirt boutique in Bryn Mawr, who just got their delivery today.

Find out what Alexa items you’ll find in Philly

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