West Montgomery Avenue: a Philadelphia Tour

updated 10 August 2017

Lost again! Every street looks the same but none are the same.

West Montgomery Avenue is of ancient origin (for the States). Many more homes lined the blocks at one time. Who left? Why is anybody still there? Is the story different here than in any large American city in the 21st century?

Google Maps pinpoints the location of West Montgomery Avenue
Even with 9 eyes, Google cannot give us anything more than clues, leaving the answers to these questions for us to discover. Ethnic differences, often key to urban affairs and usually an integral part of city politics, though very much in play across this landscape, are not always obvious to Google cameras. Most Americans will know what's what and nonetheless detect ethnic neighborhood identities, though not as well as Philadelphia residents themselves.

Did somebody padlock the doorway to change?
The first part of our route (with detours) will be from Route 13 to 4th street:

(click map to enlarge)
At our point of origin, we are not far from East Park Reservoir, so one might conclude this would be a desirable location. On the other hand, there is a suspicious mound even nearer West Montgomery, which looks like a closed landfill. Real estate values have everything to do with location.  The result of unfavorable location, decades of wealth transfer, discrimination and general financial hardship are buildings that look like this in 2016:

A Google Earth view gives an idea of the general condition of the neighborhood, confirming residents are having a rough go. Pockets of vacant lots, sometimes made into small parks or community gardens, mark locations of homes that have been torn down.

Widespread poverty is an issue here which is reflected in the housing conditions.
Just a block down Montgomery, however, across the street from some urban gardens, there's evidence people have hope for their community. Creative, talented and with imagination, they envision somewhat different landscapes:

"A Tribute to Urban Horsemen"
mural design: Jason Slowik, with lead artists Brad Carney & Keir Johnston,
assistant artist Charles Barbin & Blackwell Center youth contributing
15 Aug 2005, part of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program
volunteers for this project included: Aubrey Stever, Elaine Chu, Mary Hall,
Nicole Marshal, Tina Bradford and Zoe Blatt
The Inquirer/Daily News had further information on this work in  "If These Walls Could Talk" (2011):
"The design was inspired by the Cowboys and Cowgirls Association's collection of old photos. Adjudicated youth painted a section of the mural after meeting and learning the history of the urban horsemen. They are represented by the young men in white T-shirts."
detail from "A Tribute to Urban Horsemen" just to right of view above
another detail. All views derived from Google Street View
So many great images from one mural! This is another detail from
"A Tribute to Urban Horsemen"
Google Street View captures more detail.
This is one of several street art masterpieces in Philadelphia. Imagination and talent are found in every neighborhood, impoverished or not. Here are some more samples of Philadelphia murals:

Beyond Spirit and Truth, lies some original pavement as West Montgomery crosses over the mainline tracks.

Note the roofless building middle, left. Unique, isn't it!
(Google Earth)
Much of Philadelphia is about bricks. From the pavement to the side of the strange triangular roofless building Montgomery Ave. has a few:

Just across the tracks, things are looking up for urban art:

"Hearing Our Voices" by Delia King, inspired by the work of Faith Ringgold
A gathering of notable black artists, musicians and leaders in other fields is presented here with print too small for Google's 9 Eyes to read in September 2009. Google technology deliberately blurs faces to protect privacy when it detects them. As you can see, the technology is not perfect, as it cannot distguish between real people and painted faces. For a version with faces unblurred and highlights, click here. This is also part of the Mural Arts Program.
Nearby is another mural,this one on a quilting theme:

Felix St. Fort's 2007 mural featuring “Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles,” a quilt by Faith Ringgold. Google's privacy concerns means that faces are blurred. Several clear images are available.

The best biographical note I could find for Felix St. Fort is sourced from http://goo.gl/1SLW2o
"A native Philadelphian, Felix St. Fort received his BFA in Illustration from The University of the Arts in 2002. A gifted teacher, illustrator, photographer and muralist, St. Fort has worked for the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program ...as both an assistant and lead artist. St. Fort’s most prominent commission, Lead Muralist for the Philly Painting project—a three-block long commercial corridor revitalization effort envisioned and designed by internationally-renown artists Haas & Hahn—was completed in 2012. St. Fort’s personal work consists of watercolors, acrylics and digital media. He has sold his work in galleries and has also created privately-commissioned pieces."
At this point, West Montgomery Avenue is lined with occupied, maintained homes. Some have been renovated to hide the original architecture with more modern facades, but the uniformity of the block is remarkable.

