Source: Broad Street Review
Date: January 27, 2015
Byline: Gregory Heller

During my gap year from college, my friend Andrew Hohns asked me to come down to Grays Ferry with him. He twice ran (unsuccessfully) for elected office in the 182nd state house seat. The 182nd was recently redistricted, but back then it was a strange gerrymandered snake that included much of Center City, including City Hall, Rittenhouse Square, and Washington Square West, but also a tail that curved down from Schuylkill through Devil’s Pocket and into Grays Ferry.

An urban oasis. (All photographs ©Bradley Maule; used by permission)

I remember the first time we cruised down to 29th and Tasker in Andrew’s Mini Cooper. A throng of children playing in the nearby ball field dropped what they were doing and ran over to the car to greet him. We entered Dean’s Bar and everybody inside lit up. We set the bar up with a round of Miller Lites in cans (the locals’ drink of choice), and in turn I was introduced to the locals. One fellow told me he worked at the PECO plant for decades and said that if I touched him I would “feel the electricity.” Another told me that if we wanted to reform Philadelphia’s education system, we needed to “bring back the nuns” so they could “crack some knuckles.”

Gabber and Stinky

On a different occasion Andrew asked me to help him circulate a petition to rename a street corner after several well-known community figures. One was Phelim “Gabber” Dean, the former owner of Dean’s bar, and the others were the Markey brothers, Joe “Stinky” Markey and Bernie Markey, both local committeemen. I didn’t know any of these people and was totally naïve to Philadelphia politics, but was happy to help out my friend. Andrew gave me a petition on a clipboard and we split up so we could cover more ground.

I started out on a block of identical two-story brick rowhouses. I knocked on the first door and after a minute it cracked open an inch and a woman inside hissed, “Whaddyawant?” A Doberman snarled beneath her. At that moment I felt wildly out of my element but I persevered, and explained, “We’re circulating a petition to rename 29th and Tasker after Gabber and Stinky,” at which point the door flew open, I was invited in, and soon was having tea with the sweetest woman in the world. There I sat in her living room, listening to stories from the old days when the neighborhood was a center of Philadelphia’s Irish community.

The petition was successful and the street corner was renamed on St. Patrick’s Day. Several streets were blocked off and enormous crowds of people dressed in green packed the neighborhood. Gabber Dean’s son, also named Phelim, now owned the bar and strung up a curtain to create a makeshift dining room in the rear, where I was invited to join a select few who sat down to a private meal of ham, cabbage, and soda bread while regaled with stories from Grays Ferry’s good old days.

The colorful neighborhood has left a lasting impression on me — an authentic old Philadelphia place that time seemingly forgot. But despite its charm and proximity to Center City, Grays Ferry was definitely not on the radar for many Philadelphians, especially not the young and hip. But why? How could a neighborhood so close to Center City and University City never make it onto the proverbial map?

Moving to the forgotten ’hood

I didn’t pay much attention to Grays Ferry for a few years until a developer I knew told me he was selling a house he had renovated down there. I went and took a look; it was a nice remodeled rowhouse with all new systems and appliances, as well as bamboo flooring. It was also the only house on the block with a side yard (formerly occupied by a rowhouse that had burned down in the 1980s). I bought it for just $3,500 down and a mortgage that was less than my prior rent.

I thought it was great. The 12 bus picked me up a block away and went right into Center City. The Pathmark up the street in the Grays Ferry shopping center was open 24/7. There was a post office around the corner. The Donald Finnegan Rec Center had lighted playing fields (where I practiced my golf swing). There were two public swimming pools just blocks away. If you traveled a mere mile from my front door you would find yourself either at 23rd and South Streets or at the University of Pennsylvania medical campus.

But best of all, my block felt very neighborly. People were always outside keeping an eye on things. Kids were playing in the street and on the sidewalks. People knew each other and talked to each other. It was racially diverse. In all of the various parts of the city where I had lived, I never encountered a block that felt so real and alive. It felt like something I had only seen on Sesame Street.

