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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

House of the Setting Sun

In the 1993 movie, A Home of Our Own, Kathy Bates plays a Los Angeles widow who jumps in her car one day with her six kids and heads out into the country in search of a home. In this 1960s based (true) story there are no home mortgages or banks to deal with, only a sincere desire to find an abandoned but potentially inhabitable home. Bates’ character, Frances Lacey, does eventually find what she is looking for: a shell of a house in God’s country, and the fascinating story continues from there.
Were I to rewrite A Home of Our Own I would have Frances Lacey drive a lot further east until she reaches the Pennsylvania border via I-95. I would then have her drive, six screaming kids in tow, into Philadelphia as far as the Lehigh-Girard exit whereupon she’d follow Richmond Street to Lehigh, and then to the 2600 block of Mercer Street where she would find a ripe, abandoned house, albeit torn to shreds, but ready for some serious tender loving care.
The home in question sits across from my property. It used to be an attractive seashore-like looking home, with its set-back-from-the-sidewalk entrance and second floor front deck that always reminded most people of a ship. When I first moved here some nine years ago, the house was in fairly good shape. Years before that, however, before its slip into rental Purgatory, I was told it was a neighborhood showplace with a manicured, small goldfish pond on the front yard. The pond has since been covered over (what a surprise) as times changed, but at least the renters, if not always amiable folks (one renter couple used to take a special delight observing the street from the deck and issuing beer-bloated comments to the people below), kept the exterior of the house up.
The interior of the house is another story, of course, because when the last renters moved out and when the property was sold, the word on the street here was that the inside of the infamous ‘ship house’ was a mess.
Conventional wisdom says that renters can be careless. I can attest to this general truth, having been a renter for many years. As a home owner, were I to rent again, I would certainly be far more respectful of the property I inhabited than I was in my twenties.
But on with the story…. A year or so ago the ship house’s new owners came up with a plan to gut the house and rebuild it, but like many plans on paper, the reality didn’t quite measure up to the fantasy.
The new owners assembled a work crew right out of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. They demolished the front deck, tore out windows and walls. The process was slow and insidious like the growth of a fungal infection. The “skin” or the siding of the house came off first, and this exposed the under layer so that the house called to mind an ICU burn victim. The house stayed like this for a while until the crew felt another surge of rehab fever. Then they began demolition in earnest as huge chunks of brick and mortar began to pile up in the back yard and side alley. From the street the once cute little ship house now looks like a bombed out building in Afghanistan.

Neighbors who live alongside this disaster have been pulling their hair out.
“Peasant labor without the benefit of industrial machines,” one neighbor stated in an email. “There’s no contractor, only the owner, his relatives and a schlepper.”
Then there were reports of the owner throwing bricks out the back window, but the real A-bomb was when a 200-300 pound chunk of steel, brick and mortar fell down into a neighbor’s yard and caused $600.00 in damages.
The house is now a local tourist attraction. “What’s going on there?” people say, “Has L&I been contacted.”
But the City of Philadelphia moves at stage coach speed; weeks pass, and nothing happens. It’s the same old story: Abandoned old house sits on a block for years, even decades; if it “sits” long enough people stop caring. They don’t even “see” it anymore.
While I applaud the owner’s “do it yourself” Martha Stewart gusto, I’d also like to remind him that his project is beginning to affect the health and welfare of the community. You can’t have 300 pound chunks of concrete flying off your roof.
Or can you?
Frances Lacey, how I wish I could bring you and your kids here for real, and have you settle this.

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