Thematic variations...with renovations.
Variations in brick appear not far down the road:

Color is here!
In this area of West Montgomery Avenue, many of the buildings sport this archtectural detail, or one similar:

Fairly common 19th century urban ornamentation.
These long rows of homes are known as "Philadelphia Rowhouses." Their unique architecture, guidelines for maintenance (a headache for many an owner) and history are outlined in the Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual, an excellent introduction to the style. The Encyclopedia of Philadelphia also has a fine article on the subject by Amanda Casper.

In the vicinity of North Bailey Street, poverty and dilapidation return. For a block or two uninhabited buildings are a blight on the area.

"The Department of Licenses & Inspections
has cleaned & sealed this property."
A thorough cleaning for sure! You can see straight through it now!
Not sitting takes practice.
This is just a first attempt.
solitary elegance
Could this be the wrong message?
Certainly, it is not the one the Morris Brown AME church on N 25th wants to convey!

The Canvas (Google Street View, 2009)
"Personal Melody" by Keir Johnston and Ernel Martinez
The right-hand image is a coded version of the written words.

"Dear World
You cannot know where I have formed my history. My favorite color is blue. I love stars, butterflies make me nervous...wish I had wings. I know I can run just like the sun. To be able to cook and provide for family and love ones,I stride with pride, vibrant, rich, brilliant on my block. Still rising from the tainted atmosphere. My community will have a different vibe. Unmovable, unstoppable, do what is possible. Laugh cry the waterfalls that run deep. I know that I'm different but I'll always be me. When I rewind, it should be better. Make sure that all drugs are destroyed. Let every single mother know I've got their back. Gratitude towards life that was given. Some don't survive but we never stop living. We are strong. We are forever. It's not over yet. Live in full technicolor...going to set them free!"
From N25th to N21st Streets, playgrounds and parks and vacant lots make the remaining rowhouses lonely sentinels of the past. This sort of urban renewal is similar to pulling teeth and has similar results. New buildings look like "false teeth."

Tearing down structures that could be made habitable is sometimes a necessity. However, Philadelphia may have been among American cities that interpreted "urban renewal" as "bring on the bulldozers" in the 1960s. In 2016, Philadelphia has many homeless citizens, due to a number of unfortunate circumstances, including a lack of affordable housing.

Google 3d
Suncatcher: a potential project at 22nd street
Between 21st Street and the Temple University campus, West Montgomery Avenue hosts newer construction. Rowhouse renovation is evident and more is in progress.

Passing by Temple University on West Montgomery Avenue provides a look at the transformations a university can make to an urban community.

Temple architects have incorporated some elements seen in rowhouse renovation.
The top of this building might remind one of the coverings seen concealing old cornices as shown by Street View earlier in this post.
blending of the old and new on the Temple University campus
(1810 Liacourus Walk, student services)
Street View captures restored detail on side of the student services building above
Waiting for us just down the road is perhaps the most imaginative reflection of the spirit of these varied West Montgomery Avenue rowhouse neighborhoods: "The View at Montgomery."

Google Street View captures trash to treasure
Note the odd angle of the support columns.
Is that a bow, bay or pop-out window up there?
Google Street View has seen something similar...
have you?


Rouse Award (AIA) Winner 2015

"The View at Montgomery (Philadelphia, PA): This dramatic new 14-story student housing building adjacent to the Temple University campus was developed by The Goldenberg Group and designed by Wallace, Roberts and Todd on the site of the former Wanamaker public school. The building has 238 apartments and street-level retail with energizing modern design that attracts pedestrians and activates the streetscape. Healthy building strategies include sustainable storm water management, and water-efficient landscaping, 30% reduction in water consumption and immersive recycling. Around-the-clock student amenities include study lounges, computer lounges, top-floor Sky Lounge with floor-to-ceiling panoramic views of downtown Philadelphia, fitness pavilion and two acres of open green space, as well as a street-level restaurant sourcing environmentally-friendly ingredients.

"About ULI PhiladelphiaThe Urban Land Institute is a nonprofit education and research institute whose mission is to provide responsible leadership in the use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide. Established in 1936, ULI today has more than 35,000 members around the globe representing the entire spectrum of land use and development disciplines. The Philadelphia District Council encompasses more than 900 members throughout Eastern and Central Pennsylvania, the southern half of New Jersey and the State of Delaware. It is one of the most robust district councils in the country, experiencing strong growth and introducing new initiatives. For more information please visit www.philadelphia.uli.org"

WORLD ARCHITECTURE NEWS Award Nominee 2014: Colour in Architecture

"The narrow east and west ends are radiant with full coloured panels, while the longer south and north elevation use colour intentionally on the top and edges to define the white field of the building canvas. Neutral grey corrugated panels, in the form of rectangular boxes, slide around the north and south façade’s white field, creating texture and visual interest. 

