The Rebirth of North Broad

Can a Porsche-driving developer, a renowned restaurateur, a septuagenarian mortician and, um, a dentist save this neighborhood?

You can always see gentrification happening. The new, freshly pointed brick facades fill in the once-empty gaps in a block. Soon, rowhouses are being called townhouses, and they suddenly sport wrought-iron balconies and window boxes.

A cute coffee shop opens on a previously desolate corner, stocks the pastry case with arugula macadamia scones, and is quickly filled with expensively dressed-down people who seem to be paid to do nothing all day.

Hearing gentrification is another matter. Tonight, in a pleasantly bustling new Italian restaurant with tart wisps of smoke from the wood-burning oven in the air, Jason Lehman is the sound of gentrification. Lehman is a good-looking 31-year-old, fit and friendly, a former football player at Carnegie Mellon, where he studied information technology. He’s just moved to Philly from Harrisburg, taken a good job at an insurance company. He’s lived in other big cities for short spells while working on consulting projects, but now he’s ready to settle into Philadelphia.

“I looked around at different neighborhoods,” he tells me, after a sip of a rich red gravello, “and this seemed like a good deal for all you got. I didn’t think much about what it meant to be on North Broad Street.”

I met Jason Lehman by chance when he sat down by himself next to me at the bar of Osteria, a sleek new Marc Vetri restaurant that recently opened in the Broad Street storefront of a former clothing factory that’s been converted to 265 loft-style apartments. We started talking, and Lehman told me he lived in one of the apartments upstairs. I lived upstairs, too — for that week, at least.

Full disclosure: Real estate developer Eric Blumenfeld agreed to open a model apartment in the Lofts 640 to me and my fiancée, the silver-haired little firecracker named Dixie DeHart. For seven days we would use the place as base camp as we explored whether the message Blumenfeld was promoting, in the exuberant way developers tend to, could be true: that North Broad Street and environs are primed to become the next hot Center City neighborhood. More than that, that the two-mile stretch of the city’s once-grand thoroughfare will be transformed from a pockmarked mess of muffler shops into a gorgeous “gateway” from City Hall to Temple University.

Just getting people to live on North Broad would seem challenge enough, but asking for something like Center City rents, Blumenfeld knows, requires special salesmanship. The promotional brochure for Lofts 640 — where rents range from $1,180 to $2,500 — makes much of the gated indoor parking, fancy rooftop pool and health club, and cyber lounge. But it also promises SoHo-style living and “escaping from the orthodox conventionality of bourgeois space into an alternative world of creativity, aesthetic choice and purposeful self-definition.”

As I peruse that brochure, it seems to me that the developer is selling what may be an outworn image of urban pioneering. Yes, Manhattan’s SoHo district served as a model for one kind of neighborhood transformation that has been duplicated in cities all over America: A first wave of hardscrabble but industrious artists invades cheap loft spaces, makes the area livable, and opens the portal for less adventurous bankers and dentists, who drive up prices and drive out the original artists.

Jason Lehman grew up on a dairy farm near Carlisle, however, and he is no bohemian. As we talk, he mentions a few other neighbors who rent in the same building, like Moses Malone, the former Sixers star. In my week of living at Lofts 640, I find out how difficult it is to meet your neighbors in a big apartment building. But I certainly don’t see anybody who looks even vaguely like an artist, and one prospective tenant I meet (who did later rent an apartment) is actually — a dentist!

Nothing wrong with dentists, of course. In fact, one big aesthetic and very purposeful choice Blumenfeld made was luring much-lauded chef Marc Vetri — whose eponymous Spruce Street restaurant has been hailed as one of the best Italian eateries in America — to open a second upscale restaurant, Osteria, in an area where anything upscale disappeared decades ago. It’s the kind of place that’s appealing to dentists and information-tech guys.

A good restaurant can be a kind of Fort Apache in a tough, transforming neighborhood. We saw this with the funky French bistro Florent in Manhattan, which opened in the Meatpacking District in 1985 and made possible the later explosion of trendiness ignited by another restaurant, Pastis, that has in turn led to an invasion of scenesters.

