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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”