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In Nod To History, A Crumbling Philly Row House Gets A Funeral

May 30, 2014
Originally published on May 30, 2014 5:07 pm

This weekend, an old, dilapidated row house will be torn down in Philadelphia. That's not unusual — it happens all the time in Philly's blighted neighborhoods.

But this house is getting an elaborate memorial service, complete with a eulogy, a church choir and a community procession. It's called "Funeral for a Home," and local artists and historians are using the event as a way to honor the changing history of the neighborhood.

An Old, Ugly Building, Ready To Fall

The address of the house at 3711 Melon St. is painted on the stucco in a rough hand, right next to a bright orange sign announcing that the property is condemned. Sheets of plywood are nailed up where the front door and the ground-floor window used to be, but you can see the upper windows still have lace curtains.

Kevin McCusker, the man who will be responsible for the demolition, says it's definitely time for the house to come down. "Stucco is holding it up right now," he says, pointing out damage to the walls in the rear of the house. "It's ready to fall. This couldn't happen sooner."

There is nothing particularly exceptional about this house — in fact, it's kind of ugly. But that's exactly why historian Patrick Grossi, of Temple University's Tyler School of Art, says it deserves a funeral.

"The loss of vernacular architecture is often hidden in plain sight," Grossi says. "When a kind of modest house is being run down, you are erasing a century of lifetimes."

At 3711 Melon St., 140 Years Of History

The home was built in the 1870s as a classic brick row house to be rented to the many Irish-American immigrants coming to Philadelphia's powerful industrial economy. For about 70 years, Grossi says, it housed a carousel of renters.

In 1946, a single mother named Leona Richardson purchased the house. "She worked for a time in Baltimore, during WWII, as a welder, and then moved to Philly and purchased this home with her infant son, Roger," Grossi says.

He calls Richardson the patron saint of 3711 Melon: She and her son lived there for the next 50 years, watching their block fall apart around them.

When the industrial economy all but left Philadelphia, the Mantua neighborhood fell into poverty and gang warfare.

The Rev. Andrew Jenkins gave a walking tour of Mantua as part of the Funeral for a Home project, explaining what residents faced during Mantua's decline. "We had seven, eight and nine shootings a night," he said. "There were six major gangs in this neighborhood."

Jenkins has spent decades trying to bring Mantua back, fighting gangs head-on inside their own homes and coordinating low-income housing developments.

The neighborhood is now turning around, but it still has an unemployment rate nearly twice the rest of the city.

'Homegoing Is More Appropriate, Anyway'

A pair of artists called the Dufala Brothers — Steven and Billy — are coordinating the funeral. They had an uphill fight to get the community behind the idea of memorializing a demolition.

"Early on in the project there was a sentiment that came up: 'What is this project?' " Steven Dufala remembers. "People were just like, 'We don't have any tears left.' "

Dufala told the community that the funeral is a celebration of the history and resilience of the neighborhood. He convinced the Mount Olive Baptist Church choir to perform for the funeral.

Along the way, Dufala learned it's not called a funeral.

"It's a 'homegoing,' " he says. "Homegoing is probably more appropriate, anyway, in terms of looking to the future."

Once the house at 3711 Melon is razed, a local developer of low-income housing will build a complex on the entire block.

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This weekend, an old, dilapidated row home will be torn down in Philadelphia. That part of this next story is not unusual. It happens all the time in Philly's blighted neighborhoods. What is unusual is that the row home is getting an elaborate memorial service, complete with a eulogy, church choir and a community procession. From member station WHYY, Peter Crimmins reports on a funeral for a home.

PETER CRIMMINS, BYLINE: The address for the house at 3711 Mellon Street is painted on the stucco in a rough hand. It's right next to a bright orange sign that announces this property is condemned. Sheets of plywood are nailed up where the front door and the ground-floor window used to be. But you can see the upper windows still have lace curtains. I walked around to the back wall with Kevin McCusker. He's the demolition guy.

KEVIN MCCUSKER: It's falling over. Both sides are kicked out. The stucco's holding it up right now.

CRIMMINS: The stucco's holding it up?

MCCUSKER: The stucco's holding it right here in the back. It's ready to fall. This couldn't happen sooner.

CRIMMINS: There's nothing particularly exceptional about this house. In fact, it's kind of ugly. But that's why historian Patrick Grossi, of Temple University's Tyler School of Art, says it deserves a funeral.

PATRICK GROSSI: The louse of vernacular architecture is often kind of hidden in plain sight. When a kind of modest house is being torn down, you are erasing a century of lifetimes.

CRIMMINS: 3711 Mellon was built in the 1870s as a classic brick row house to be rented to the many Irish-American immigrants coming to Philadelphia's powerful industrial economy. For about 70 years, Grossi says, it housed a carousel of renters.

GROSSI: In 1946, Leona Richardson purchases this house. She's a single mother. She worked for a time in Baltimore during World War II as a welder. And then moved to Philly and purchased this home with her infant son.

CRIMMINS: Grossi calls her the patron saint of 3711 Mellon. She and her son lived there for the next 50 years watching their block fall apart around them. When the industrial economy all but left Philadelphia, the Mantua neighborhood fell into poverty and gang warfare.

REVEREND ANDREW JENKINS: (Through megaphone) Can we have everyone's attention?

CRIMMINS: That is the Reverend Doctor Andrew Jenkins who gave a walking tour of Mantua as part of the funeral project.

JENKINS: We had seven, eight and nine shootings at night. There were six major gangs in this neighborhood.

CRIMMINS: Jenkins has been on a decades-long fight to bring Mantua back, battling gangs head-on, sometimes inside their own homes, and coordinating low-income housing developments. The neighborhood is now turning around but it still has an employment rate nearly twice rest of the city. A pair of artists called the Dufala Brothers - Steven and Billy - are coordinating the funeral for a home. They had an uphill fight to get the committee behind the idea of memorializing a demolition.

STEPHEN DUFALA: Early on in the project, there was a sentiment that came up, what - like, what is this project? People were just like, we don't have any tears left.

CRIMMINS: That's Stephen Dufala, who the community that the funeral is a celebration of the history and resilience of the neighborhood. He convinced the Mount Olive Baptist Church choir to perform for the funeral.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR)

CRIMMINS: Dufala learned it's not even called a funeral.

DUFALA: It's a homegoing. Homegoing is probably more appropriate anyway, in terms of looking to the future.

CRIMMINS: Once the house at 3711 Mellon is razed, a local developer of low-income housing will build a complex on the entire block. For NPR News, I'm Peter Crimmins in Philadelphia.

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