Another cafe/pub in Fell's Point.

The Perfect Row House Neighborhood

South Street in Philadelphia, PA.

South Street in Philadelphia, PA.

I’ve lived in three great row house cities: New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Say what you will about the quirks and negative things, all three cities have an abundance of row houses. But what makes a really great row house neighborhood? What if we started from scratch?

Creating the Ideal
Row House Neighborhood

We can start with William Penn’s original concept for Philadelphia. Arranged in a neat rectangle-shaped grid, the avenues were wide, and the spacious lots allowed for each home to have a garden. He wanted the city to be situated near commerce and tradespeople but the outlying areas to remain pastoral. William Penn was wise  to design public green spaces into the city. Even a small park is a wonderful asset. Along with quiet places, playgrounds are also requirements for a good quality of life for many types of residents. Larger parks are great for concerts and sports.

Penn wasn’t very keen on the idea of crowded, attached dwellings because in Europe many large cities had been plagued by huge fires that consumed much of the urban areas, so he made sure to allow for a lot of elbow room in his concept. If Philadelphia hadn’t gone through the population boom that it did, Philadelphia might have stayed as spacious as Penn intended. However, people wouldn’t have built homes between the blocks and we wouldn’t have the wonderful small streets that we have here. The small, in-between streets are often hidden from main roads and provide privacy and intimacy that you don’t get when your house faces a busy street. People who live in on such streets often form mini-communities. These small blocks are wonderful for children since cars aren’t always zipping by. A balance between the broader streets and avenues, and the small alleys and narrow blocks, provide a nice variety of options in the ideal row house neighborhood.

Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, New York

Court Street, a main shopping thoroughfare in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, New York.

The corner delicatessen is a staple in New York City. Often, the first act of independence for an urban child is the unaccompanied trip to the corner store. These small mom-and-pop establishments are usually run by local people and nearby residents frequent them daily. Often, you will run into your neighbors and get a quick update on the local news and gossip. A vital part of any urban neighborhood is its community and the corner deli, or coffee shop, or nail salon (lately they’re everywhere!) is the essential meeting place.

Of course, it’s nice to go shopping on a larger scale and other great stores to have within walking distance are a bakery, butcher, produce stand, someplace like The Spice Corner (Philly) or Sahadi’s (Brooklyn), a fish monger, shoe repair, dry cleaning, and a hardware store. Most urban row house neighborhoods have a few streets that are lined with stores. In Philadelphia:

  • Fabric row on 4th street
  • The Italian Market on 9th street
  • Passyunk Avenue in South Philly

In Queens New York:

  • Metropolitan Avenue
  • Bell Boulevard

In Brooklyn New York:

  • Court, Smith, and Joralemon Streets

These are just a sample. In well-established row house neighborhoods, there is almost always a main street with shopping. Typically, the stores are built within a row house structure and people live above the shops. Shopping in a row house neighborhood is more like visiting friends.

The ideal row house neighborhood will have readily available services such as a post office, police station, firehouses, banks, veterinarians, hospitals, public elementary schools, public gyms and swimming pools, daycare, places of worship, and public libraries all within walking distance.

Ideally, several row house neighborhoods would be situated around a central urban hub for larger business and municipal buildings, not to mention theaters, zoos, universities, and museums. It goes without saying that any ideal row house city must have a good public transportation system connecting the smaller row house neighborhoods to the city at large.

Aesthetically speaking, not every row house must or should look the same. It’s nice to have variety on different blocks. Materials and size shouldn’t vary too widely within a block but not all blocks need to look alike in order to create a visually pleasing neighborhood. It’s more important to have every house well-kept and every block clean.

Above all, any row house neighborhood needs to be safe. The local government and community must be committed to providing and contributing to this.

Of course, when you live in such an awesome place, you’re going to get guests. I am such a fan of the bed and breakfast. They’re local and work within the structure of a neighborhood, unlike a high rise hotel.

And there you have it. Most of this is readily available in most urban row house neighborhoods, even right here in Philadelphia, which is why I like them so much.

Red peppers at the famers' market.

Shopping at a Farmers’ Market

Indian Corn at the Headhouse Square Farmers' Market.

Indian Corn at the Headhouse Square Farmers’ Market.

