Requiem for a row house: Philadelphia neighborhood sees off old home

Reuters News
Posted: May 31, 2014 4:39 PM

By Daniel Kelley

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - By the time the funeral started on a Philadelphia street, all the folding seats were full and a standing room-only crowd had begun to gather.

Many mourners wore black and yes there were tears and a eulogy, but this was not a funeral for a person.

It was a funeral for a home, 3711 Mellon Street in the Mantua section of Philadelphia. It survived 142 years, and outlived many of its neighbors, and mourners came to pay their respects to its history and to a once vibrant neighborhood that has experienced decades of decline.

Philadelphia, like many older cities, has seen a revival in many areas. But neighborhoods such as Mantua, which saw vicious gang wars in the 1960s and 1970s, are still littered with vacant and abandoned housing.

"By arranging our focus on one modest, vacant row house, we'll commemorate the lives and the stories contained within it. Think of your own homes," Pastor Henry Moore, of the nearby Mt. Olive Baptist Church, told participants gathered outside the house.

The event, organized in part by Philadelphia's Temple University, mixed art and public history to honor the lives of ordinary residents.

The house in its early years was home to large families from Ireland, or Eastern and Southern Europe, housing a family of nine in its two bedrooms in 1910.

But in 1946, it was purchased by Leona Richardson, an African-American single mother who originated from Louisiana and moved north as part of the Second Great Migration of blacks leaving the South.

The single-mother used $200 as a down payment, and paid the $1,600 mortgage over 10 years while working as a seamstress. The purchase came at a time when it was difficult for African Americans to obtain loans, but Richardson later bought a nearby home, and rented 3711 to others.

"The biggest thing here is the legacy of a single-mother able to purchase her own home, purchase a second home, raise her son and give him an education," said Julia LeBlanc, Richardson's niece who had flown from San Diego, California, for the ceremony.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama designated Mantua as part of a so-called Promise Zone, giving it priority for dozens of federal grants to alleviate unemployment, poverty and crime.

Many residents of Mantua hope a revitalization will come. But the neighborhood is close to two major universities and residents worry that an influx of students could increase rent and property taxes, driving out neighbors.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Sandra Maler)