North Central: Hidden ‘Suburb’ on Custis Place ‘

The residents of the Yorktown section of North Philadelphia consider themselves to be a very tight knit community. But the residents of Custis Place, just off the corner of 12th Street and Girard Avenue, consider themselves more than a community. They are a family.

Natalie and Maddy Ray along with Gerelene Brinson take advantage of the warm weather to clean up leaves and trash on Custis Place
Natalie and Maddy Ray along with Gerelene Brinson take advantage of the warm weather to clean up leaves and trash on Custis Place

With the a majority of the block still housing either original owners or second generation residents, this small cul-de-sac was built nearly fifty years ago as a means of providing African Americans with the chance to own their own homes.

Natalie Ray, resident and daughter of an original owner, said the people of Custis Place enjoy sharing in their experience of getting the community to where it is today.

“Yorktown is a proud community of black people, Afro – Americans,” Ray said. “I say that not because of race but because the homes were literally built for that purpose. It was to help African Americans own their own homes, which clearly was not that easy at the time.”

Though residents of other Yorktown blocks have worked to keep their section of the neighborhood operating smoothly, Custis Place is the only street that still has an acting block captain. The residents also hold monthly group meetings to discuss issues.

John and Larmeter Bivins have lived on Custis Place since its was built in 1965. John has been the acting block captain for 40 years.

John Bivins, who has been the block captain for nearly 40 years, said it’s been his mission to make Custis and the Yorktown community a better place to live.

“When things happen that I think the block should know we call a meeting,” Bivins said. “We hold fundraisers, we raise money to beautify our block and to help others. Sometimes when we have money left over we will donate to the Yorktown Community Center.”

Over the past four decades, Bivins has offered his own experience to help with the upkeep of the block. As a mason’s mechanic, Bivins would show young men on his street how to repair damages in their homes and around the neighborhood.

Bivins and his wife, Larmeter, were some of the first residents to move into the cul-de-sac. As the other homes on the street began to be filled, they immediately started the community organization that still works to better the community today.

“We have tried to do a lot for the children, the youth,” Larmeter Bivins said. “Our three children still live in Philadelphia. We think it is the work we have done that keeps the families around. There are many other second and even third generations that have moved back to the Yorktown Community.”

Though the general consensus of residents is that Custis Place is a more than wonderful place to live, some residents still have some concerns. Despite a strong relationship with many Temple University students, residents fear that the school’s current expansion will leave some treating their block like a campus rather than a community.

Gerelene Brinson, the original owner of 1120 Custis Place, said her biggest concern is the trash that accumulates from students currently living across the street.

“I know they don’t mean it,” she said. “But they don’t realize that if they put it out like that and big wind comes, it’s going to get blown down onto all the flowers we put out. All I want is for them to pick it up and help keep it all looking nice.”

The residents of Custis Place have played a large part in keeping their entire area of North Philadelphia not only well kept, but safe. The members of the block meeting council have been working with local politicians to better the lighting on the street. Also, throughout the years, these dedicated people have worked to vote against the establishment of a number of corner stores that would threaten the seclusion of their development.

Residents take pride in keeping their blocking a clean, safe and friendly place to live.

“Corner stores draw traffic and other kinds of trouble that we don’t want any part of,” Ray said. “People in the suburbs do not want corner stores and we do not want them either.”

To many of Custis Place, there is only one thing that takes precedence over the work they put into their street. That would be the relationships they have gained while living there.

Brinson and Maddy Ray, another original owner and mother of Natalie, have been friends since they moved onto Custis Place nearly 50 years ago.

“We do so much together. Our children have grown up together,” said Brinson. “All the neighbors on Custis Place are just so friendly. We are all on a first name basis and I feel like you can’t get that everywhere else.”

Through the hard work and dedication of the residents of Custis Place, the Yorktown community is now often considered the “suburban area” of North Philadelphia. In 2004, it was awarded the title of “Best Block in Yorktown” by the local community association in honor of its exceptional landscaping and upkeep.

“During the summer, you wouldn’t believe your eyes with all the beautiful flowers we plants,” Brinson said.

Residents now look forward to the warm weather of spring to bring the flowers back to life and the neighbors closer together.


  1. This is powerful. I love stories like this. I Absolutely love stories like this. Stories about black communities making and keeping their neighborhoods decent, respectable, and dignified places to live. All too often we hear about the exact opposite. We about black people destroying their neighborhoods, running it the ground with no pride in where they live, not pride in themselves. That’s all ww hear about. The media let’s you see what they want you to see. They will have you believe that black people have no unity, no community, own no homes, land, or businesses, don’t raise any successful, healthy, and decent children who are growing up to lead meaningful productive lives. And that we don’t know how to keep our neighborhoods clean, safe, and vibrant. The media portrays all of our neighborhoods as hellish habitats of crime, violence, dysfunction, and despair. This is the narrative we’ve been bombarded with for decades. All of our neighborhoods ain’t like that. And this story clearly illustrates that.

  2. I was looking for Nataie Ray of Custis Place in article video in Custis Place YorkTown home…interview by ? Female
    Inside kitchen interview w Natalie Ray. Can’t seem to find it anymore..

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