One Activist’s Theory Of Historic Preservation: “Do Shit And Make It Work”


Joel Spivak | Joseph G. Brin © 2013

Joel H. Spivak | Photo: Joseph G. Brin © 2013

The longtime architect, local historian, and activist Joel Spivak sits at the evening meeting table with a convivial bunch of old Jewish guys discussing the revival and restoration of one of the last remaining Orthodox synagogues in South Philadelphia, Shivtei Yeshuron, a place I reported on last year.

Between home-pickled herring, toasted bagels and shots of clear, cold vodka, a Jewish lawyer, doctor, professor, architect, mural tour guide, businessman (the young host and his wife), the congregation president and an equally committed and thoughtful Irish Catholic Buddhist building developer bandy about ideas.

Shivtei Yeshuron | Photo: Peter Woodall

Shivtei Yeshuron | Photo: Peter Woodall

Their goal is to bring back the once vibrant rowhouse congregation as a 21st century variant–flexible enough to serve as a Hidden City Festival site this spring. Spivak and Kevin Gillen, the developer, volunteer to do a safety code review of the aged synagogue in preparation for the visiting public.

It’s this kind of ad hoc assortment of personalities and skills that Spivak has so often found himself in the middle of throughout the years, making things happen where others see no hope or possibility. Always with “50 different projects going on,” he no longer tracks the countless, spontaneous community efforts he’s been engaged in.

Shivtei Yeshuron | Photo: Peter Woodall

Shivtei Yeshuron | Photo: Peter Woodall

Spivak has some very creative, and as he says, “socialist,” ideas about how you can save old buildings, gaining some control of your neighborhood’s destiny. You and your neighbors join properties as collateral, buy a threatened building and, thus, begin to shape the future. But it’s not just about nice, old buildings.

Spivak working | Joseph G. Brin © 2013

Spivak making connections | Photo: Joseph G. Brin © 2013

“I see opportunities to make something beautiful out of something that’s busted up,” he says.“I created a little league baseball team at a housing project, rebuilt an abandoned city playground for them to play on, built a community center in North Philly at 17th and Tioga Streets in an abandoned supermarket, planted trees and built a park on Bainbridge Street where it was just dirt and dog shit and more,” Spivak says.

In 1957, when he was 17 years old, Spivak went out and bought an old Corvette. His father, a baseball pitcher and gambler, ran a not-too-successful shop on Spring Garden selling auto parts. Spivak cut the Corvette into pieces to learn how it was put together and transformed it into a new custom model. The Olney High School dropout made some $500 per week fixing and customizing cars before others caught on and did it for themselves. He says he became wealthy within a year and, for a fleeting time, supported his parents, friends, and others.

Joel and car

Spivak has never felt the sting of poverty. He ascribes this to the Old World values of his immigrant grandfather. A religious Jew, his grandfather told him religion is “between you and God.” Spivak would have to figure out for himself what God would want. He determined it meant “doing nice things and being a good person.”

Because he has always given and shared, regardless of his own station, Spivak says, “I’ve always seemed to have more than enough. I lived in the most abundant world of all.”

If everyone did what they wanted, he says, “there would be great abundance.”

Spivak returned to Philadelphia after living in northern Vermont in 1969 and like a so many hippies, he moved to South Street, buoyed by shared energy, communal houses, trust, and drugs. “South Street,” he says, “stood for a place where people could come together to create something wonderful and lasting.”

Joel and friends

Inevitably, things began to breakdown socially as people from elsewhere “saw abundance but didn’t bring abundance. Once people had something to lose it changed everything. We all started counting,” Spivak said with some humor and chagrin.

Spivak carries on today with his bartered architectural services, preservation activism, and generous community spirit. As he climbs aboard his trusty, rusty bicycle to rides off down Bainbridge Street, I’m reminded of something he had told me earlier, “I own my day.”

About the author

Joseph G. Brin is an architect, fine artist and writer based in Philadelphia. He has covered Philadelphia architecture, design and culture for Metropolis Magazine. His residential architecture website can be seen HERE. His new artwork explores historical intersections with Philadelphia, largely through its architecture. A palpable convergence of past and present... can be seen HERE.


  1. Fabulous Story…Joel !!
    You are “The Best” Thank You!


    my friend joel. really like him. he has a space 2 blocks from me. his wife is a known city artist and muralist.

    he’s very active in the found items art group: the dumpster divers

    has great vietnam stories and very involved in the city historical wonderful buildings
    and the trolley system. – a great book on the trolley system. the trolley still stops right outside
    my door for pts to the mainline and into the heart of town.

  3. Very interesting character

  4. Yes, thanks Joel for the conversations/information, the tickets to the bus rodeo (!), and the many rides back home to my place!

  5. I finally read it. Great article. You do so much crap he can get a second article out of it; Hero, Tony, etc.

  6. Nice intro to the life of The “Trolley Llama”, but as comprehensive a view of the Wonder of Joel as a Bazooka Joe cartoon is to Encyclopedia Galactica. The Mayor of 60’s Souf’ Street wears as many hats as Souf’ Street has Heads!. A Founding DumpsterDiver, he is the Go-To Guy for All your Challenges and Conundrums. No Full Philly witout Joel; a Font of experience and a Fountain of Youte. And what is Diane, Chopped Liver? You Decide. ALL HAIL TROLLEY LLAMA! neil benson

  7. Joel is the most optimistic person I’ve ever known. And he backs up optimistic ideas that often seem insanely improbable–even to his creative friends–by actually getting them done. His contributions to Phila and to the Dumpster Divers have been remarkable, and its great to call this strange (in a good way) person a good friend.

  8. what a wonderful article! there can never be too many tributes to joel–our guru, our fearless leader, our go-to-guy!

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