But, c’mon, Broad Street — above City Hall?

A few days before meeting Jason Lehman, this friendly, unpretentious de facto new urban pioneer, Dixie and I took a slow drive up and down Broad Street between our temporary home and the Temple campus. My idea was that I would find a way to live exclusively in this corridor. But a survey of the street made that seem nearly impossible. There were no markets, no restaurants beyond fast food, no bars. Virtually none of the amenities of day-to-day life seemed available, and some of the necessities were missing. We were both a little depressed by the whole idea of the experiment when we went to dinner at Osteria that first night with a friend who teaches at Temple.

By the end of the evening, we were sanguine again about our week-long experiment, soothed by a smooth barbera and some tangy rigatoni. The restaurant is a comfortable and relaxing place, with a nice mix of patrons. The professor sipped the last of his wine, dug into the little cannoli on his plate, and peered out the big windows to the deserted street. “I cannot believe I’m doing this on North Broad Street,” he said.

BELIEVING ANYTHING VERY GOOD about North Broad Street went out of style long ago. We needed to look no further than a few blocks above Osteria to see the great decaying symbol of this — the Divine Lorraine Hotel. Hulking in stoop-shouldered neglect at the complicated intersection of Broad Street and Ridge Avenue, the Lorraine was built as a grand palace in 1894, transformed into a center for eccentric Father Divine’s ministry in the 1940s, and left to steadily decline, like the street where it sat and the neighborhood around it, in the ’60s and ’70s.

What does it say about a city that it allows such an important part of town so close to its core to get so rotten?

“Race played a big factor,” says Kesha Moore, an assistant professor of sociology at Drew University (and Philly native and Penn graduate). “In the racial politics that came into play when people were looking at what neighborhoods could be turned around, North Philadelphia got characterized as a no-man’s land and came to symbolize everything that was wrong with the black ghetto. In comparison, other areas just seemed a little blighted.”

Ironically, the desolation of the area means that crime is less of an issue than you might imagine. In 2006, only six of the city’s 406 murders took place in the North Broad corridor between Spring Garden and Temple’s campus (though some of the most murder-dense neighborhoods in the city are less than a mile away).

One afternoon, I ride around the neighborhood with Darrell Clarke, whose Fifth City Council District takes up much of the area. He’s a relaxed and easygoing guy, but at one point, as he talks of Frank Rizzo-era policies, an edge comes into his voice, and he describes a kind of reverse-logic, Vietnam-like policy — destroying the neighborhood in order to save it. In those days, the government officials talked of “Urban Renewal,” but the actual residents bitterly dubbed the various programs “Negro Removal.”

“WHERE YOU’RE STAYING was a factory,” says William Savin, proprietor of the Savin funeral home, which has operated at 12th and Brown since the ’30s, started by his parents seven years before he was born. Savin, a tall and dapper man with fancy glasses and a bemused air of authority, was sitting behind us in Osteria the other night. Dixie, who has a much sharper reporter’s instinct than I do, told me, “You have to talk to him; he’s somebody.”

We introduced ourselves, and he invited us to come for a visit. So Dixie and I leave our vertical gated community and head on foot toward the frighteningly barren stretches east of Broad Street on a hot afternoon. City planning department documents I’ve read describe this area frankly — and accurately — as blighted. But a funny thing happens when we pass the few clumps of houses that are standing and occupied. Everyone we see says hello to us. There’s no way to say this without just saying it: We feel conspicuous for being white. But we don’t feel unwelcome or unsafe.

William Savin seems very happy to see us. He brings us to a small paneled office and asks what we want to know. Tell us about North Broad Street, I say.

“Broad Street,” he begins, “used to be where all the automobile showrooms and used car lots were. We used to go and sit in those places when the parades came down — Thanksgiving, and New Year’s with the Mummers. Even the Elks had a big parade back then.