Far from perfect

However, the neighborhood was not perfect by any stretch. There were plenty of vacant houses and lots, and indeed some parts of the neighborhood felt pretty sketchy, especially late at night. There were drug dealers out in the open. From time to time I read a news report about a gang-related shooting. There was a lot of litter (perhaps due to the City’s sanitation facility a few blocks away, with open-air piles of trash blowing into the neighborhood). There was also evidence of lasting racial tension — held over from the violence that exploded in Grays Ferry in the late 1990s, including a march that featured Louis Farrakhan.

But while visibly sketchier, my new neighborhood was no less safe than other places I had lived. I read the crime reports each week on EveryBlock and learned that there was less crime in Grays Ferry than there was in the neighborhood I had recently occupied near the University of Pennsylvania.  And while the neighborhood had fallen on hard times, there were encouraging signs of investment and rebirth for Grays Ferry.

Turning things around

In 2004 the troubled Tasker Homes project was demolished and replaced by a new 554-home affordable housing development. In 2005 the Audenried School — one of the most distressed schools in the city — closed and was demolished. The school district built a brand new building in its place and awarded its operations to Kenny Gamble’s Universal Companies. The new Audenried opened in 2008, and while it still has a long way to go, the building is an enormous improvement and the school has made progress.

In June 2012, the next section of Schuylkill River Park — called the Grays Ferry Crescent —opened in my neighborhood. It includes 4,036 feet of bicycle and pedestrian trail, plus several walking trails totaling another 2,171 feet, as well as a skate park and a fishing pier. It’s a short segment, but people use it, and some  day it will connect up with the main part of the river park that is just three quarters of a mile to the north.

Then in February 2013 the University of Pennsylvania announced its plans to transform the 23-acre former DuPont property, located less than 2,000 feet from my front door, into a new research campus. In October 2014 Penn had a groundbreaking ceremony for the Pennovation Center, a $35M, 52,000 square-foot business incubator and the first major development on the site.

All of these developments made me feel optimistic about my neighborhood’s future. The next neighborhood to the east is Point Breeze, which has made countless headlines for its new development investment, hip young residents moving in, and also the racial/socio-economic tensions resulting therefrom. Just to the northeast of Grays Ferry is the now pricey Graduate Hospital area, the focus of a Philadelphia Inquirer column by Inga Saffron because of the “paradigm shifting trends” made by its new millennial residents in last year’s primary election. The edge of the 30th Ward (where all of this Graduate Hospital millennial hubbub took place) is only 1,130 feet from the Grays Ferry shopping center.

Off the map

But at the same time, although Grays Ferry is not far from these red-hot and growing neighborhoods, it somehow feels like a different planet. I was at a party once and told someone where I had moved and her response was, “Wow, I didn’t know anybody actually lived there.”

Part of the reason that Grays Ferry is off the map for young, hip Philadelphia has to do with several physical barriers. Standing between the Grays Ferry and Point Breeze neighborhoods is an elevated freight railroad viaduct running above 25th Street. Between Grays Ferry and Graduate Hospital is another railroad viaduct and the massive PECO plant, surrounded by the stone walls of the historic Schuylkill Arsenal. Then at the crux of the three neighborhoods is Washington Avenue, with the Vincent Giordano meat processing facility at the corner, setting an industrial tone and also spewing an interesting aroma at all hours of the day. Across the street one can find a different aroma, with the aforementioned City trash facility with heaps of garbage blowing in the wind. To the northwest, separating Grays Ferry from the Penn medical campus, is the Schuylkill River.

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote about urban “borders,” including railroad tracks, and explained, “The root trouble with borders, as city neighbors, is that they are apt to form dead ends for most users of city streets. They represent, for most people, most of the time, barriers.” A big problem with Grays Ferry is that it is surrounded by borders and barriers on all sides.

This issue can be understood in very real terms when we look at real estate sales. Three-bedroom properties in Graduate Hospital or Point Breeze have recently sold for between $230,000 and $470,000. Go just 1,500 or 2,000 feet away over the imaginary neighborhood line to Grays Ferry and suddenly properties of a similar size (or larger) sell for as low as $62,000 and max out at around $125,000.

