by Ryan Caviglia
The intersection of Broad and Lindley has the look of a spot in a movie, the sort of place where one sees a guy come out of the subway tunnel and up into an urban community of substantial homes, an elevated train and businesses of all kinds. Of course, this being today's urban America, that would be a scene from an old movie, one that was made before mass urban disinvestment and capital flight from cities. Yet, even as the sun shines on this venerable place, it has a feel that something good will come to it again in the future. This is Logan in the City of Philadelphia.
It was home to mayors, managers, teachers, in fact, all kinds of people in the professional class. Parts of it were more blue-collar, dotted with factories as diverse as Mrs. Smith's Pies, Fleer Baseball Card Gum, and others. Logan was the neighborhood that marked where the city started giving way to a more genteel and open physical character. There were small front yards and in many instances, back yards that were large enough to handle family cook-outs and barking dogs. Houses were generously proportioned in comparison with the workaday rowhomes to the south, homes that were densely packed against one another. Logan was no ranch community by any means, but it was a sign that people were moving into digs that were softer and more spacious. Streetcars, buses, and especially the Broad Street Subway, opened in 1928, allowed Logan to blossom.
Walking down Wagner Avenue from Broad Street one Sunday, I pass legions of homes Philadelphians call "twins," as they are identical and semi-detached. Most of them have been modified for better or worse since their construction during World War I or the days of the Roaring Twenties, but they all have a dignified, established look about them. Bay windows mark second floor master bedrooms, porches extend from every property, and each house is solidly brick. Stained-glass hides in the spaces between twins, denoting dining room windows, while leaded glass greets guests that enter through the front doors.
Number 1217 Wagner was supposed to be open for viewing from 2-4pm, and I was not about to miss seeing a home in a neighborhood that seems virtually forgotten today. Seldom does one find many open houses in Philadelphia, at least not outside the downtown area where the market is white hot, and each weekend I search for homes in neighborhoods that are currently below the radar of "cool." Logan is such a place.
I entered the house, and the agent greeted me suspiciously. She was alone, I was a big guy with his hands in his coat pockets in a neighborhood that is tainted by mixed reviews about its safety--though whether such worry was always warranted is debatable. The agent told me she was suspicious of whether I was not going to take my hands from my pockets, as though I were hiding something. Something about that set off the temper of this urban optimist, but I understood her caution. She said that there have been instances in all kinds of locales where homes had been robbed or realtors abused by intruders, but no specifics were given. By this time, I just wanted to take a look around this house, which from first glance, was a gem.
The house was generously proportioned even for today: high ceilings, large rooms, a big kitchen, a fireplace that was extravagantly detailed. This place surely had to be worth more than the $63,900 asking price. I remembered that Philadelphia, the nation's fifth largest city, the eternal underdog of urban America, was still much more affordable than its big sister to the northeast, New York. You could get an entire four-bedroom house with a nice backyard and amazing period detailing, in good condition, for under $70,000. The question was, would it be a good investment?
Meanwhile, about six miles to the southwest, near the University of Pennsylvania, a young prosperous couple closed on a house just like the one on Wagner Avenue. They agreed to pay $280,000 for it. Neither of them had ever been to nor heard of the Logan section. University City was hip, and they were buying into it eagerly. And why not? U City is a great area, it's beautiful, very civically active and culturally diverse. Bu then, these were all things that could also be found in Logan and other unsought communities like it. I could not help but think that Logan was bound to rise again as a community that would be revered, not reviled, by those unfamiliar with it.
I left the open house excited but for no particular reason. I was still in debt, a graduate student that was at least a year away from buying what would have to be an affordable home. But I was thinking how inclined I would have been to make a stake in Logan after seeing the house on Wagner Avenue. How proud I would be to show people where I had chosen to make my home--someplace different, someplace original. A community of families that worked, a community that had to face serious problems from time to time, and a place that was established and important to the city's history in myriad ways. Such are the communities that have yet to become "gorgeous" or "popular" in realty ads across Philadelphia and in many cities like it. But those of us that cherish urbanism should take the chance to get to know places like Logan, and to imagine what they could be again, and then make it happen, rather than wait for someone else to do it.