Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the Fall 2022 issue of Extant, a publication of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.
When Alex Balloon, former executive director of the Tacony Community Development Corporation, talks about Tacony’s transformation over the past decade, he throws around terms like “unsexy preservation,” “preservation light,” “street preservation” and “soft preservation.” His reflexive dilution of the term is telling: By focusing on making practical improvements to older, non-designated buildings, Tacony CDC has helped residents skillfully leverage a wide range of existing city programs–allowing for flexibility when it comes to making improvements affordable and feasible–and helped the community coalesce around a shared vision for the future.
“This really was a Main Street-led vision of neighborhood revitalization,” says Balloon, who became Tacony CDC’s first executive director in 2012. 10 years ago, he says, when Tacony CDC embarked on the Tacony Historic Revitalization Project, the neighborhood was still struggling to rebound from the recession and foreclosure crisis. “We were starting from a place that required a lot of hard work,” says Balloon. The project’s focus on reviving the Torresdale Avenue commercial corridor paid off. “Tacony is a very different place than it was 10 years ago.”
“Paradise for the Working Man”
Tacony, nestled next to the Delaware River about nine miles up from Old City, first developed as a separate agricultural community and incorporated into Philadelphia proper in the Consolidation Act of 1854. In the mid-19th century, the arrival of the railroad connecting Philadelphia to New York led to further expansion in the area. But it was the Henry Disston & Sons Saw Works (the “largest and longest makers of saws,” as noted in the Disston-Tacony Industrial Waterfront Historic District designation nomination), founded in 1872, that really put Tacony on the map. The Saw Works included not just the manufacturing plant, but also the expansive Disston Estate–390 acres of land developed by Henry Disston as his utopian vision of “paradise for the working man of moderate means.” More industrial enterprises followed suit. The area became a magnet for manufacturing thanks to its convenient location near the railroad, ample space along the waterfront, and local workforce. Famously, the statue of William Penn that tops City Hall was cast at the Tacony Iron and Metal Company.
Due, in part, to Disston’s vision, Tacony developed with quality public amenities in mind: Disston Estates consisted of sturdy homes that were rented to workers, churches that catered to a broad range of denominations, public parks, and a Carnegie library. This basic infrastructure–particularly the library’s location along Torresdale Avenue–was not only an important factor in Tacony’s success through the 19th and early 20th centuries, but also key to the current revitalization. “We were very strategically located when we were constructed in 1906,” says Suzin Weber, manager of the Tacony Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. “We function, in a way, as a town center.”
Following its industrial heyday, Tacony saw some fluctuation and decline post-World War II, as manufacturing jobs dwindled and people migrated out to the suburbs. Today, it is a great example of what sociologists call a “middle neighborhood,” areas that are neither experiencing rapid growth and appreciation nor decline. Middle neighborhoods typically have a mix of housing stock that offers relatively affordable and stable housing options, from apartments to single-family homes and good access to public transit. They also tend to be racially and socioeconomically diverse. Paul Brophy, a Philadelphia native who now runs an urban development consulting firm, has spent his career studying issues related to economic development in formerly industrial cities and in 2016 edited a book on his findings, On the Edge: America’s Middle Neighborhoods. Along with Tacony, Brophy identifies East Mount Airy, Wynnefield, and Mayfair as some of Philadelphia’s quintessential “middle neighborhoods.”
Solid and Stable
While the real estate landscape throughout Philadelphia has changed pretty dramatically in the past five years or so. You can no longer “buy a decent house for under $100,000” in Tacony, according to Inga Saffron’s 2017 Philadelphia Inquirer article “The Death and Life of Philadelphia’s ‘Middle Neighborhoods.” Tacony remains a solidly moderate-income, working-class neighborhood even as the efforts of Tacony CDC have really started paying dividends. According to Tacony CDC, more than 300 homes in the neighborhood have been rehabilitated since the 2009 recession, many now owned by families new to the area who value the beautiful homes, affordability, and easy access to transit.
The Main Street Approach employed in Tacony is a model promoted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation that started in the 1970s, a holistic approach to revitalization that’s tailored by each individual community–from one-to two-block-long Main streets that serve as centers for small, rural towns to neighborhood commercial corridors in large cities, like Torresdale Avenue in Tacony. The National Main Street Four Point Approach emphasizes using economic incentives and financial tools, enhancing visual appeal, stimulating promotion and community engagement, and organizing existing entities or community groups around common goals. The approach has been a natural fit for Tacony.
“When we started 10 years ago, the vacancy rate on Torresdale Avenue was pushing north of 30 percent,” says Balloon, while “today it’s about zero.” A large percentage of the businesses on the avenue are local, and a high percentage are immigrant-owned, says Balloon. Over time, the Tacony CDC has helped plant 52 trees, add exterior lighting, and install more than 150 security cameras. The Tacony CDC helps maintain the corridor with trash pickup and street cleaning by contracting with Ready, Willing and Able, a local nonprofit that employs formerly homeless and returning citizens.