“We all ate at Linton’s, which was at Broad and Wallace, across the street from where you’re stayin’. There’s a pizza place there now. Linton’s was crowded in the morning and afternoon and evening. When people got done with the nightclubs, they would stop at Linton’s. ’Cause it was open just about all night.

“You had a jazz club right up the street from Linton’s called Just Jazz. Back in the ’50s, the Blue Note was across from the Lorraine Hotel. Billie Holiday sang there.

“I remember when Father Divine came here and bought the hotel. He brought a suitcase and paid in cash. In those times, I don’t remember any black people staying in that hotel until he bought it.”

Father Divine was one of the great charismatic preachers of the early 20th century, and also set up social service systems in the neighborhoods where he owned property. Local folks could eat cheaply in his hotel dining rooms. He sold them discount gasoline and heating oil — doing what government would soon gain an incompetent monopoly over.

Savin points toward the eastern side of 12th Street. “I watched them tear the houses down and build the projects here,” he says. “Right across the street — that was one of the first projects. It was called Richard Allen. A lot of prominent people lived there. People started moving in in ’41, ’42. It wasn’t just all black. White people lived in there, too. It was a prominent place to live. It kind of changed later on in the ’60s, when the gangs and the drugs started coming to the surface.”

I don’t push Savin to go beyond euphemism. To say that the Richard Allen Homes “kind of changed” is like saying that Hiroshima had some urban renewal. But he’d lived through it and next door to it — some of the worst urban problems anyone could imagine — and while the undertaker seems nostalgic for some parts of the old days, he’s happy for what might be ahead. I ask him what he thinks about places like Lofts 640 coming into his neighborhood.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Savin says, “because it’s bringing people back into the neighborhood and building it up. It costs a lot of money to live in this neighborhood now.”

Flight doesn’t always require a pale modifier. Savin watched for decades as anyone who could flee this neighborhood did. “Luckily,” he says, “they come back when it’s time to bury their people. Some of them started saying that it’d be nice to see everyone when it wasn’t a funeral, so I started throwing a block party here once a year. We get 300 people.”

We talk a little more, get a tour of the warren of rowhomes that have been combined for his business, then end up on the street outside. It’s late in the afternoon now, and Savin keeps asking if we’d like someone to drive us the few blocks back to our apartment, and we keep saying no.

The fact is, there are no other pedestrians in sight.

“Once the work time is over, there’s nobody walking around here,” Savin says. “That’s different, because there used to be people going to Linton’s. Going up to the jazz club. It was busy. There’s not that many jobs around here now. After four-thirty, five, it’s pretty clean on the street.”

“NOW THIS IS A GREAT STUDY in gentrification,” says Eric Blumenfeld, turning a corner in his Porsche Carrera from a shabby 16th Street onto a block of North Street that’s been entirely transformed with new townhouses into something out of Society Hill, Philadelphia’s first great gentrified enclave.

Blumenfeld somehow manages to seem gentle and pugnacious at the same time. He was a boxer when he was young, and he readily admits that when he plays basketball at the Sporting Club at the Bellevue, he tends to foul a lot. The son of well-known developer Jack Blumenfeld, Eric studied English and philosophy in college and managed to pull the family business out of bankruptcy in the ’80s. He meets me in the lobby of Lofts 640 on a morning with sleet turning the streets into a skating rink, and insists on going for this ride.

I’d been on this block a few days before with Councilman Clarke, who seemed to view gentrification as a double-edged sword. He spoke with great eagerness of empty lots that looked on the verge of sprouting something new. But he also talked of the bill he’d introduced into Council to create a “homestead exemption” to freeze property taxes for longtime residents of this soon-to-change neighborhood.

To a developer like Blumenfeld, gentrification is the primary goal.

“Fairmount was pushing toward Broad,” he says, “and now with the Lofts, Broad Street is pushing back. When this becomes a 24-hour community, with people living here, that really bridges the gap.” Some of those new townhouses on North Street, he says proudly, sold for over $1 million.