Originally published Fall 2009. Photos: John Sommo

For nearly as long as there have been cities, there have been open air markets. As people started to live in closer proximity, there wasn’t room to grow produce or raise livestock. Farmers, who lived in the outlying areas of development and could grow things, would bring their surplus to the city to sell. Shopping at the outdoor market was a part of the daily domestic routine, where you got everything from dinner to news.

The evolution of the supermarket made the open air market obsolete. However, recently, the popularity of the farmers’ market has increased and, for many urban dwellers, shopping at the local market is a weekly tradition. This renewed interest in open air shopping seems to be a result of people becoming more conscientious about where their food comes from and the resources it takes to get the food into the city. Many wish to support the local farm economy and feel better knowing there is a face behind their produce that they can actually speak with. In some cases, people just enjoy getting back to basics and tradition.

In 1745, an outdoor market was established in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia. The market catered to the growing neighborhoods in south Philadelphia such as Queen Village. In 1804, a firehouse, the first in the U.S., was built at the head of the market area, giving the market its current name of Headhouse Square. Over the years, the original market area was demolished and replaced with a gallery of brick columns that support a gable roof and arched ceiling. The market floor, and surrounding streets, are cobblestone making this market very picturesque. Headhouse Square market has been in near continual use since its establishment, making it the oldest such market in the United States and was designated a National Historic Landmark in November 1966.

Veggies at the Headhouse Square Farmers' Market.

Veggies at the Headhouse Square Farmers’ Market.

From May through December, every Sunday, Headhouse Market hosts a farmers’ market from 10 am to 2 pm. Shoppers can purchase anything from fresh bread, produce and meats to jewelry, flowers and handcrafted items. If an immediate delicacy is desired, there is a squeezed-while-you-wait lemonade stand, a scrumptious burrito tent as well as plenty of fresh baked goods to choose from. For a few weeks of the season, the local animal rescue offers pets for adoption as well.

Below is only a preliminary listing of farmers’ markets in cities which also have a lot row houses. Farmers markets are not limited to urban areas, however. To find a location near you, just Google your town and farmers market.

New York City

Greenmarket Farmers Markets
Daily at various locations around the five boroughs.
http://www.cenyc.org/greenmarket

Philadelphia

Headhouse Farmers’ Market
Open Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., May 3rd through December. At the Headhouse Shambles, 2nd Street between Pine and Lombard streets.
http://www.thefoodtrust.org/php/headhouse/

Red peppers at the farmers' market.

Red peppers at the farmers’ market.

Boston

Mass Farmers Markets
Daily at various locations around the city.
http://www.massfarmersmarkets.org/

San Francisco

Various Outdoor Markets
This is comprehensive listing of many outdoor marketing in the San Francisco area.
http://www.sfgate.com/eguide/food/farmersmarkets/

Baltimore

Baltimore Farmers Market
This outdoor market offers an assortment of items. Located at 212 Holliday St., Baltimore, MD 21202. Tel: 410.752.8632
http://www.insiderpages.com/b/9852945094

More Information:

About historic Headhouse Square

The history of Headhouse Square.

New Market at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

 

An assortment of fall squash and onions at the farmers' market.

An assortment of fall squash and onions at the farmers’ market.

 

Fresh squeezed lemonade at the Headhouse Square Farmers' Market.

Fresh squeezed lemonade at the Headhouse Square Farmers’ Market.

 

 

Bedbugs and Row Houses

Although it’s been quiet in the news, experts predict the creepy-crawlies will be back this summer. Because their homes are attached, row house dwellers may be especially concerned that they may be more susceptible to infestation than those who live in detached houses. Never fear, row house residents are no more at risk than any other person and there are things you can do to prevent bedbugs from ruining your summer.

According to a recent e-newsletter from Harvard Medical School:

“Bedbugs are small, flightless insects that feed on the blood of (usually) sleeping people and animals. During the day, they hide in dark, protected places around beds, and their flat bodies allow them to squeeze into cracks and crevices in bed frames, headboards, and box springs and to tuck themselves along the seams of mattresses. They also hide behind baseboards, under wallpaper, beneath carpet edges, and amid clutter.”

