When word first spread through Kensington last summer that the John Bromley & Sons Ingrain Carpet Factory on Front and Jasper Streets had been purchased by someone who seemed willing to renovate it, the response was fairly typical of a neighborhood both suspicious of developers and weary from losing its best buildings to fire. Certain neighbors felt relief that someone, finally, would turn the neighborhood’s so-called “white elephant” into something new, and others a cynical fear that the new owner, Jesse Muñoz, would sit on the building, just as the previous owner, Daniel Waisbord, had.
The Bromley mill looms over the elevated York-Dauphin station of the Market-Frankford line, one of the now dwindling artifacts of what was one of the greatest textile districts in the world. With the loss of the adjacent Buck Hosiery and Washington Mills to fire, the Bromley has taken the principal position in the Kensington skyline.
The carpet genius John Bromley opened the five story mill in 1860, the first home of what would become a textile empire—its crowning achievement the world’s largest carpet mill on Lehigh Avenue—that lasted until 1992. Bromley, a Quaker from Yorkshire, England, was an innovator who quickly adapted new technologies and diversified his product line well before his competitors. But in fall 1879, after much tension and a few riots, workers walked out of the factory, demanding a one cent raise and breaking a pact between textile workers and mill owners that set arbitration deadlines in return for agreeing not to strike for six months. Rather than incite more riots or strife, the outwardly stern Bromley joined with other owners to compromise with the workers on a wage increase.
Would Mr. Muñoz would be quite as nuanced a figure as Mr. Bromley? Anyone willing to take a risk on such a building seemed worthy of investigation.
Behind the Counter
I was thus only half surprised when I encountered the new owner of the Bromley mill not in a Center City office building but behind the bulletproof glass of a business called Access Check Cashing, the only active use inside the old mill (the business had been bundled into the purchase). Mr. Munoz, who possesses a magnetic smile and who once aspired to a career as a musician, said that he was busy—a man, presumably a customer, stood at the counter–but that if I wanted to, I could come behind the glass and ask him a few questions. He let me in through a side security door and told me to call him Jesse.
Jesse said that he needed to do a little work, and he wanted to eat some lunch. He got on the phone and ordered himself eggs on toast with ham. He pulled the phone away from his ear and asked the man waiting at the counter, a familiar neighborhood figure who often hangs out at Front and Dauphin, if he would go grab his food for him. The man agreed and Jesse got back on the phone to say, “the big guy is coming to pick it up.”
Jesse was raised in West Kensington and Feltonville in the 1970s when still tightly knit blocks of Kensington and North Philly were now quickly unraveling. His friends began migrating to Center City and the suburbs in search of better schools and more opportunity. “Most people I knew wanted to live in a better neighborhood than their parents,” he said. And so Jesse soon followed his friends into the suburbs of South Jersey.
But, he missed the “diversity of the neighborhoods, the shops in walking distance. How when immigrant families moved onto a street, they really took it over and made it their own.”
In the early 1990s, he began to seek real estate opportunities in his old neighborhood. One of the first properties he sought was a building on West Lehigh Avenue. His intention was to develop it into a school for the Philadelphia School District.
“I had the Lehigh building under contract, and the day we returned from agreement, the real estate agent says he thinks scroungers are going in there, so I decide to seal it up. But before I could, actually the very next day, I get the call that the building is on fire, so the agreement fell through.”
Nine Years Trying
Jesse moved on and later acquired another building at 190 West Lehigh Avenue that he successfully converted into housing and retail space. This building, he imagined, would bankroll his retirement. But as he began to realize that no lender was going to give him the money to buy the Bromley, he decided to sell the Lehigh Avenue building to raise the money himself.
I was about to ask Jesse what had for all those years motivated him to acquire Bromley—after all despite the countless fires there were plenty of available empty mills in Kensington—when the Big Guy came back with Jesse’s food. The order was correct and the change exact.
Jesse thanked the Big Guy.
“I had been asking Danny Waisbord for this building for 9 years,” Jesse continued, “but every time we would get close to an agreement, he’d get cold feet and pull out. One time it was because he wanted to hold onto a part of the building, another time was because he was going through a divorce. But I finally get him to agree. And, I swear, I even went into the day of settlement thinking that this deal wasn’t going to happen.”
For a moment this spring the deal seemed doomed. A few months before the August settlement, while he was still negotiating with Waisbord, Muñoz got a call to turn on the news because a building at Front and Jasper was on fire. Sitting with me behind the bulletproof glass, he was watching the news all over again.
“You see, they got the cross streets wrong on the news,” he said quietly, “and the way it looked with the walls down, it looked just like the Bromley. So I think to myself, there’s no way this happens to me twice.”
Luckily for him, but not for nearby residents and the two firefighters who lost their lives, the building that had caught on fire was the neighboring Buck Hosiery mill, the second Jasper Street factory to burn down in two years. For neighborhood residents, it seemed like just a matter of time before the Bromley would burn too.