Red brick townhouses framed by shutters and ivy line a collection of little streets that intersect only steps from the bustle of Philadelphia’s Locust and Spruce Streets.
The noise of the city falls away within the embrace of Jessup and Irving Streets as if muted by years of history. But it’s here, in an enclave of gentility, where tensions between neighbors quietly simmer as a legal battle rages for the future of a narrow stretch of cobblestones.
The area in question is referred to as an alley, a street or a stub depending on who is speaking. It measures either 15 feet or 10 feet; has been in public use for over a century or abandoned for more than 21 years and is either a haven for illicit public behavior or not depending on whether you are interviewing Lynn Landes during a tour of her home on South Jessup Street or engaging in a lively e-mail dialogue with South Jessup residents Julie Seda-Bigas and Cheryl Navarro. They are three of the main actors in what can be seen either as a neighborhood dispute or as a case for the common good of Philadelphians.
If you are confused it means you are beginning to understand the complexities of what is taking place behind the scenes in one of Philadelphia’s favorite hidden places. One set of neighbors is, depending on your point-of-view, either trying to gain ownership of a section of Irving Street that has been in the public domain for over a century or attempting to clarify title on their property in order to obtain permits to have the area repaired, restored and maintained according to historic preservation guidelines. Another set of neighbors is either interfering with the right of two families to exercise their rights as property owners or fighting to prevent a “land grab” that would result in a charming public side street becoming privatized.
More than 300 Philadelphia side streets exist in a limbo of ownership, much like Irving Street. How this scenario resolves after a scheduled February 9th court appearance could impact the future of those historic cart ways–areas that tourists, artists and photographers have long enjoyed exploring throughout the city
The confusion arises from the fact that the east side of Irving Street was never put on the Philadelphia City Plan back in the 1800s. That omission left the ownership of the area open to interpretation.
“All we’re doing is asserting our legal rights and doing it responsibly and ethically,” said Ms. Seda-Bigas who, together with her husband, Modesto Bigas-Valedon, and Victor and Cheryl Navarro, seeks to establish deeded ownership over the contested area. “Irving Street is on city plans and only a dead ended stub was not included because it was never dedicated to the city,” she said. “A street is only a street if it meets the definitions provided under city code.”
Ms. Landes heartily disagrees. “Once someone builds a street and the public uses it no one can deny it’s a city street.” A journalist and lifelong activist and environmentalist, Ms. Landes has created two groups–Save Irving Street and The Philadelphia Society of Small Streets–to raise support to see Irving Street added to the City Plan once and for all. “The pivotal issue is whether it’s been used by the public and it has for 200 years.” Her neighbors introduced photos of a white picket fence that lined Irving Street in 1965 and an image of the area chained off from South Jessup Street more recently as evidence that the east side of Irving hasn’t always been accessible to the public.
Legal documents filed by the Navarros, Bigas-Valedon, and Seda-Bigas make it clear that the families’ intention is to “take ownership and responsibility” for land that has been essentially abandoned since the death of its original owner, Edward Shippen Burd, in 1848. The wealthy property owner bequeathed the land to no one. Now the South Jessup Street neighbors are “attempting to correct a problem which has existed for almost two centuries–the lack of private or public ownership of the alley,” according to documents dated December 28, 2011.
Ms. Landes and her husband Clifford W. Landes are also drawing from history, as well as the doings of Edward Burd to support their viewpoint that Irving Street belongs to Philadelphia. They have submitted a deed dating back to 1814, made out to Reverend Absalom Jones that “establishes how Mr. Burd laid out and sold houses with reference to the use of the…15-foot wide Irving Street.” The words “free use” and “privilege in common” are seen as key.
The main concern on Irving Street is the potential for loss of access to a portion of city history should it one day be gated off and perhaps hidden from view.
“We have always categorically denied these allegations,” said Ms. Seda-Bigas, in an e-mail. “On May 24, 2011 we participated in a public meeting sponsored by the Zoning and Governmental Affairs Committee of the Washington Square West Civic Association where we reassured all concerned neighbors that we have no intention on blocking the street. Whatever is giving people this impression is not based on actions or statements from our part.”
The appearance of a planter in the middle of Irving Street mobilized Ms. Landes to take immediate legal action: “This week we’re filing in court to have the planter removed.” But it seems that neighbors’ access to Irving Street is protected by enforceable proprietary law acknowledged by both sides. “There are easements in that area that would preclude anyone attempting to permanently block it,” said Ms. Seda-Bigas.
In a statement prepared by attorney Richard C. DeMarco, the families poised to win deeded ownership of Irving Street reiterated their commitment to keeping the area accessible to neighbors and in view of the public: “We have no intention of erecting a gate across the Alley; and even if it was our intention, such an action would require approval by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, an approval which we believe would be unlikely.”
How the struggle will end for one small portion of Irving Street is unclear but what is obvious is that all involved care passionately about their corner of Philadelphia. All agree that Irving Street is in dire need of restoration–starting with repairs to broken curbs and bulging cobblestones that present a tripping hazard–and have stated their desire to see the historic integrity of the area preserved.
As the legal wrangling continues Ms. Landes is encouraging residents of other small streets to organize and get on Philadelphia’s city plan before conflicts over ownership arise in their communities. About Irving Street she says, “I am absolutely committed to defending it as a symbol of historic preservation.”
Ms. Seda-Bigas is equally determined to protecting Irving Street. “Our ideal is to be able to preserve and maintain its historic character as responsible citizens,” she said. Ms. Seda-Bigas remembers exploring Philadelphia’s historic side streets during childhood visits to the city. “When looking for a place in the City to raise our family we looked for homes with historic character. Upon finding Jessup Street we immediately loved it and felt this would be a caring and warm community for our children to grow up in. And that has been the case.”
Asked what it has been like to live with the strain of all that is taking place on Irving Street, Ms. Landes acknowledged “it’s been very divisive for the neighborhood and difficult for us.”
“Living in one of Philadelphia’s favorite side streets these days feels like we’re in a modern version of The Crucible where rumors become facts and innocent people are wrongfully accused,” said Ms. Seda-Bigas who, together with Cheryl Navarro, has felt unfairly portrayed in the press. “My family keeps me grounded,” she continued. “Many neighbors who support me, remind me every day they see me down or sad, that, ‘this too shall pass’.”