Sounds like the perfect roommate, doesn’t it? In case bedbugs aren’t welcome in your home, Harvard suggests the following things to protect your house. When you’re on the go:

  1. Put your luggage on a table or luggage rack away from the bed and off the floor. You can also keep it in the bathroom. To be extra careful, keep your suitcase in a large plastic bag. Placing each day’s outfit in its own sealable plastic bag will also deter the bedbugs from hitching a ride home.
  2. Upon arrival, check mattress seams for reddish-black dots (bedbug poop). Inspect the headboard, bed frame and underside of the box springs if possible.
  3. Do not put coats or jackets near any beds.

At home:

  1. When returning from trips, wash (hot water) or dry clean all of your clothing or put your clothes in a dryer for 20 minutes. Inspect and vacuum your suitcase.
  2. Refrain from buying used upholstered furniture. If you have to, inspect the piece thoroughly and treat for bedbugs before you bring it into your house.
  3. Plug holes and cracks in walls and around pipes, baseboards, and moldings in your bedroom.
  4. Place mattresses and box springs in protective mattress and box spring encasements.

On The Street Where We Lived

Children sitting on a stoop of a row house on Croskey Street in Philadelphia, PA.

Children sitting on a stoop of a row house on Croskey Street in Philadelphia, PA.

Article and photos contributed by Catherine Varano. Originally published October 2011.

I stood nervously in the vestibule of The Waterfall Room. It was a cold, November Sunday, but my temperature was rising. Why should I be anxious? This event was my idea or, at least, an idea that was suggested to me enough times that I had to take action. It was the reunion of the people from my childhood domain in South Philadelphia—the 1900 block of Croskey Street.

I hadn’t seen my neighbors in years and I had concerns. Would my memories of an idyllic upbringing in the enclave of small row houses be shattered by anyone who remembered me as an annoying brat? Would the terror on my face be evident when I saw what age had done to my old friends? Or, was it something else?

A year before, it had seemed impossible to gather so many people who now lived far from the old neighborhood. The reunion committee performed the arduous task of recalling the street’s occupants from the 1940s to the 1990s when all but a few older neighbors had moved away. Even when we remembered the names, the search for new addresses was daunting, but when the invitations were sent, the response was overwhelming. It was apparent the other Croskey Streeters had little fear of seeing their old pals.

In the beautifully decorated banquet room, tables overflowed with penny candy and pastel cardboard ’57 Thunderbirds that held plastic cups and tee shirts embossed with our logo – a pair of worn sneakers thrown over a street sign that beckoned, “Croskey Street.” Through the doors, entered the moms, dads, and kids with whom we once had lived side by side. Surprisingly, they were glad to see me. They looked the same except for some graying hair and a few added pounds, and their smiles immediately transported us to our former surroundings.

On mornings long ago, we headed to “swimmies” at Smith Playground, organized a game of halfball, dressed our Barbies for dates or made numerous trips to Val’s candy store to buy comic books. In the afternoons, we skated, jumped rope, and occupied several porches “playing house” or “playing school.” The only quiet point in the day came after our nightly baths when, pajama clad, we waited on our front steps for the most anticipated arrival of the evening—the Mister Softee ice cream truck.

The men of Croskey Street.

The men of Croskey Street.

At the party, I greeted each old friend and marveled at the unique camaraderie formed by living in such close quarters. Thankfully, our parents never equated square footage or privacy issues with the attainment of happiness. They were working class and had families who, occasionally, had sudden drops in already average incomes through layoffs or the deaths of primary wage earners. Our cramped accommodations begged diminished procreation, but many families had four or more children and made it work.

People helped people on Croskey Street. It was acceptable for your elders to discipline you, and punishment was your reward for disrespect. Our mothers discreetly brought food to families in need. Our tradesmen fathers gladly fixed a washer or rewired a house and were paid in sponge cakes or cases of beer. With over 70 children inhabiting the block, birthday parties were frequent, and cake, ice cream and potato chips prolonged our nirvana.

We danced at the serenades of couples who were soon to be married and slid on the catering hall floors on the days of their weddings, stopping only to eat roast beef sandwiches and drink cans of soda. At midnight on New Year’s, we marched up and down the street banging our pots and pans until our mothers called us in to bed. We brought meals to the homes of those who lost a loved one, and our moms cooked and served the funeral luncheons after the burials.

Women gathered in a row house on Croskey Street.

