Goodbye, Paradise City

 

Inside the Croyden Apartments a.k.a. “Paradise City” | Photo: Shadowbat

Editor’s Note: The real estate development firm Orens Brothers has begun renovation on the massive “E” shaped, 127 unit Croyden apartment building in West Philadelphia. The story that follows, written by Ethan Wallace with photographs by Shadowbat, isn’t about that project. Nor is it about the building’s history. Rather, Wallace tell another story, one most often hidden from the general view, of the building’s transformation into a massive squat called Paradise City.

Built in the early 20th century, the eight story apartment building the Croyden, with its two four story north and south wings, is mostly indistinguishable from other mid-rise Philadelphia apartment buildings of the same vintage. For about a century, people moved in, moved out, lived out their private dramas and personal triumphs without fanfare or public notoriety. The place was so anonymous that no two sources can agree on a date of construction, no architect’s name has been determined, and even the date of its closure seems forgotten.

The Croyden, 49th and Locust Sts., circa the 1920s

But sometime in the late 1990s, the last tenants moved on and the Croydon’s doors were closed and locked. For the Croydon, it was then that things got interesting.

Low cost housing and two major universities has made West Philly a hot spot for counter culture and radical politics. The periphery of University City has a long history of squat houses–houses abandoned, ignored, or neglected by their owners taken over by those in need of a home.

Photo: Shadowbat

Often the squatters have been welcomed by the community, cleaning up trash strewn dumps, repairing and painting the crumbling infrastructure, tending long neglected yards and gardens. The more noble and organized groups have sought to cooperate with the neighborhood at large, wanting to keep a low profile seeing as their activities, positive or not, were still illegal. And there has always been a tendency to siphon off gas, electricity, and water. In most cases, these squats have been single houses or row homes taken over by a small cooperative group.

That was until the Croyden closed. In the ensuing year it would become a squat known as Paradise City.

With more than 120 apartments available, word went out on various underground networks from Philadelphia across the country. Starting then, someone was always home at the Croydon–but this was not a single group restoring an old house to live free and outside the system. This was a destination for any and all who knew of it and could find their way in. Wandering the ragged hallways it was not uncommon to pass several empty apartments only to come upon a well locked door, an extension cord from some mysterious electrical source stretched underneath. This was the sign of a more permanent resident.

Photo: Shadowbat

But more common were the crash rooms usually found on the upper floors. Debris strewn, furnished with old mattresses, salvaged couches and chairs, these became communal rooms for travelers just passing through. A legacy of visitors could be read on the walls. Names, dates, radical political slogans, graffiti tags, artwork, and the crew logos for a new breed of hobo adorned just about every bit of wall space.

Heirs to an American hobo tradition and as poorly understood by society around them about as their ancestors from the 1920s and 1930s, they came to Paradise City from across the US. Many were educated and from middle class backgrounds, choosing this way of life, others fleeing bad situations back home, or looking for something better than what they’ve known. Many spent their days scrounging in dumpsters or panhandling change. The hobo life can be defined by tremendous freedom and fun, but life on the fringes carries the potential for things to go wrong very quickly. Drinking is a popular way to kill time among this crowd, but hard drugs are too. Run-ins with the police who label them gutter punks, crusties, anarcho-punks, train hoppers, and scumfucks are constant.

One room in Paradise City was a dump, a reeking zone of garbage, 90 percent of it empty liquor bottles. Across the hall was an original oil painting glued to the door. One floor below an apartment that had been turned into an open toilet. The stench was overpowering.

The sound of people moving around the stripped building was a constant reminder that you were not alone–and that you had no idea who was lurking around. And yet, despite the sound of movement, you might never see a soul. Some people didn’t want to be found.

Photo: Shadowbat

Others were fairly quick to come to you, curious about who had entered their realm. Many had dogs–companions, weapons, alarm systems on paws. I sat with them on the roof with its extraordinary view of Center City, exchanging accounts of abandoned buildings and photography for tales of police brutality, freight hopping, and jail. I never felt threatened, but I never went alone, and while I did not go out of my way to flaunt my camera gear, I did always make a point of having a large Maglite close at hand.

While my experiences with the residents of Paradise City were always peaceful and friendly and often fun, violence always seemed possible. And in June, 2007 a squatter named Tim Bradly was beaten to death on the roof where we so often sat. Another traveler named Conor McCarthy was eventually arrested and convicted of beating Tim to death, smashing his head with a cinderblock.

The police cleared the building. It would be sealed again and again, only to be reopened each time. The building became more run down, gradually becoming covered in graffiti. Neighbors just wanted to be rid of it. And it appears now with renovations beginning, they are getting their wish.

About the author

Ethan Wallace attended Temple University, where he received a BA in Communications. He has always been interested in the forgotten, unknown, or unseen parts of the city and has spent the last several years photographing Philly’s hidden and vanishing locations. He is also involved with the National Museum of Industrial History in Bethlehem, Pa. More of Ethan's photography can be seen HERE

Send a message!



3 Comments


  1. I remember a short documentary of this site and the squatters that lived there, do you happen to have the link?

  2. There were a couple that I know of. One was called Squater Days and can be seen on Youtube here: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0B9F65D19D6246AC

    Another one focusing on a homeless couple who spent time there is called Paradise City. You can view the trailer for it here: http://vimeo.com/33052855

    • During the 70’s when I was a college student, a mate had an apartment in the Croydon. Spacious, sunny rooms. Nice!

Recent Posts
La Salle To Host, Nutter To Lead, International Mayors Forum

La Salle To Host, Nutter To Lead, International Mayors Forum

September 2, 2015  |  Morning Blend

Mayors’ forum to explore the importance of the urban family, Philly’s “Fin-de-siècle Firehouse Boom,” Habitat for Humanity building in North Philly, and demo work looms for Mt. Sinai hospital > more

The End Of The Road For 40th And Pine

The End Of The Road For 40th And Pine

September 2, 2015  |  Last Light

Demolition of the beleaguered Levy-Leas House is underway at 40th and Pine. Hidden City co-editor Michael Bixler takes one last look at the building's lost potential with a walk inside one of architect Samuel Sloan's last remaining West Philadelphia homes > more

Pearl Is Indeed Thinking Big For 16th & Walnut

Pearl Is Indeed Thinking Big For 16th & Walnut

September 1, 2015  |  Morning Blend

A 12-story mixed use planned for demolished Lululemon location, Washington Post opines on what the Pope visit means for Philly’s rep, Fairmount Park Conservancy gets federal arts grant, and some needed development in Southwest Philly > more

Come Swing Away On The Porch

Come Swing Away On The Porch

August 31, 2015  |  Morning Blend

Leisure swings at 30th Street Station’s Porch, why it is Philly's duty to stay in town and welcome the Pope madness, a festival seeks to make the Schuylkill a community gathering space, and City of Brotherly Love rated 3rd best host to tourists > more

Renovations Furnish Lawsonia Building With Good Fortune

Renovations Furnish Lawsonia Building With Good Fortune

August 31, 2015  |  The Shadow Knows

The old Lawsonia furniture factory in Callowhill is being renovated for commercial and residential reuse after 13 years of false starts and vacancy. The Shadow plates up this little slice of industrial heritage on Spring Garden Street > more

Reviving The Potential Of Broad & Washington

Reviving The Potential Of Broad & Washington

August 28, 2015  |  Morning Blend

Another development set for Broad & Washington, Old Navy flagship coming to Chestnut, Wawa to open early for Pope, Philly traffic numbers looking good, and some help on deciding which Fringe Fest events to attend > more