A Family Tradition
When Marilyn Cruz was growing up in Kensington in the 1980s, Latino families often had lots of kids. Her aunt, who lived nearby her parents’ home on Hancock Street just north of Thompson, had 18 children. The kids often played stick ball in front of the house. Neighbors threw loud, boisterous parties that spilled onto the sidewalk and even over to her aunt’s steps and porch. So when Cruz’s aunt decided to put bars up around the porch she wasn’t exactly thinking about keeping burglars out. Her motivation was protecting her windows from the balls the kids hit in the street and defining for her neighbors, and the community, the outdoor space she considered her own.
For outsiders passing through a neighborhood where bars cover most windows, fences surround rec centers and schools, and bulletproof glass protects clerks in many corner shops, the caged porches might look like just another measure to keep intruders out. But Cruz sees something else. “There was nothing about security when it started,” she says now, about the cage her aunt put up, and those that many others in Kensington installed on their own porches. “It was really more of an extension of family space into the outdoors.” Cruz, who works as a realtor and property manager at Coral Street Arts House, returned to Kensington after college and raised her children in the neighborhood where she grew up.
The porch on the front of the house on Hancock Street appealed to her parents’ desire for outdoor space and the traditional lifestyle of their native Puerto Rico. Her father played guitar on the porch. Neighbors would sit and watch their children as they played outside. It allowed families to use the outdoors in a way they could not have with a stoop or a patch of paved public sidewalk. Many of the row homes in the neighborhood had roof decks, but these appealed less to Latino families because of safety concerns for their children, according to Cruz. Even now, decades after many were installed, the “birdcages”–as the partially enclosed porches are sometimes called–are everywhere in the neighborhood.
Moor Than Just Security Bars
Ariel Vazquez, an architect living in South Kensington, has studied the origins of these covered porches or cobertizos and traces the style back to the Arabs and Moors who inhabited the Iberian Peninsula beginning in the 8th century. Vazquez, who grew up in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, moved to the United States in 2000 to study architecture at Drexel University. He went to Holland to get his master’s degree and soon found the work of Michel-Jean Bertrand, a French architectural theorist whose writings have not been translated into English. A book by Bertrand called “Urban Residential Architecture: The Home, the Neighborhood, the City” (in the author’s own rough translation) led Vazquez to pursue the European and North African roots of the style he saw on many row houses in Kensington, where he began practicing architecture after he returned from Holland.
In the Andalusian region of southern Spain, in cities like Cordoba and Granada, and also in Lisbon and Belem in Portugal, this Moorish influence can be seen in colonnaded walkways in gardens. These arcaded sidewalks blur the boundaries of public and private space. Particularly in Lisbon, the ornate ironwork enclosing many balconies and window boxes on urban buildings bring to mind the caged porches in Kensington.
But the manifestations of this style in Philadelphia are filtered through Latin American traditions and sensibilities, and the inspiration for Kensington’s cobertizos comes, surprisingly, from a more rural style of built environment. “Particularly in a place like Puerto Rico where there is a lot of farming, the front yard is the gateway to your home,” says Vazquez. In much of the Caribbean and South and Central America, even in large cities like Santo Domingo or San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, Vazquez point out that residential properties often begin on one street and run all the way back to the next parallel street. “So, when you decide to build your house,” Vazquez says, “you put it right in the middle, so you have a big front yard and a big backyard.” This allows the owners to maximize their views of the city and nature around them, as well as provide a buffer between the home and the street, he says. “The problem is, adapting the row homes to this idea.”
In Philadelphia–particularly at the time when the row homes in Kensington were being built–space has always been at a premium, so buildings often occupy as much of their plot as possible. Many of the neighborhood’s two-story brick houses were built for workers at the steam-powered textile mills that made Kensington the hub of working-class Philadelphia beginning in the 1840s. Those mills haven’t run for more than half a century, but many of the houses remain. So, how does an owner of a Kensington row house, which literally abuts public property on the street side, create a gateway in the Latin American tradition?
As Vazquez walks through South Kensington on an overcast September day, he nods to neighbors and points out the vernacular gateways they have added, or modified, on their homes. Walking north on Cadwallader Street from Oxford, Vazquez stops on the opposite side of the street from a row house with its own modest gateway. A black iron fence cordons three feet of the sidewalk in front of the house. A wide, waist-high gate leads to three marble steps up to the front door on the left side of the house. Another narrower gate leads to an arched and gated alleyway on the right side of the house. Brown and white-striped aluminum awnings offer shade below each window. Behind the black fence, which features bars shaped in floral designs every four feet, a row of potted plants lines the front of the house, packed tight between the alleyway and the steps.