Women gathered in a row house on Croskey Street.

During the party, I observed my fellow Croskey Streeters. Parents and children danced, laughed, told stories, exchanged numbers and complimented each other on how they hadn’t changed a bit. That’s how it was on Croskey Street. No one remembered past disagreements, just as we had chosen to forget a glimpse, through a bedroom window, of a friend’s father staggering home from a nearby bar or the yelling of frustrated spouses carried through an open window on a sweltering August night. We preferred to recall the happy functions that required large groups of people – our mothers’ Pokeeno Club, cars lined up for picnics to Sunset Beach, New Jersey, fathers and sons stringing Christmas lights on porch roofs, a parade of giggling children following a family to church to baptize a baby. Even running through the alley to school required a crowd as did the many photo montages of us in our finery for May processions and Easter Sundays.

Ultimately, the Croskey Street Reunion was a success, quieting my apprehension to see the people I once loved so much. Although the experience of sharing party walls was likely a common occurrence in other neighborhoods of Philadelphia, on that cold November day, we were convinced that no others could have done it quite as well as we had.

Sometime after that celebration, my mother died. She lived in her little Croskey Street row house until she was 93. When my brother and I sold it, it was the hardest thing I had ever done. Shocked at my attachment to a house that I left 29 years before, I spent days there before the sale perusing my childhood in an old report card or a story I had written in grade school. Through the kitchen window, I envisioned our neighbor Mrs. Dieni hanging her laundry on the line. My father’s piano in the living room evoked the voices of neighbors calling their musical requests through the screen door. I stood on the small porch that echoed the laughter of mothers hosing down the cement on hot days and the screeching delight of teenage girls wafting through an open door the first time Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan show.

A collage of childhood photos from residents of Croskey Street.

A collage of childhood photos from residents of Croskey Street.

I recalled the reunion and how time had been so good to us that day. It took us back to summer nights when we sat on our porches with trusted friends and dreamed our dreams. Perhaps my hesitation to revisit the past was the fear of losing the dreams that had meant so much to me. Perhaps I realized there was no dream greater than that blissful world where we were wrapped in the cocoon of our parents’ love and the protection of an army of people who cared.

The living room, with built-in cabinets, wainscoting and a tile fireplace surround.

On the Market! 224 Bainbridge Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The living room, with built-in cabinets, wainscoting and a tile fireplace surround.

The living room, with built-in cabinets, wainscoting and a tile fireplace surround.

Row Home, circa. late 1700s

Inside: three bedrooms, one full bath, one half bath, brick exterior, gas heat, central a/c, two working fireplaces, two decorative fireplaces, finished basement w/ laundry, private roof deck, period-appropriate kitchen, brick patio, stainless steel appliances, many original details

This is a rare opportunity to own a piece of American history! Built in the late 1700s, this home features many original details including wainscoting, wide-plank yellow pine wood flooring, 12 over 12 paned windows, spiral staircase, two wood burning fireplaces and more.

You enter the house into the living room, which has built-in cabinets with ample storage for modern audio visual needs. There are doors that close to retain historic charm when not watching TV. The back window looks into the passage way to the patio. The large windows and high ceilings make this a very welcoming and bright room. The living room fireplace features a beautiful tiled surround. From the living room you enter the first floor bedroom, which the owner is currently using as an office. This room has access to the private, brick patio with mature garden. Truly an urban oasis!

Walk up the historic spiral staircase and you have the master bedroom to your right and a large bathroom to the left. This spa-like retreat has a large claw-foot bathtub and a separate shower area and plenty of room for two to get ready in the morning.

This large room, located off the living room, can be used as a bedroom or a home office.

This large room, located off the living room, can be used as a bedroom or a home office.

The third, dormered floor, is quite cozy with built-in storage and closet space, custom fit to the dimensions of the pitched roof. French doors open to a private roof deck with easy access to the entire roof, which has a newer roof.

Back down the stairs, continue to the lower level and enter the dining room that can fit a standard table and has a wonderful side-bar built into a brick archway. Beyond the dining room is the kitchen which has full-size appliances, including a dishwasher. The cabinetry is period appropriate and nicely finished. Tucked away is a powder room and stacked laundry. There is an access door to the street located behind the laundry, and can be used if the laundry is moved, to allow for easy appliance installation if the need arises.

