Between the years of 1863 and 1893, Philadelphia saw a rise in its population that has yet to be paralleled. As a result, to accommodate the swell, rowhomes were built at an alarming rate—nearly 10 houses a day—in areas surrounding industrial properties like factories and warehouses. But due to Philly’s eventual drop in residency after the Industrial Revolution, today, more than 600 abandoned and dilapidated homes are demolished in the city each year. Much effort goes into preserving the historical landmarks that speckle each neighborhood, but what about the conservation of the neighborhoods themselves? As the houses built as testaments to Philadelphia’s growth and prosperity are destroyed each day, who will remember the families who made such houses homes? In association with a collective of community organizations, including Mantua Civic Association, Mount Vernon Manor Inc., Mt. Olive Baptist Church, Mantua Community Improvement Committee and many more, Temple Contemporary staged its affecting Funeral for a Home on Saturday, a tremendous project that combines civic history with interactive public art.
Following a comprehensive, five-month-long research phase involving surrounding residents, families and additional staples of the community, Funeral for a Home consulted with several of the area’s top public historians, archivists and preservationists to ensure proper steps were taken in selecting and preparing an appropriate house. After an intensive search throughout Kensington, Lower North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia, the modest and derelict two-story structure at 3711 Melon Street in Mantua was chosen. While Mantua never contributed directly to the industrial surge of the 19th century, this neighborhood has shown aspects of resident-initiated planning and community involvement since the 1960s, including the creation of the Anti-Graffiti Network—now the Mural Arts Program—in 1984. Funeral for a Home not only commemorated the “death” of the house itself, but also provided a canvas for current residents to express their concerns about the prospect of further urban development while reflecting on its impact.
Pastor Harry Moore of Mantua’s Mt. Olive Baptist Church led a moving, choir-kissed memorial, honoring not only those who lived at and around 3711 Melon, but also the notion of home itself, paying special attention to the fact that so many of us don’t appreciate having a roof over our heads. At the service’s conclusion, a demolition team began tearing bits of the roof and façade from the house and placing its “remains” in a hearse-style dumpster, topped with an elaborate floral arrangement designed by local artists Steven and Billy Dufala. A procession was held aside it, followed by a drum corps, drill team and nostalgic neighbors, who remembered the community for its past vibrancy instead of its more recent blight. Afterward, families and friends were invited back to the block for a traditional post-funeral repast, sitting at long tables that stretched the length of the block and back, giving them the opportunity to connect with one another as they considered the possibilities of what the neighborhood could be.
With thousands more abandoned houses in other poverty-stricken areas of Philadelphia, Funeral for a Home suggests that both in neighborhood preservation and in life, the end is often only the beginning.