The house at 3711 Melon St. in Philadelphia’s Mantua neighborhood was never grand.
Built in 1872, it was first the home of Irish laborers. Later, in the early 20th century, it was rented to a string of Italian and Russian Jewish families who immigrated to America.
As the neighborhood became predominately African-American, it was purchased by a single mother who lived in it for almost 50 years.
Now it’s boarded up with a crumbing back wall, barely standing on its own with no neighboring houses around it.
But it’s been chosen to be the subject of a grand funeral service.
“When we were first pursuing this project, I had an image of my mind of what a perfect Philadelphia row house was going to look like, and 3711 Melon St. was not the image I had in mind,” said Patrick Grossi, a project manager at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art.
“But there is something about it that is perfect. It is reflective of homes just like it that have fallen down due to neglect,” Grossi said. “It’s both sad and proud at the same time.”
The house is a humble symbol of lives quietly spent in neighborhoods. The last and longest owner-occupier, Leona Richardson, originally from Thibodaux, Louisiana, moved to Baltimore to work as a welder during World War II. She bought 3711 Melon in 1946 and raised a son by herself.
Unoccupied and structurally unsound, the house is now owned by West Philadelphia Real Estate, which will demolish it to make way for a low-income housing project.
“So often houses like this are torn down without much fanfare, without much hesitation, without much attention,” said Grossi. “Even with a relatively insignificant and — to some eyes — ugly house, there is a century or longer of a Philadelphia experience that is being erased.”
Grossi is working with the Philadelphia art duo the Dufala Brothers — Steven and Billy — to stage a “Funeral for a Home.” The 11 a.m. Saturday ceremony will involve a eulogy, community speakers, the choir from the Mt. Olive Baptist Church around the corner, the Unique Miracles drill team, and a community procession following a coffinlike dumpster full of debris to the nearby dump.
Rounding up the mourners
Drumming up community support for the funeral was not easy at first.
“It was kind of weird,” said Joseph Walker, a Mantua native who is now president of HUB Coalition, a youth services nonprofit in the neighborhood. “We never heard about a funeral for a home. We done it for pets, for people. We never done it for a house. It was kind of hard to grasp.”
The Dufalas know the neighborhood well. For nine years, they have been using a large studio at nearby 42nd and Haverford to make their large-scale projects. They also knew this funeral had to strike the right tone to be successful – somber yet celebratory; a reminder of Mantua’s struggles with blight, while keeping an eye on its significant progress; serious, but fun.
“If you can get everyone to understand it’s a symbol, then it’s not just about a house,” said Steven Dufala. “Houses are homes where families lived. History is a big part of this. This house is not just a home – it’s every time this has happened.”
Fortunately, Mantua has a long history of public art projects. The Mural Arts Program has been making community-generated murals in Mantua for decades, ever since the program was called the Anti-Graffiti Network.
Finding the right house — in the right community
“A long time ago, Manuta’s consciousness was raised to the importance of art in a way that didn’t happen in other neighborhoods,” said Jane Golden, executive director of MAP. Mantua was the home of the Anti-Graffiti Network’s first director, Timothy Spencer, who baptized his neighborhood with murals.
“We were welcomed much quicker than in other neighborhoods where we encountered resistance,” said Golden. “In Strawberry Mansion we heard, ‘This neighborhood needs jobs and houses, we don’t want to think about art.’ Then we started talking about a collaborative process and co-creating, and people were really open. Mantua really helped us broker deals throughout the city.”
Grossi, the Dufala Brothers and Robert Blackson — the director of public programs for Tyler School of Art — searched high and low for the right house that was already scheduled for demolition. They thought they found the perfect house in North Philadelphia — an old, grand house alone in a razed block — but the North Central neighborhood did not have a support network.
“It would have been tough, there was not a community built into the project,” said Billy Dufala. “Luckily, we landed in Mantua, because there is already so much community activity going on.”
Mantua is on an upswing right now, having created a civic association with a master plan for urban renewal. President Barack Obama recently designated the neighborhood a Promise Zone, one of only five in the country, giving Mantua special consideration for grants and federal resources.
The neighborhood is ready for some creative place-making, particularly because the “Funeral for a Home” also comes with Temple University’s urban history muscle. The funeral was anticipated by several public events highlighting Mantua’s past, including a walking tour by the Rev. Andrew Jenkins.
Joining forces to mark Mantua’s past
In the 1960s Jenkins lived in Mantua Hall, a public housing tower that was rife with crime. Six notorious gangs roamed Mantua at the time, and shootings occurred nightly. He and Herman Wrice met in his apartment, No. 705, with a bottle of Thunderbird and $6.75, to establish the Young Great Society, a community organization that challenged the gangs head-on.
With what is now internationally known as the “Wrice Process,” Jenkins and Wrice set out to rid the neighborhood of gangs by incorporating them into Mantua’s rebirth. When new housing projects were built, they saw that gang members got construction jobs. Then they moved into those units when construction was finished.
“We tried to be sure that we put a different gang leader in each section [of housing],” said Jenkins. “Therefore, we had protection, because no one could come in and run the place.”
Herman Wrice died in 2000, and a mural of his image is being repainted at 33rd and Haverford Streets (the original mural, at 34th and Spring Garden, is now obstructed by new construction). Other murals in Mantua depict gang leaders who became community leaders, including Charles “Charlie Boo” Burrell, who would inspire Joe Walker to create HUB Coalition.
“Temple [University] has a done a greater job restoring our history than we had done in 25 or 30 years,” said Jenkins. “Because, look up the history of Mantua and you get one or two pages. That’s not our history. We are losing our history with the changing neighborhood.”