A rundown row house in the impoverished Mantua section of Philadelphia had a colorful, centurylong record of occupancy before its last longtime residents died and it became a symbol of urban blight.
Now, the boarded-up structure is getting quite the send-off.
Hymns and eulogies will mark the last moments of the Melon Street residence before it’s knocked down Saturday. A hearse-like dumpster will carry the debris down the block, trailed by a procession of drill teams, bands and local residents. A community meal will follow.
Organizers randomly chose the building for a cultural project called “Funeral for a Home,” which aims to honor neighborhood history in a city where officials say about 600 houses are torn down each year and 25,000 others sit vacant.
Wait, they’re doing what? For a house?
That was the initial reaction from a local pastor, neighbors and others first approached with the idea by Robert Blackson, an administrator at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art.
But all eventually signed on to the symbolic gesture, which Blackson said also could resonate in places like St. Louis, Buffalo and Detroit — other cities whose once vibrant landscapes have been transformed by abandoned eyesores.
“When you see these blighted homes, you forget that they were a thriving part of the community at one point,” Blackson said.
The festive nature of the “home-going” service — as opposed to a somber rite — is designed to reflect more on the life of the Philadelphia row house than on its death, he said.
It’s unclear when the two-bedroom home was built, though the address has been consistently occupied since at least 1900, according to census and city records examined by organizers.
Researchers used the house to trace the arc of Mantua’s population from mostly Irish-Americans in the early 1900s to a mix that included Russian Jews by the 1920s and an influx of blacks from the South over the next couple of decades.
The block was solidly African-American when Louisiana native Leona Richardson bought the house in 1946, raising her only son, Roger, there while working as a department store seamstress.
Fred Stokes, 63, a neighbor who grew up with Roger and still lives on the block, recalled the mother and son as good people. The street was a family oriented community that was “full of life,” Stokes said.
But by the time Leona Richardson died in 2002, Mantua had become one of the city’s poorest and most dangerous areas. Roger died in 2009; family members sold the property not long after. The house has been unoccupied for months, surrounded by vacant lots.
Leona Richardson’s niece, Annie Hunt of Newark, Ohio, had never visited the house until she handled its sale. At first, she couldn’t understand why Blackson wanted to commemorate the forlorn property with a funeral.
“I had trouble wrapping my brain around it, I really did,” said Hunt, who now plans to attend the service as a way to honor her aunt. “I had never heard of such a thing.”
Joe Schilling, who leads the Sustainable Communities Initiative at Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute, said a funeral “could be very cathartic” for longtime Mantua residents grappling with how the neighborhood has changed and hoping for better things to come.
“Demolishing, in many cases, is the right thing to do,” said Schilling. “By celebrating the history and legacy of this building, it’s letting go in a much more humane way.”
In the end, there is also the promise of resurrection. The developer that purchased the house for $15,000 in 2012 — and gave permission for the funeral and demolition — plans to build affordable housing on the site.