For the next few hours we drive and park, drive and park, going as far afield as an abandoned factory at 20th and Allegheny, where Blumenfeld introduces me to his main theory of development: “It looks so bad, it’s perfect!”

We take a tour of the unused balconies of the Metropolitan Opera House, which sit like Roman ruins above a huge blue tarp that protects a church occupying the renovated ground floor. We visit a day care center and charter school in the old Traffic Court building, run by People for People, a neighborhood organization affiliated with the Greater Exodus Baptist Church. Blumenfeld doesn’t want to develop every building north of Spring Garden, but he has plenty in his sights.

We’re finally getting back to 640 North Broad when he says, “The area in front of us” — south toward City Hall — “that’s just a slam dunk. It’s just going to evolve.

“I suspect,” he adds, “that the Inquirer building will be converted in our lifetime to residential use. My God! Can you imagine that building as all retail and restaurants on Broad, and people living upstairs? Nobody believed in this corridor for residential living, but when the Inquirer building gets converted at the end, people will see it.”

Even to the confident developer, the growth from his Lofts 640 building north is less a slam-dunk and more of a tough three-point shot from the corner. “It’s nine-tenths of a mile to Temple,” he tells me. “Historically, Temple has taken the stance that they live life as a fortress — that’s how they could handle their policing power. But there’s a whole new cast of characters there, and they really see this gateway from Center City to the university.”

And indeed, the main new character, Temple president Ann Weaver Hart, set aside a big part of her inaugural address in March to talk of the university’s need to work in its neighborhood. Plans are under way to launch a program of financial incentives to help Temple faculty and staff buy houses near the campus. Even before Hart took over, the university had made large strides away from being a predominantly commuter campus toward a residential place, with more out-of-town and out-of-state students. Recent figures supplied by the university claim that 10,000 students now live on or near the campus.

Within the past year, developer Bart Blatstein opened various phases of a $75 million complex with seven movie theaters (the first built in North Philly in over 50 years) at the foot of the Temple campus. In addition, there’s 100,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space attached, and an adjacent 800-unit student residence building. For now, that’s the northern outpost of the new gentrification, and for anyone familiar with the recent history of North Broad, the sight of outdoor cafés at Cecil B. Moore Avenue is surprising. Just a few blocks south, ground was broken recently for a new supermarket and parking garage at what was an incredibly homely strip mall called Progress Plaza.

“The commercial portion is what has to come first,” says Blatstein. “People are calling it the New Urbanism, but it’s really the old urbanism — where you can walk to stores.”

Navigating his Porsche down Broad Street, Eric Blumenfeld seems all but certain that the many gaps between Temple and his new building will one day be filled in. “All the real estate between here and Temple could be redeveloped,” he says. “It’s just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, doing the obvious stuff first.”

ONE OF THE LEAST OBVIOUS places to build an entire block of townhouses is at 10th and Wallace, but that’s exactly what Sam Sherman is doing — 35 units, with a starting price of $349,000 for three bedrooms, a parking spot and a small yard.

Dixie and I are here with Jeffrey Michaud, the chef at Osteria, and his wife Claudia, whom he met while training in Italy. They’re renting a unit in Lofts 640 and have purchased a three-bedroom home here at Sherman’s Spring Arts Point. Today is their walk-through inspection of the framing and utilities, before the skin of Sheetrock goes up.

Sherman looks north from his development to the area that was once the dysfunctional high-rise Richard Allen Homes. The streets now have an almost bizarrely suburban feel, with small homes dotted on yards with driveways. Though Sherman is a devoted New Urbanist and would rather have seen public housing that more closely copied the original look and density of a real Philadelphia street, he admits that his private project was made possible by those publicly financed homes.

“Okay, they took the suburban model and planted it in the city, but it improved the housing stock, it reduced crime, and it improved the neighborhood so much,” says Sherman. The developer says it’s not such a stretch of logic to think that eventually, the transformation of Northern Liberties will spread west to this neighborhood, which is called West Poplar. “We’re in the 19123 zip code,” he says, “and property values are projected to go up by more than 500 percent over the next five years.”

