Originally published here on October 24, 2017.
Today is the ninth anniversary of my father’s death. He was born on January 4, 1931, in his parents’ bedroom at 451 Fairmount Avenue in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia. (That’s the second-floor front in the photograph at right.) He would have died there, too, most likely, if he hadn’t required hospice care at the end of his life in 2008. The house had been in the family since my grandfather Max purchased it for his small but growing family back in the 1920s, and by the time my brother and I sold the place a few years ago, it had been in the family for 80 years or so.
If I’ve been writing about Philadelphia more in the past few months, it might be because of the nostalgia you feel for the places of your childhood as you grow older. I spent a lot of the time in that house, in that neighborhood, too. Though by the time I came along in 1962 my parents were living in Feasterville, a suburb of Philadelphia, we came into town almost every weekend to visit my father’s parents in Northern Liberties; my brother and I played in the small garden and cobblestone-paved alley in back of the house, much as my father, his stepbrother, and their friends must have done when they were children. I was baptized in the St. Andrew’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral just around the corner. My godmother and a close family friend, Anna Shopa, lived next door to the cathedral. (And it has something more of a history, too; see Harry Kyriakodis’ 2012 book about the neighborhood, Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward.)
By 1981 I was living in the house myself (my room is the top floor in the above photograph) with my father, my grandfather having died in 1972 and my grandmother eight years later. Both of them had jobs in the neighborhood, my grandfather having operated his business as an electrician on the first floor and my grandmother as a charwoman in a local elementary school. They took in boarders in the 1950s and 1960s to help pay the bills. I still remember the mess of electronic and electric material in the shop, wires and lightbulbs and other detritus, that my brother and I played with on our frequent visits in the 1960s. (My grandfather had installed the electric wiring in the nearby St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church on Seventh Street, just a few blocks away, in the 1920s.)
By then, Northern Liberties had changed from the years in which my father played in those streets as a child. When my grandparents arrived in the neighborhood, it was a heterogenous community of recent poor and working-class immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe, Jewish and gentile, African-Americans as well; my father’s playmates were from a variety of backgrounds including his own Ukrainian heritage; for years he picked up a nickel or two on Saturday afternoons as a neighborhood shabbos goy. In the 1960s, when I first saw Northern Liberties, it had fallen into some decrepitude. There were empty buildings everywhere, boarded up; five blocks to the east, fronting the Delaware River, Front Street was an avenue of mysteriously dark storefronts, single bare lightbulbs glaring out of a window here and there; poorly maintained public housing had sprung up just west of the neighborhood, poverty-stricken ghettos to the north, and abandoned warehouses and factories to the south. It was a dangerous place. My grandmother continued to scrub the marble stoop in front of the house every other weekend, as others in the neighborhood used to do before Northern Liberties fell into a period of decline. The low rowhouses that lined the empty streets, lit at night by dim yellow streetlamps, weren’t inviting.
When I lived in Northern Liberties in the 1980s, things had improved somewhat with the onset of gentrification. A few bars opened up; artists and young professionals were buying houses at rock-bottom prices with an eye to renovation. Ortlieb’s brewery at Third and Poplar had opened a bar where jazz musicians used to congregate after their gigs in the tonier joints of other parts of town.
In the 1990s I moved to New York, followed not long after by my brother, and when my father died nine years ago we thought about gut-renovating the place (it would have been unliveable without that renovation). But we had lives away from Philadelphia now, the renovation would have been exorbitantly expensive, and neither of us wanted to oversee it from a hundred miles away. So we sold it, and indeed, it was gut-renovated soon after, the entire interior torn down for redesign. You can see what it looks like here, and it looks like most contemporary rowhouse gut renovations. “They did an excellent job gutting the building of all of its character,” my brother grumbled when he saw the video, and he’s right.
But all things pass, including building interiors. Northern Liberties — now yclept “NoLibs” by the real estate mavens, who apparently don’t have time for more than two syllables — still retains a place in my heart, like the city itself. And if there are such things as ghosts, a few Hunkas are among those who haunt the neighborhood around Fifth and Fairmount. A lifted glass, then, to my father.