A Community As Extended Family
Up the block on the other side of the street, a more formal cobertizo fronts another row home. A brown aluminum awning covers an area about the same size as the other house’s gateway. Large, black intricately ornamented iron grates are set into the chin-high concrete wall. The wall is painted yellow. The black bars begin to bulge out at face height as they form a large cage that envelopes the porch. An older man with a thick mustache watches from the doorway behind the black gate as Vazquez passes. A young girl, maybe the man’s granddaughter, reclines in a plastic chair on the porch. The black grates keep her mostly hidden, but her movement shows in flashes as she gets up to talk to the older man as Vazquez walks north up the block. The houses next to this one do not have outdoor spaces that are defined so clearly and there is no other activity on the street other than pedestrians passing through.
These cobertizos on Cadwallader are typical of the neighborhood, but each homeowner uses different flourishes that display the Latin American roots of their style. Up Bodine Street, just west of American, a pair of well-kept row homes stand on an otherwise weedy, fallow block. Every window is caged in white bars that bulge out for potted plants, a way to capture a bit of nature at the threshold of each room. Both sets of concrete steps are caged in white iron. Across American Street and one block up Hancock, a row house abuts a brick warehouse with cinderblocks in place of windows. Black wrought iron balconies reach across the second and third floors of the home, which is painted in bright coral, striking in contrast with the large white windows. The house’s shell is unremarkable, but this facelift has given it outdoor space and provided a sense of identity, if not a literal gateway.
Some homeowners use vertical space for their cobertizos, building covered decks on top of their homes. Though this provides families with outdoor space, both Marilyn Cruz and Ariel Vazquez agree that it does not foster community in the way that a ground-level porch does.
“When you have that outdoor space, they talk to each other,” Cruz says. “Here’s the test of a community–you go into North Philly and any lady you talk is going to know who’s sick on the block, everything everybody is up to.” Without the porches there would be fewer opportunities for neighbors to talk, she says.
“People are social,” says Vazquez. “Different architectural forms, like the cobertizos, allow people to come together.”
The flourishes and ornamentation on the porches represent a tradition of pride in the Latino community in Kensington that stretches back decades. “In our community, and in the Italian community in South Philly too, we always have our windows decorated,” says Cruz. “You have the nice vase and some flowers. People want to show that they have nice stuff.”
But as older members of the community increasingly move out of Kensington, some of the character has diminished, says Cruz. “When I was a kid, you could walk up and down Aramingo, all the way to Port Richmond, and every holiday every house would be decorated. I mean every house. Decorations would be hanging from the porch railings. You don’t see that anymore.”
Cultural Investment And New Development
As a realtor working in the neighborhood, Cruz says she sees how developers are altering the streetscape in order to get the most money out of their investments. In Kensington especially, developers build houses with as much square footage and as many bedrooms as possible, so they can charge higher rents to students from nearby Temple University. For new homeowners, a big house can also look attractive. “I get the draw with the big houses,” says Cruz. “But they [the buyers] don’t think about utilities.” And very few new houses include porches. To maximize indoor square footage developers do not provide outdoor space for new homes.
As more and more houses are built without porches, the sense of community fostered by these semi-public spaces disappears as well. This works to drive young families who want a strong community out of the neighborhood, says Cruz. Behind her mother’s home, a developer recently built two large houses. People on the block had hoped new families would move in, but now both are filled with students.
In parts of Kensington and nearby Fairhill, also predominantly Latino, empty side lots have provided families with ways to maintain traditions from Latin America. “Some of these side lots become spaces for a shrine with the Virgin,” says Vazquez. “I’ve seen people create gardens with a trellis that creates an outdoor dining room.” For some residents, the cobertizo doesn’t have to be in front of the house.
Sometimes, however, a community’s living living traditions reveal themselves in entirely domestic and unremarkable ways, vinyl siding and all. Back on the block of Hancock where Marilyn Cruz’s parents bought their home with a porch many years ago, there is an unlikely, grassy patch of new development: three sets of twin houses and one single. They stand about 30 feet back from the street, front lawns filled with grass and trees and clipped shrubs. Each house looks bland and suburban, but each has a porch, and each property stretches all the way back to Palethorpe Street, where fences close off the backyards. Behind one house a large sheet of plastic hangs on tent poles. There’s ample space for a family to eat meals and to host get-togethers under the pitched tarp roof. Communities are often lost when new development moves in, but apparently this one rare developer had built with neighborhood tradition in mind.
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Photographs by Teresa Stigale