The area around Spring Arts Point is mostly desolate now. That helped make land relatively cheap and easy to assemble. If the Fairmount and Spring Garden neighborhoods can grow over to Broad Street from the west, this area could fill in from the east. Sherman points to the empty Divine Lorraine as a connecting linchpin.

“Have you ever seen old photographs of North Broad Street?” he asks. “It was beautiful. Then nobody believed in the city for 50 years, and all that garbage was built here. But all those things — the freestanding tire stores and gas stations — they’ll sell eventually. The question is: What replaces them? There’s so much open space that it could be far more beautiful than South Broad, all the way up to Temple. If the Divine Lorraine happens, it’ll be like a match to the fuse. I’m hoping and praying that it happens.”

WITH ITS PASSIONATE AND ROCKIN’ choir and a preacher whose performance style is a charismatic mix of James Brown and Bernie Mac, the Greater Exodus Baptist Church is a helluva place to fight away Satan on a Sunday morning. On our last day in the Lofts, Dixie and I stroll a few blocks up Broad on a cool morning to hear a former football star turned minister.

The Reverend Dr. Herb Lusk is celebrating his 25th anniversary as pastor of Greater Exodus, which occupies a former Catholic church and several other buildings on North Broad just above Ridge Avenue, virtually in the shadow of the Divine Lorraine. He arrived here after a three-year career as a running back for the Eagles (“The Praying Tailback”), and seemed to think that guiding a church was not unlike winning a football game — it was all about gaining yardage.

Over the years, Greater Exodus has amassed a portfolio of properties on North Broad and the diagonally intersecting Ridge Avenue, including a former Provident bank that it runs as a community credit union, the former Traffic Court building that houses the charter school and day care center, a career training school, and a catering hall.

Reverend Lusk has a sense of humor about himself, and admits that his “hollerin’” can make some of the congregation nervous. But at one point during the nearly three-hour service, his voice rises to a scratchy crescendo, and he hollers, “Twenty-five years ago, they told us there was no way this church would grow, that North Broad Street was not a place where people would come! The bank next door wouldn’t give us a loan.” He pauses a moment, and raises his voice higher: “NOW WE OWN THAT PLACE!” A lot of his congregation shouts amen to that.

It was places like Greater Exodus that helped hold together the tattered fabric of the North Broad neighborhood long before developers like Eric Blumenfeld came on the scene. The developer and the preacher are friends. (Lusk, a social conservative, is a supporter and friend of George W. Bush, and his nonprofit, People for People, has received more than $1 million from Bush’s Faith Based Initiative program.)

Lusk tells me the developers are “licking their chops.” The church’s own development arm is hoping to build a 14-story mixed-use building on a triangle of land at Ridge and Fairmount. Lusk believes that all the properties his church has secured and all the vacant land available for private developers mean less threat of dislocation of longtime residents.

“I’ve always had hope, and the reason I maintained the hope that this area would turn around is that ultimately, the city has nowhere else to go,” Lusk says. “For 25 years, I’ve been preparing for that fact, and we’ve positioned ourselves as a player.”

Of course, there are plenty of people who don’t have the wherewithal to position themselves as players in the new North Broad version of Monopoly. The onward march of the forces of gentrification always leaves casualties in its wake. Lusk has heard from what he calls “the community factions” who worry about displacement. Having walked the corridor and its adjacent blocks, I saw plenty of evidence for his contention that — for a while anyway — there’s plenty of room for everyone. “Ultimately,” he told me, “the big picture is what people have to keep in mind.”

There was really just one final question I wanted to ask Lusk: What does he think of North Broad as a redeveloped gateway studded with new, expensive apartments full of people like Jason Lehman, Moses Malone, Dixie DeHart and me?

“The big picture is, we want development,” he told me. “That’s going to bring jobs and energy into the community, and that’s going to foster more new homes and new businesses.

“It’s really all good,” the preacher says.

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