"In the context of a transitioning once drab neighbourhood, the impactful colour brings a fresh breath of energy and delight. It plays off of Temple University’s red logo, while interspersing shades of magenta and orange to give a unique identity. The colour is also strategic for way-finding. The approach to the building entrance is from the north-east, pulling directly from the heart of the campus. The bright multi-coloured crease at the center of the north façade is a backdrop that funnels your attention to a central crystal-like entrance vestibule, located between a landscaped buffered street and the glassy retail band."

If you've followed along on this post you may have observed:
  1. The colors of this building are not just those of Temple University. They are found in Montgomery pavement bricks as well as those weathering on the "drab neighbourhood" (see above quote) walls of Montgomery Avenue buildings. They are among those chosen by local residents for their homes. Their vibrancy reflects the colors seen in the neighborhoods' street art.
  2. Nothing is true in old rowhouses. Floors sag. Window frames are not square. Foundations "settle," resulting in buildings that list a little to one side or the other. The posts on the View remind the observer of these characteristics of many Montgomery Avenue dwellings.
  3. Are those bay windows up there on the View? Perhaps not exactly, but they are excellent representations of this distinctive rowhouse feature.
  4. Where are the murals? The murals are the bands of color. They are surprise accents on the View, just as they are on the surrounding rowhouses.
Architects Wallace, Roberts & Todd may or may not have had some of these points in mind when their team designed the View on Montgomery Avenue. Buildings, however, are works of art. What you see in them is a product of your experience. As much as an artist attempts to convey this or that, what you see in your world is a product of what you've seen already and what you expect to see. We have seen this building as part of our West Montgomery journey. For us, this context provided insights unique to our experience. But our tour is not over.

The View is at the bottom of the Google Earth image below. We are moving toward the top of the image:

The fields and tunnels of Temple have obliterated (yet remembered) blocks of rowhouses. Not until its intersection with 8th Ave. does West Montgomery Avenue rowhouse identity reassurt itself:

Not for long, however, do any of the original rowhouses persist. By this time West Montgomery looks very suburban, with new sidewalks, trees at streetside and only the occasional reinterpretation of rowhouse design:

Street View looking west towards Temple from the 7th Street intersection
Yet another change occurs in the eastern blocks of West Montgomery.

The Avenue takes a dog leg left to make way for the Honor Foods
operation, then dead ends before resuming briefly.
East of 6th Street, rowhouses are located mostly on side streets, not on West Montgomery itself:

Rowhouses just before arriving at Honor Foods.
Beyond Honor, the street has been closed for several years, though traces of old sidewalks remain.
Between North 5th and North 2nd Streets, only segments of West Montgomery Avenue remain.
A family of shadows passes what used to be the intersection of W. Montgomery & N 4th St.
easy access fire hydrant
(hopefully this one is marked as being out of service)
In this 2009 Google Street View, a footpath follows one old sidewalk, while some original brick
paving is exposed on the other side of what used to be West Montgomery Avenue one block east
of Honor Foods (red building in background).
Philadelphia muralists have been busy at 4th & Montgomery: 

original canvas, Sept 2009
"Personal Renaissance" by artist James Burns working with local residents and members of the
recovery community in JEVS Human Services, September 2010. From Google Street View.
"By the time this project was finished 1,500 people had worked on it." - Yes! Magazine
JEVS clients wrote the poetry on the walls led by Ursula Rucker, spoken words artist.
For photos showing the creation of this mural, see "2010" on James Burns' Facebook pages.

Are we there yet? Almost, patient friend. West Montgomery is broken up by commercial operations or just plain abandoned here for a few blocks, but it resumes for several blocks again at North 2nd Street.

W. Montgomery on Google,
looking east from JEVS
The remaining blocks of West Montgomery feature rowhouses mostly on side streets:

West Montgomery at Mutter St.: as beautiful a stretch of rowhouses as you'll find anywhere!
Residents seem to be optomistic about the future here, as evidenced by the following transformation:

Google Street View 2011
Buzz Cafe makes an appearance. (Google Street View 2014)
After all this history,
and all this art,
can you solve our mystery?
Is it horse or cart?

Some will know
what others guess.
You'll know more 
and others, less.

Beauty 'tis,
what's round the bend
could be the start
which is
the end.

-Wretched Poet

Kensington High School for the Performing Arts via Google Street View
Electric Lighting & Daylighting Design: David Nelson & Associates
Architect: SMP Architects
Completed: 2010


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