Philly’s intimate rowhouse blocks perfectly suited to socially distant holiday rituals

Martha Rich sets up tables to share with her neighbors on her street in South Philly.

Martha Rich sets up tables to share with her neighbors on her street in South Philly. (Courtesy of Andrea Cipriani Mecchi)

Even though it may not feel like it, the holiday season is here. With COVID-19 cases increasing around the city and the state, many have chosen to forgo celebrations altogether.

For others, the festive spirit has moved them to rethink tradition and reach out to neighbors.

In a dense city where little more than a wall separates many people, neighbors are sharing food across hallways, mingling in the street and turning their stoops into socially distanced bar stools.

Thanksgiving dinner on the street

Martha Rich, a freelance commercial artist, lives right off the Italian Market. Normal Thanksgiving for her includes either traveling to Vermont to see her father or visiting her brother in Pittsburgh, just a few hours’ drive from Philly, where she has lived for more than a decade.

That’s not happening this year.

Instead, she’s hanging out with her neighbors. Since the pandemic began, she said her relationship with her neighbors has strengthened. If she’s not inside, she’s probably outside with neighbors. They talk to each other from their stoops.

Two of her neighbors ordered a catered Thanksgiving dinner and the three plan on setting up a table right in the middle of her narrow street. It’s tiny and has only one lane that doesn’t get much traffic.

Rich says she lucked out with her neighbors because it can get lonely living alone and working by herself.

“I love Philly because it’s a neighborhood,” she said. “Here, everyone knows each other. It’s perfect.”

Get out the traffic cones, it’s time for happy hour

Matty Monroe already has the orange cones and propane heater set up for a Thanksgiving happy hour on their Graduate Hospital block.

Instead of sharing turkey, they are gathering with neighbors for festive beverages. The party is happening in the middle of the street. BYOB — and maybe an orange traffic cone or two. On Wednesday, Monroe, a lawyer when not planning block parties, was setting up the propane heater so the bitterness of the evening cool won’t be so bad.

Matty Monroe and their wife, Jen Hope, set up a propane heater for an outdoor Thanksgiving on their block.
Matty Monroe and their wife, Jen Hope, set up a propane heater for an outdoor Thanksgiving on their block. (Courtesy of Matty Monroe)

They’re not worried about cars because they already have a few orange savesies on hand.

Like Rich, they describe developing a stronger relationship with neighbors over the past 10 months of the pandemic. Most work from home.

“The only social interaction we would have outside of our homes were with each other and the only way we knew how to do that safely was standing apart across a narrow South Philly street,” they said. “In a lot of ways, they’ve become family.”

Matty Monroe and their wife, Jen Hope, set up a propane heater for an outdoor Thanksgiving on their block.
Matty Monroe and their wife, Jen Hope, set up a propane heater for an outdoor Thanksgiving on their block. (Courtesy of Matty Monroe)

Matty began experimenting with socially distanced neighborhood gatherings soon after the pandemic began. Over the summer, they bought a projector and big speakers and invited neighbors to watch movies on the block. The movie nights were open to anyone who found themselves on the block. With the projector set up on the front of their house, they made space on the street so the kids could sit in the middle of the block. Barriers protected them from drivers impeding on the DIY film screenings.

Ghostgiving across the hallway

Teresa Rodriguez and Patricia Crebase are doing a “Ghostgiving.” The two, along with three other residents and a few others in their Fairmount apartment building, will make enough food for the entire group. The twist is that each person will deliver personalized servings to each other’s door. It’s contactless deliveries.

“It’s going to be like a ghost leaving it outside your door … so you know, Ghostgiving,” Crebase said. “It’ll be like an elf or a fairy leaving something outside.”

Crebase said the idea came to her after realizing that she didn’t want to make a big dinner for one or two people. That realization came after it became clear a few weeks ago that she also didn’t want to travel. At first, the neighbors thought of doing a typical Friendsgiving, but even that seemed like too much of a risk. Then, the idea of serving each other came out of it.

Patricia Crebase and her partner Joe Malloy will celebrate Thanksgiving with a 'Ghostgiving.'
Patricia Crebase and her partner Jae Malloy will celebrate Thanksgiving with a ‘Ghostgiving.’ (Courtesy of Patricia Crebase)

The menu will include french onion soup, enchiladas, biscuits, mashed potatoes, and an Indian persimmon rice pudding for dessert. The rule was that it didn’t have to be Thanksgiving-themed, but it had to be something.

Crebase said it’s all about staying connected. She loves her neighbors and a few even have keys to her apartment.

“Zoom doesn’t always work, and it gets exhausting,” she said.

Rodriguez made the decision to stay in Philadelphia for the holiday a few days ago. She still goes into work every day, and she didn’t want to expose her family. She’s happy to be a part of Ghostgiving because it makes her feel connected.

“We’re alone but we’re together,” she said. “Food is an extension of me showing love. I live by myself and I don’t have any family in the city, and it’s been a huge surge of support.”

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