Behind Victorians

January 16, 2012 | by Stephen Stofka


Parkside is at once one of the city’s most visible and most enigmatic neighborhoods. There are major regional attractions like the Mann Center and Please Touch Museum, the Japanese Tea Garden and Carousel House, and most especially the Zoo. Parkside and Belmont Avenues are critical commuter links into the city; thousands of cars pass by this neighborhood every day.

The part they pass by–the great row of Victorian mansions that feel like they were taken out of University City and plopped down a mile north–represents the neighborhood’s best face.

Today, however, I want to peel back the layers of this neighborhood, particularly east of Belmont, which is much more architecturally complex than it appears. Within a landscape of disinvestment and abandonment there’s a pulsing heart of neighborhood pride.

We start by the corner of Belmont and Parkside, which boasts a nearly-intact row of 1920s-era Tudors. These Tudors represent some of the latest mass construction in this neighborhood.

Ongoing sweat equity rehab along Viola; several houses were being worked on when I passed by.

L&I’s fabulous new pink slip doing its job!

Looking east from the corner of 42nd and Viola. These structures show a late Victorian style, and are gorgeous–more so when in good repair.

It’s between Leidy and Viola that the worst blight in this neighborhood occurs. Most of this space is filled with grassy lots and ramshackle houses, many of which, I’m sure, are being sat on.

A broken arch bears mute testimony to a pair of lost twins next door.

This stretch of 42nd was once a small commercial district. The stores are long gone, of course–just some decaying structures showing their fossilized remainders.

Some Habitat for Humanity homes. Plan Philly profiled this particular development a couple of months ago. Examples exist in a cluster here (see shot below) and a block north, on Thompson.

That stretch of rowhomes isn’t the only work Habitat’s done in this section. Here is a rather strange-looking pair of twins across the street from it, and similar structures (not pictured) inhabit the corner of 42nd and Stiles.

Unlike nearby Leidy Avenue, Girard Avenue has maintained its streetwall; in many other neighborhoods, houses this handsome would sell for a bundle.

A strange building–under renovation, and then forgotten about. Vinyl graces the ground level, and where the windows ought to be plywood boards, or drapes swaying in the wind, are instead.

Looking along Cambridge, just east of Poplar. Cambridge and Poplar is an oblique intersection and thus an unusually, and handsomely, irregular corner.

This Cor-Ten adorned rowhome is a strange sight here, more at home in Northern Liberties. You can see it when you look down Cambridge after you cross the 42nd St. bridge (if you’re on the 38)–it’s a real landmark. It’s apartments, probably home to some college students.

A dreary-looking vacancy can bring the rest of the block down. In many ways, the 4100 block of Cambridge is the healthiest in the whole neighborhood–but then you get to this and you wonder how a new Cor-Ten clad rowhome got built down the street.

Looking to 41st St. and its sawtooth streetfront. On the other side of the chain-link fence is a small neighborhood park.

Looking down Cambridge from 41st.

That gap is a recently removed structure. It reveals how fragile even an apparently healthy street a block or two away can be.

Looking up Leidy from Girard.

The south side of Girard still boasts a healthy streetscape–but this won’t remain the case east of 40th.

Handsome corner store, needs some TLC. My eye keeps getting drawn to the balconies on the back.

Some of the homes have alleys. Along Parkside there are a couple of batches of 1920s-era Tudors, like what we saw up top, with alleys; some others exist in and around Leidy.

Looking up Viola to the rears of some nicely fixed-up homes and the back of a battered women’s shelter. Backs, in some cases, can tell more than fronts.

Unfortunately, not all of the homes are so nicely fixed up. (There’s a mess behind this row, for example.) The one on the corner is dreaming of some sweet sweat equity before it gets condemned.

The mammoth twins facing Parkside are Second Empire, rich with mansard roofs.

This is what the south side of Viola was turning to before the bottom fell out of this neighborhood. At one point Leidy was like Parkside, with huge homes and deep backyards–going all the way to Viola–and these yards were getting subdivided off at the time. Disinvestment beginning in the 1950s, together with the advent of zoning, nipped this, however, in the bud. A lone Tudor–its mates never even built, much less demolished–and a fascinatingly machine-age Deco-esque carriage house also lie nearby.

There were three blocks of these twins built, from 41st to 42nd. Lone complete survivor of the three is between Marlton and Memorial Avenues.

Close-up of some some of the decorative work linking the structures, elsewhere lost.

This battered women’s shelter does good work, but its structure’s somewhat too suburban for this location. The decorative cornice, left, in the same of the grand Parkside twins reminds us what was lost and how inferior the replacement is.

Later townhomes along the 4000 block of Parkside. Center City can be seen in the background.

At 41st and Parkside there is a handsome castle-like old hotel or apartment building–a view of it.

Looking across to Girard.

Looking down 40th from Girard.

Some more rowhomes along Girard.

Looking down Union, from Girard. Union has a dogleg at Cambridge, simultaneously reminding us of Jane Jacobs’ “need for small blocks” while giving us visual interest. Notice that the rowhomes on the right appear to be a later echo of Parkside Avenue’s grandeur.

One of the dominating elements of this part of the neighborhood is the pervasive abandonment and decay. This neighborhood has fantastic bones, and in its liveliest sections feels like it springs to life–it is a neighborhood where I would look for more improvement in the near future.

A turreted building hiding behind a vacant lot. That building faces nearby 39th St.

Now we’re along Pennsgrove, right next to the railroad tracks. Deco rowhomes whose master beds extend over deep porches stand in contrast with slightly earlier models with more half-hexagonal bay windows. Among the closest houses to the Zoo, it’s surprising they’re not valued higher. Surely kids would love to live in them!

The 3900 block of Pennsgrove. Contrast with the dogleg irregularity of Union.

Plenty of sneakers on the telephone wire!

This stretch of Pennsgrove is home to some renovation and contract work–this is not as totally blasted an area as along Leidy.

This handsome mural is the first thing anybody coming off the new 40th St. bridge will see.

Work ongoing on the 40th St. bridge.

This stretch of Wyalusing Avenue is a dead-end, but the street is narrow and the houses are kept up, with varying degrees of success.

A gorgeous little property near the end of Wyalusing–a house made a home.

With this look at Poplar bending toward Cambridge, we have nearly exhausted the photographic opportunities of this neighborhood. It’s time to head home.


About the Author

Stephen Stofka Stephen Stofka is interested in the urban form and the way we change it. A graduate of the Geography and Urban Studies program at Temple University, he enjoys examining the architecture, siting, streetscapes, transportation, access, and other subtle elements that make a city a city.


  1. thesestreets says:

    Great bones, like so much of the city. Great bones. Just waiting for people to move in and rebuild and love those streets. If we can just stop destroying our city, just wait it out, eventually people will come back.

  2. Davis says:

    Parts of Spring Garden looked like this, in fact here are still a few gaps, but it was only with historic certification that preservation began to take hold.

  3. Shawn Evans says:

    Much of the area is now a city historic district.
    Great history and detail here in the nomination package:

  4. Davis says:

    Thanks, Shawn – I had heard that the Parkside stretch was in a district and that’s clearly why that section has had some good work done. Too bad the district couldn’t be extended.

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