Funeral To Be Held For Philadelphia House

Mourners will gather in Philadelphia on Saturday to bid farewell to an old house. The gathering will be a celebration of a life, a “home going,” with drill teams and bands and a meal — all after they’ve carted the shingles, broken window panes and floorboards away.

The house is located in the West Philadelphia neighborhood of Mantua at 3711 Melon Street. It’s boarded up, falling down, and scheduled to be demolished. But developers, historians, civic leaders and Temple University’s Tyler School of Art have joined forces to give it a proper send off, to honor the history, decline and gradual rebirth of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.

Here & Now’s Robin Young talks to Robert Blackson of Temple’s Tyler School of Art about “Funeral for a Home.”

Interview Highlights: Robert Blackson

On why they decided to give this house a “funeral”

“One of the things that’s remarkable about this project is that, you know, the house is, in a way, so unremarkable. It’s just a small house on a quiet block that, probably like hundreds or maybe of thousands homes now across the country, is scheduled for demolition. And I guess, in a way, sort of, another house slated for demolition in Mantua, isn’t perhaps a news story. But I think what is special, maybe, about this is telling the story of this house and recording its history and talking a little more about the dozens of lives it has sheltered, over what’s now been almost 150 years.”

On what will go in the house’s place

“In a lot of ways, the project, really, is putting private reflection into a deeper historical context. And when we look forward to the future for what 3711 will become, it will be used to make low-income housing for more residents in the neighborhood. As with any college town, you know, Philadelphia has huge universities, and I think one of the things that’s important considering this project and its future is, not only are we taking a moment to record the history of 3711 and the wishes of its neighbors, but it’s also investing into something whereby more residents of the neighborhood, rather than perhaps college students, will be able to continue to afford to live in this neighborhood.”

On whether he thinks it will be a somber event

“I think there will be some sadness. One of the things that’s helped me think through this project is there’s a poet who’s also a funeral director, named Thomas Lynch, and he wrote that, ‘Mourning is romance in reverse.’ And what I think he means by that is you can’t really mourn for something unless you’ve loved it first. And I think part of the strength of this project comes from the fact that, you know, so many of us do love the places we call home. I know that’s true in Mantua and here in Philadelphia. It is the reason we’ve been able to do this project, because people understand, I think here in Mantua especially, what it’s like to say goodbye, over and over and over again, to these simple homes that are on their last legs. So I think that there will be some sadness involved.”

Guest

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ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

On Saturday, mourners will gather in Philly to bid farewell to a centenarian and to celebrate a life with marching bands and a meal after, of course they've carted away the broken panes and floor boards. The funeral is for a home - 3711 Mellen Street in the West Philadelphia neighborhood of Mantua. Developers, civic leaders and Temple University's Tyler School of Art joining together to honor the history but also the decline and gradual rebirth of Philadelphia's neighborhoods. Tyler School of Art administrator Robert Blackson joins us from Philly. And, Robert, I'm not quite sure - are condolences in order?

ROBERT BLACKSON: I would say that they are. I would say that they are. Yeah.

YOUNG: Well, tell us about how this came about and your feelings about this one home.

BLACKSON: Well, I think one of the things that's remarkable about this project is that, you know, the house is, in a way, so unremarkable. It's just a small house on a quiet block that probably, like hundreds or maybe thousands of homes now across the country, is scheduled for demolition. And I guess, in a way, you know, sort of another house slated for demolition in Mantua isn't, perhaps, a news story. But I think what is special, maybe, about this is telling the story of this house and recording its history and talking a little bit more about the dozens of lives it has sheltered over what's now been almost 150 years.

YOUNG: Well, and some say these demolitions should be notable. A house, you know, it has sort of a human look to it anyway when you look at the windows that look like eyes, you know, it looks like it almost has a face. And it had life inside it. Tell us about Leona Richardson.

BLACKSON: When Leona Richardson bought this house in 1946, she was a single mother. So as part of what's been called the Great Migration, she was part of a wave of African-Americans that moved into Mantua and really made it their own. And it's a beautiful story in which now you continue to have a lot of homeowners and residents being one in the same.

YOUNG: Well, as you say, hers is a terrific American story - as an African-American woman in the '40s, quite something, passed this home on others who then died. The neighborhood began dying around the house. Now there are two nieces who are coming to this event we know who had to sell it really for pennies. What is going to be there now? What will grow where this home was 'cause I know you're celebrating that too?

BLACKSON: So I think, in a lot of ways, this project really is putting private reflection into a deeper historical context. And when we look forward to the future for what the property of 3711 will become, it will be used to make low-income housing for more residents in the neighborhood. As with any college town, you know, Philadelphia has huge universities. And I think one of the thing that's important about this project and considering its future is not only are we taking a moment to record the history of 3711 and the wishes of its neighbors, but it's also investing into something whereby more residents of the neighborhood, rather than perhaps college students, will be able to continue to afford to live in this neighborhood.

YOUNG: More life after this, you know, like, death of a home in a neighborhood. Well, it sounds like it's going to be quite something. You know, it's a celebration, marching bands. There's going to be a big meal.

BLACKSON: Yes.

YOUNG: I mean, it sounds silly, as we said, because it is the house. But will there be some sadness there too?

BLACKSON: Well, I think there will be some sadness. And one of the things that's helped me thinking through this project is there's a poet who's also a funeral director named Thomas Lynch. And he wrote that mourning is romance in reverse. And what I think he means by that is that you can't really mourn for something unless you've loved it first. And I think part of the strength of this project comes from the fact, you know, so many of us do love the places we call home. And the reason we've been able do this project is because people understand, I think here in Mantua especially, what it's like to say good-bye over and over and over again to these simple homes that are on their last legs.

YOUNG: That's Robert Blackson with Temple University's Tyler School of Art. They're holding the funeral for home this Saturday. It's something they hope to spread across the country. And, Robert, we're thinking this week, there was a news headline about 80,000 blighted homes in Detroit, a call to tear down 40,000 of those homes. This is something that's going to resonate in a lot of other neighborhoods.

BLACKSON: Yeah. I think it's in the billions of what is estimated at that demolition is going to cost in Detroit. And, you know, Philadelphia, like so many of these other postindustrial cities, are really struggling with what is the right answer for all of this. I mean, I think a lot of people have likened it to a gushing wound. What we need right now aren't Band Aids, but really a systematic solution on whether it's land baking or something else whereby we can really take stock of these homes, give them the pause that they deserve, and then figure out a decent solution to keep us moving.

YOUNG: Thank so much.

BLACKSON: Thank you.

YOUNG: And so, as we said, they're going to have bands and drill teams and neighbors all marching, Jeremy, on Saturday. They're going to have a huge meal for the community sort of like a New Orleans second line.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

A jazz funeral.

YOUNG: Yeah. And wouldn't you be sad if your childhood home was torn down?

HOBSON: Yes, I would be sad if my childhood home was run down. But the people that are advocating for for it are saying this is the only way we can move forward.

YOUNG: Right. HERE AND NOW, a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.