On Sept. 7, 100 years of residency passed for the 500 block of South 46th Street. Neighbors marked the anniversary with their biggest block party to date.
“This year was the first year we had a block party for the entire block,” said Paul Weidner, Financial Training Department director at the University of Pennsylvania.
The block lies on the dividing line between Spruce Hill and Garden Court, bounded by Cedar and Larchwood avenues. Hazel Avenue breaks the street into two groups, south of Hazel and north of Hazel, the two of which, Weidner said, did not interact much until recently.
Martha Ledger, a member of the Garden Court Community Association, was surprised by the input from her neighbors when planning the party.
“It was almost as good as the party,” she said. “We were in each other’s houses, we were having meetings, we were brainstorming … that’s really what it’s about.”
“On any block, I think the big thing is do you have your one, or two, or three people who are real, you know, instigators as far as organizing and getting the people together,” Paula Rubin Cole said. She and her husband Prentice Cole bought their home in 1982. “That’s why it’s good to have new, young families coming in because they’re less jaded than the people who’ve been here 30 years like us.”
But Prentice has been a Spruce Hill native for much longer.
“This is rather representative of what the neighborhood was when I moved into the neighborhood in 1963,” he said. “It’s always been a diverse neighborhood. It’s always been mostly people who are associated with the University of Pennsylvania.”
Prentice, who grew up near 40th Street and Osage Avenue, remembers the sound of kids playing in the back alleyway.
“That had disappeared,” he said, “but it’s coming back now.”
Lynn Major and Rob Leventon moved to the block in 2008 from Bella Vista, along with twin daughters Marley and Sebina.
“Adding on extracurriculars,” said Major, who does literacy and tutoring work around the city, “you don’t have the suburban phenomenon of having to drive miles and miles and miles.”
Marley and Sebina attend Independence Charter School in Center City, which their parents credit to the bilingual program and school diversity over those at Penn Alexander School. Nevertheless, Leventon stood in line to register his daughters at Penn Alexander.
“My year was the year it was 12 degrees,” he said.
Being able to drop off his children at Penn Alexander and walk to work is important to Weidner.
“I just love that aspect of it,” he said.
But the arrangement could prove problematic if his second child is not enrolled.
“We’re moving,” he said, citing the “common bond” formed by children with classmates, teachers, parents and play groups from one school.
Trash, parking and crime are common concerns for the block.
Ledger praised the tolerance and ethnic diversity of the neighborhood, calling it visually exciting. Cole considers another aspect of that tolerance.
“People allow everybody to come and go as they please, and so probably one of the bigger problems is the traffic, the traffic that comes up and down the street, the people that you don’t know,” he said. “But it’s because no one’s gonna question.”
Compared to when he lived in Bella Vista, Leventon said, “There seem to be more helicopters here chasing, as far as people running through the neighborhood.”
An email Listserv circulates between neighbors, primarily to organize block events but also to ask each other questions, recommend home services or even raise security concerns.
With two-way traffic on South 46th Street, the block is busy, Weidner said.
Homes on the block are valued from about $338,000 to just over $500,000 but several of the houses were purchased with help from Penn Home Ownership Services, an initiative started by the University of Pennsylvania in 1965 to encourage faculty and staff to move to the neighborhood.
Two such beneficiaries were Martha and her husband Marshall, who moved to Philadelphia from California when Marshall began teaching at UPenn. They bought their home in 1969, making them the most veteran residents of the block.
“Everybody was rehabbing houses,” Martha said. “There was someone who lived down the block who was an architect and carpenter. He did a lot of people’s kitchens.”
The 1990s is when the bottom fell out of the neighborhood, she said. Market values of the block remained stable during the peak of the economic recession in 2007 and 2008.
Architecturally, the 500 block represents the Second Empire and Tudor Revival styles of Spruce Hill. Prentice said homes in the neighborhood have changed from flat lawns to gardens and native foliage.
“A lot of the houses have just out-dated electric and plumbing,” said Mike DeLaurentis, who has been renovating his home since he moved in. “Especially if you’re a homeowner, that’s an issue. Whereas if you’re on a block [with] new construction, that’s not so much of an issue.”
“It has gone more upscale to a certain extent, I think,” Paula Rubin Cole said. “There has been some gentrification stuff but also it’s pushed out further.”
The commercial corridors on Baltimore and Lancaster avenues have not fared as well as the residential zones, Cole said, but he and Paula agree commercial activity is not the draw for the neighborhood.
People view future commercial development of Baltimore Avenue differently.
Weidner who moved onto the block in 1994, is not looking for more retail on Baltimore Avenue.
“Commercial areas are dead space by nightfall,” he said. “I don’t think that’s what we’re looking for.”
Graham Laub, an attorney with Dilworth Paxson, LLP, hopes that development continues, with some of the existing auto body shops giving way to other businesses.
“To have that in the middle of a retail corridor is a little bit of a disruption,” Laub said. “I’m not looking for a major shift.”