Open to Newcomers
Georgeanne Huff-Labovitz has lived in Tacony for 57 years and is the owner of the Torresdale Avenue mainstay Marie Huff Salon, which her family has owned for 40 years. She’s the president of Tacony CDC’s board of directors, a member of the Tacony Civic Association, and has been an all-around champion for Tacony for decades. She’s the fourth generation of an Italian immigrant family and says, while Tacony has many multigenerational households, it’s always been open to newcomers. “We’ve always been a diverse neighborhood,” she says. “We always try to treat everybody like they’ve been here forever.”
Huff-Labovitz was able to use a storefront improvement loan for new signage after hers was damaged during the Philadelphia Gas Works explosion in 2011. New exterior lighting provided through another grant now illuminates the fresco mural that graces the side of her building. The mural, created by artist Mariel Capanna with input and assistance from neighbors, is the only fresco mural in the city and a highlight of the avenue, featuring sweet and significant details like a small mail truck with Huff-Labovitz’s brother’s carrier number on it.
When it comes to older buildings that are historic, but aren’t designated, like many of the commercial properties along Torresdale Avenue, Tacony has benefited from a number of the city’s “soft preservation” tools. A natural fit is the city’s Storefront Improvement Program, which covers 50 percent of costs up to $10,000 for exterior improvements, such as painting, masonry work, window repair, or signage and awnings, and which more than 40 property owners in Tacony have used. “In a lot of cases you’re addressing deferred maintenance on buildings, which may not rise to the level of ‘significant’ because no one has had a chance to nominate them,” says Balloon. “[These tools] might not be reserved for designated buildings, but are just as important when we preserve so many buildings which are undesignated in the city of Philadelphia.”
Other tools in Tacony CDC’s belt include promoting the Philly First Home homebuyer assistance grants as well as using the Pennsylvania Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act (Act 135) to transfer ownership of about a dozen abandoned and vacant buildings to people who will take them on and make repairs. While the median sold price of homes in Tacony remains slightly lower than in the city overall, the housing market has been on a steady incline.
Main Street and Tacony’s success does also rely on some more traditional preservation tools. A massive National Register Historic District nomination for the Tacony-Disston Community Development district encompassing more than 1,400 properties was approved in 2016, unlocking access to federal historic preservation tax credits for commercial buildings. Most recently, the Disston-Tacony Industrial Waterfront Historic District, which includes the former Disston Saw Works, was listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in August 2021. “We in Tacony have been very, very aware of some of the development that’s been going on at the Frankford Arsenal in Bridesburg and we would love to see some of these wonderful buildings reused,” says Balloon. “We’re also very excited about our new waterfront trail that Riverfront North is building.”
A number of existing organizations helped advance the plan in Tacony, creating what Balloon refers to as a “big tent vision” for the future of the neighborhood. The Tacony Civic Association, Historical Society of Tacony, local churches, and the Tacony Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia all partnered in the effort, which placed a strong emphasis on attracting families and creating opportunities for family-friendly events along the corridor.
The library offers the largest green space along Torresdale Avenue and serves as an anchor and key “third space” for neighborhood residents–very much by design. Pre-pandemic, Weber says, the Tacony CDC conducted a study and found that about 80 percent of the people who come to Torresdale Avenue are there to use the library. “To leverage that social and geographic value of a library to do something transformative can be extremely beneficial for a Main Street,” says Weber.
Weber notes that it will be interesting to try to better understand how the pandemic has impacted Tacony and its status as a middle neighborhood. Middle neighborhoods, she explains, need the continued support of stable property values and dependable community institutions to keep from slipping into at-risk territory. “Property values have really jumped up in the last couple of years, but the social support institutions that middle neighborhoods rely upon, most of those have stagnated or have really fallen into some degree of dysfunction,” she says.
Bridge to the Future
Fortunately, Tacony CDC is gearing up to develop a new strategic five-year plan. James McCrone took over Balloon’s position as executive director in May and comes to the position with a wide range of applicable experience, most recently working for The United Merchants of the S. 9th Street Business Association as their business manager. “Alex and the board have done an extraordinary job,” says McCrone. “[Tacony CDC] is hooked into the community very deeply, from the Tacony Civic Association, to the historic society, to the library, to some of the ministries we’ve partnered with. There’s a lot of energy and support for our efforts and it’s wonderful to be a part of that.”
Huff-Labovitz says that Tacony can serve as a model for other middle neighborhoods. While the beginning of the process can be slow-going, “it’s absolutely contagious,” she says. Business owners talk to one another and see how improvements are made and want to do the same. Getting community organizations and leadership on the same page is crucial, though. “We’ve all had a really good working relationship,” she says, “and that’s what keeps Tacony moving forward.”