This home is located in Queen Village and has easy access to Philadelphia shopping, nightlife, attractions and public transportation. The neighborhood is well established and diverse.

We had a chance to ask the homeowner, Dennis Price, some questions about his house.

RowHouse: How long have you lived in your house?

Dennis: 3.5 years

RowHouse: What is one of your favorite memories in the house?

This mature garden is a pleasant personal retreat.

This mature garden is a pleasant personal retreat.

Dennis: The second Christmas in the home. My girlfriend (who was a new girlfriend at the time) spent hours intricately placing row after row of Christmas lights on the tree. I mean thorough. I had never seen anything like it. When she was done she went to clip the tag off of one of the lights and accidentally cut the cord. The whole tree went dark! We bought new lights and she sat there and repeated the whole venture. And I remember how the tree could be seen from the street and was so jolly all season. Great memory.

RowHouse: Queen Village is a very vibrant urban neighborhood. How has your experience been living in this area?

Dennis: Just great. Such a wealth of dining spots, coffee shops, bars, and parks. True neighborhood feel just off of South St.

RowHouse: Your house is very likely older than our country. What made you buy your historic home?

Dennis: I visited the Anne Frank house when I was kid and it always stuck with me. Then I saw this house and realized I could live in a house like Annie Frank’s!

RowHouse: You clearly have a lion’s share of original features. Is your home registered as historic?

A large kitchen, finished in period appropriate cabinetry, has all the modern amenities.

A large kitchen, finished in period appropriate cabinetry, has all the modern amenities.

Dennis: It is, I don’t have the plaque because of the DirectTV dish on the roof! Otherwise the historic commission is ready to put up the plaque.

RowHouse: Is there a story behind the red, claw foot bathtub? It is quite the statement piece!

Dennis: It’s the reason I bought the home. After I bought the home I dreamed that when I arrived the owner had taken the tub. I went to the palm shop (where for some reason it was) and fought for it back. It’s probably been used over 600 times in 3.5 years!

RowHouse: Over the living room fireplace, I notice a rather dashing colonial gentleman. Is he a previous resident?

Dennis: I don’t know, the photo that you saw that in was the previous owner’s photo. I have a sketch of an Armenian child who I befriended when I lived there above there now. She came as an exchange student this year and lived with my parents. So no, it’s not a dead guy! but fun story nonetheless.

RowHouse: Finally, what is your favorite feature of your home?

Dennis: The bath of course. I’ve also grown very fond of the kitchen over the last three years.

For more information about this beautiful house, please contact the realtor at john.s.duffy@duffyrealestate.com.

The master bedroom is on the second floor and faces the front of the house.

The master bedroom is on the second floor and faces the front of the house.

 

The full bathroom on the second floor with the very glamorous red bathtub.

The full bathroom on the second floor with the very glamorous red bathtub.

 

The second bedroom is on the third floor. A door leads out to the roof deck. There is ample built in storage in this room.

The second bedroom is on the third floor. A door leads out to the roof deck. There is ample built in storage in this room.

 

The house features a large, private roof deck.

The house features a large, private roof deck.

 

Photos: Provided by the homeowner.

Why do I love small row houses in the city?

It seems like just yesterday I Googled “row house” and only came up with random sites, most about businesses with row house in the name. Nothing I found spoke to me about the architecture and history of row houses and there was very little about the people who live in them, a group I was about to become a part of. Occasionally I tripped over a random article, lurking in cyberspace, but nothing really reflected row houses as a vibrant and vital component of urban life. So, I got the idea in my head to publish a web site that featured nothing but row houses, the people who live in them and how they live in them, and the places in which row houses are built. I didn’t aim for perfection but I did want to show a diversity I felt was sorely missing from what little I had found. Cheered on by friends and family, many of whom help out with photography and source material, I’ve been able to keep things going.

Part of being a good journalist is to be objective. As we’ve progressed, it certainly has become easier to step outside our house—a departure from one of the first articles I posted, in desperation to complete the issue, that was about my old apartment. But since this is an editorial, I thought it would be nice to knock down the wall for a moment and explain why I am such a strong advocate of the row house and urban living.