What will it take?

So all of this raises the question, can Grays Ferry transcend these barriers and make a resurgence? What would it take for a neighborhood this convenient to Center City and University City to emerge from its stagnation — especially against the backdrop of so much development activity happening in Graduate Hospital and Point Breeze?

Penn’s investment in Grays Ferry may certainly mark a turning point. I have gotten a number of offers to buy my side lot (all of which I ignored). And I have noticed a small (but growing) number of young people on bikes who were not there when I first moved in. Will this be the beginning of a large-scale transformation? If so, would such a transformation bring the same sort of gentrification-driven divisiveness that currently plagues Point Breeze?

I predict not. While both Grays Ferry and Point Breeze are low-income areas, Grays Ferry is markedly different from Point Breeze in that it was historically white, and remains racially diverse. In the 2010 Census, Point Breeze (Census tracts 21, 22, 30, and 31) was 73.5 percent black and 8.8 percent white. Grays Ferry (Census tract 33) in contrast was 55.5 percent black and 42.1 percent white. If Grays Ferry starts to see new investment and residents, there may be socio-economic tension, but there are reasons to think that it won’t have the same kind of racial overtones that have made Point Breeze’s comeback so divisive.

Like a good neighbor

So where does this leave us? Let’s look across the Schuylkill River at the Mantua neighborhood in West Philly. This area has been on the brink of revitalization for decades. Only now, however, does it seem to be really happening. Why? Because Drexel University is investing in that neighborhood heavily and strategically. Look at any neighborhood that underwent a stunning revitalization in the past 20 years and there is usually a single developer who was either the biggest investor in the neighborhood or at least the most active in marketing it and putting in on the map. There was Bart Blatstein in Northern Liberties, Mark Sherman in East Falls, Dan Neducsin in Manayunk, Ori Feibush in Point Breeze, Penn/Temple/Drexel in their respective neighborhoods, etc.

So who is that person/institution going to be in Grays Ferry? Will Penn fully cross the river, embracing Philadelphia’s right bank? Time will tell if Penn will take such an approach or if its investments will catalyze others to place bigger and bigger bets on the neighborhood.

But whoever does emerge as this key player, I hope that he, she, or it will focus first on a few key properties, which, if redeveloped, would transform the neighborhood’s image and its ability to attract outside investment. My number one target would be the Grays Ferry Shopping Center.

A desert of parking

Based on measurements in Google Earth, the shopping center is almost ten acres. At present, less than two acres is retail space, and the rest is parking. It’s right on Grays Ferry Avenue, which, according to the leasing company’s website, has traffic counts of 28,000 vehicles a day. It’s just blocks away from the onramp to I-76 and it sits directly at the foot of the University Avenue Bridge from Penn. Considering the benefits of its location, this may be one of the most underutilized properties in the city.

Last year the Philadelphia Water Department and Community Design Collaborative held a competition called Soak It Up, challenging teams to rethink several sites, one of which was the Grays Ferry Shopping Center. The focus for the competition was “revitalizing urban neighborhoods through green stormwater infrastructure.” I thought this could be an opportunity to show off what the shopping center could become if it were wholly redeveloped. I was invited to join a team that was competing and I strongly urged my team to really imagine transforming this site into a new, dense, multi-use neighborhood development (think the Piazza at Schmidt’s or Toll brothers’ new development at 23rd and South Streets). My team ended up taking a more pragmatic approach. They didn’t win, and the winning entry, by Urban Engineers was also not visionary — just a bunch of rain gardens, trees, and planters.

I have since gotten married and bought a house with my wife in another neighborhood (I still own the Grays Ferry property). While I no longer live there, I’m rooting for Grays Ferry. It just seems poised with such tremendous and unrealized potential. Sure the neighborhood has a long way to go, but other urban success stories have started out as improbably, but without many of the assets that Grays Ferry’s location offers. For the moment it’s a shame that such a great neighborhood that is so close to Center City and Penn remains forgotten. I’ve met a number of people who live there and have lived there for decades. They want their neighborhood to become great again, and frankly, they deserve it.