That Old House
Jun 2, 2014
Every day in Philadelphia, houses are declared dead, mostly after long years of painful dilapidation and decay. If they don't collapse or crumble of their own weight, they are demolished, eventually, without ceremony; the machines show up, and the trucks haul away the pieces.
Until Saturday, 3711 Melon Street in West Philly's Mantua neighborhood was no different from all the others. It had sheltered families since 1872. The last owner was Leona Richardson, who bought it in 1946 and brought up her son Roger there. Mantua was a good place to raise a family; the neighbors were poor, but they looked after one another, and they had stores, schools, churches, a post office, a movie theater, a firehouse. The houses were small and already old, rotting, cracking, always needing some kind of repair, but a single mother like Leona Richardson could afford to buy a home of her own in Mantua, and could live there comfortably and see her son grow up and get an education.
Eventually, Miss Leona paid off the house on Melon Street and bought another place a few blocks away, where she lived until her death in 2002. Even before she died, the old house was becoming harder and harder to keep up; after she died, it was basically abandoned. Today, shells of houses like 3711 Melon Street are offered for sale in the neighborhood for $30,000; they languish on the market; nobody thinks they're worth that much. They're 140 years old now, and in recent years they've been better homes for rats than for people.
People have tried to find shelter in them, of course. Drunks and addicts have used them when they could. Drug wars have been fought in and around them. Neighborhood children died in some of these empty houses.
The neighborhood as a whole was grievously wounded, losing families and homes and businesses and city services, and when finally the worst of the houses were sold for scrap, ripped apart and hauled away, the wounds in the fabric of the neighborhood became scars, marks of permanent disfiguring damage. Now only weeds grow tall where once families had flourished. There are more and more gaps in the blocks of rowhouses, ugly gaps, like missing teeth.
But the passing of 3711 Melon Street last Saturday did not go quietly. A proper funeral was observed, complete with flowers, organ, remembrances, eulogy, black armbands, folding fans, food, and "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." There were printed programs, with color photos of the deceased. And when the machine tore into the house, pallbearers were at the ready, accompanying the dumpster load of what was once a home to its place of final repose.
Needless to say, the funeral for 3711 Melon Street was observed in such a public manner because politicians and community organizers were wanting to draw attention to some of their work. The ground on which the lost house had stood will become part of a parcel slated for development as affordable housing. "Plan, or be planned for," several of the speakers told the gathering.
"I've learned that you can tell a lot about a person," one of the speakers noted, quoting the very recently departed Maya Angelou, "by the way she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, tangled Christmas tree lights."
The neighbors of Mantua have had to handle a hell of a lot more than those three things. Our thoughts are with them as they deal with this fresh loss.