Although I think city living and row houses are fabulous, the lifestyle is not for everyone. And good thing, because not everyone can live in a row house since there aren’t enough, at present. I think row houses have gotten a bit of a bad reputation – perhaps some less than fabulous design choices in the fifties, perhaps because they are predominantly working class dwellings. In any case, I thought it was about time someone start to show row houses in a more positive light and along with the row house, also the lives of the people who live in row houses. People, who don’t live attached because they have no choice but who choose row houses on purpose. But why?

To start, you can read some of the articles we’ve written about residents in Ridgewood, Pennsport, Middle Village, or Olde City, with more on the way.

And, because we’re getting personal, below are my own reasons why I own a very small row house.

I didn’t want a house that took hours to clean. I’m not lazy but I have better things to do. My husband would like a little more space and a garage but even he will agree that our house is just the right size for us to manage with our very busy schedules. Additionally, I like to know where everything is which is paramount to keeping things running smoothly. Since I am absent-minded, the less space, the fewer things, the easier this is for me. If I had more space I would be hopefully disorganized and probably very miserable and inefficient. Besides, I really can’t be trusted and would probably shop too much which would be catastrophic for our budget.

As a first time homeowner, knowing that maintenance expenses can escalate quickly, I didn’t want more than we could handle. Likewise, our energy costs are lower. We use less because the other houses insulate ours. Typically we only have to heat or cool one room of the four as the others stay relatively constant. Even in the dead of winter, with no heat on at all, the house stays around 53 degrees. In the summer, with only the windows open, it rarely goes above 80 except on the top floor.

In the times ahead, American society as a whole, is going to have to rethink what necessity and luxury mean. I figure I might as well just start off being thrifty and space conscientious and save myself the trouble of having to adjust later on.

I fully admit that this is my own thinking. However, row houses come in all sizes, from tiny to huge, and all styles, from historic to contemporary. That’s why I love them and write about them. They work for just about everyone.

Although row houses are predominantly urban dwellings, not all row houses are in the city. But I think the best sort of row house living is in row houses in the city. The best way to explain why is to share my my typical day:

I wake up around 6 am, provoked by a cat who’s nearly as accurate as the electrical alarm clock. His method is to purr really loud and lick my face until I get out of bed. He’s relentless. Half asleep, I climb down the stairs, trying not to fall down them, tricky tiny colonial stairs that they are. On the way to the bathroom I tickle my daughter into semi-consciousness and deposit the still-purring cat on her bed. About an hour later, we’re finishing up our breakfast and getting ready to go. My husband drives to work. He doesn’t have to since public transportation is convenient for us. We don’t even need a car, a blessing in hard economic times. However, he’s a mechanic and driving makes him happy and because we only have one car, it’s a luxury we can afford, for now.

Around 7:20 am, my daughter and I begin our commute to school and work. People can’t believe we walk about two miles but it’s our special time together. It’s 40 minutes of chatting and watching the world change around us, interacting with life instead of watching it pass quickly through a car window. I’m not distracted by anything other than walking so I can pay almost complete attention to her, very valuable for a full-time working mom. If the weather’s bad, we take a 10 minute bus ride.

At the end of the day, I pick my daughter up — her school is three blocks from my office — and we either walk, or get a ride from my husband, typically on bad weather days or on days I go running. He starts dinner while I run for about an hour, which I do because it’s cheaper than the gym and if I don’t, I can’t eat dessert, which I love. As soon as I get home we eat, followed by clean up, wash up, and a little quality time before lights out.

On the weekend we have museums, parks, playgrounds, a farmer’s market, and antique shops to explore without having to use the car. Weekly housekeeping takes about two hours max which leaves plenty of time left over for fun. Occasionally there is some handyman work that needs to get done but nothing takes more than a day. Specific to Philadelphia, we find history is everywhere, which provides hands on learning for our daughter. Much of what’s available to do is free and with so many free things to do it’s easy to forget about not having extra money.

I think we enjoy a good quality of life with a nice balance of home, work, entertainment, and exercise and we’re able to do it within a reasonable budget. I’m aware that it’s not easy for all the pieces to fall into place and not everyone who lives in a row house is going to have an arrangement they love but it is possible. I do believe that there are things about urban row house neighborhoods that lend them to being able to best accommodate a well-rounded lifestyle, especially in tough times.