On the street where I live there is a lot of new construction. The construction craze started about four years ago when a little tugboat shaped house across the street from me went up for sale and was then promptly demolished to make way for a mammoth 4 story mega-house that looms over the street like a Noah skyscraper.
While I generally love tall buildings, all the little houses around this mother lode of a mansion look like wimpy wannabes in a toy train exhibit.
When I did architectural criticism for another newspaper, I often found myself criticizing conservative architects who would complain that some downtown office building or high rise was out of scale (meaning too high) compared to the buildings surrounding it. While the design dynamics of Center City Philadelphia are different than they are in residential neighborhoods like Port Richmond and Fishtown, when I was confronted with an out of scale new building on my own street it hit me like a ton of bricks.
"Progress is coming to our street," one of my neighbors commented as this mega house was being built.
"Progress, maybe," I replied, "but this also means higher property taxes down the line, so that one day many of the indigenous residents might not be able to afford to live here anymore. Then we'll have to move to crime-ridden Mayfair or some other innocuous Northeast neighborhood."
The fact is, I miss that little tug boat house that somehow always reminded me of Cape May, New Jersey.
Not long after the Tower of Babel was built, a large vacant lot a block away from my property was sold to a California-based developer who knows how to build houses fast, and on the cheap. Previously this lot was fenced in and used as a massive back lawn for one or two houses on another street. For a few summers there was a massive above ground swimming pool placed in this area. In the warm months the pool was the scene of many beer parties. Now, there's something about beer and water that brings out the devil in many people. A friend told me that the party screams that came from this pool really resembled the yells you hear people make all the time on roller coasters. And beer being beer, he sometimes heard louder, beer-fueled arguments.
While the California developer was busy clearing away the old pool and prepping the ground for two more fast out-of-scale Noah skyscrapers, a humble house very close to mine sold, and another developer began to ply that structure with a new granite counter top kitchen, new windows, a new coat of exterior stucco, cherry pine floors, a remodeled bathroom, and "cleaned up" bedrooms. As far as I could tell, the basement was cleaned up but not refinished. The rehabber-jobbers covered the stairs in carpet, and carpeted the entire second floor -- a suspicious move that had me thinking, "are they hiding something?"
Wall to wall carpet, after all, can hide a multitude of sins.
"Let's hope you get good neighbors," one of the former tenants of this house told me. "Because... you never know...."
Neighbors can make or break the quality of daily life.
When I was a boy there was a wicked neighbor on our street who screamed every time a child walked through her property.
In Center City Philadelphia, when I lived in the Adelphia House at 13th and Chestnut, living quarters were so tight I knew every sexual fetish of my Don Juan neighbor. What I heard was so embarrassing I couldn't even make eye contact with him in the elevator.
On the other side of me was a woman whom I jokingly referred to then as Ms. Fanny Hill. Ms. Hill would bring home one night stands from the East Side Club, a hardcore punk rock nightclub next to the Adelphia filled with men and women with Mohawks. Despite these nerve wracking sound intrusions, I liked this small efficiency apartment because it looked straight into the bell tower of Saint John's church on 13th Street, so that from certain angles the room resembled a living space in Paris.
In Germantown, I lived in a third floor walkup. While my downstairs neighbors were nice, they played loud music 24/7 and smoked grass night and day. Visiting friends sometimes complained (or rejoiced) that they were getting "big contact highs," so I was constantly opening the windows for fresh air. Things became lively when the old Victorian house next to my apartment caught on fire. The flames gushed out and missed touching the house I was living in by just a few feet.
At another Center City address, my neighbors were a family of gypsies who threw trash and garbage out their second story window into the alleyway below my bedroom window. For a year I slept with the aroma of rotting bananas, pound cake, Spam, chicken fingers and liverwurst.
So, yes, I do hope that the new neighbors next door will be "nice" people, even if the houses being built on that vacant lot one block over seem to be composed of the cheapest materials possible.
For starters, the houses do not seem to have fire walls and many of the wood materials used look like wood chips stuck together with glue. The construction crews that built the homes were all foreign speaking, which is not necessarily a bad thing (I'm not xenophobic). But if you saw what I saw -- how these workers struggled to understand what to do next as they tried to decipher the 'how to build a house' directions on their blueprint spreadsheet -- you too would come away thinking nervous thoughts.
But here's the rub: the old, little toy train houses that surround these mega houses were built to last, and they look much stronger than these high-in-the-sky cheap material houses that use almost no stone or brick.
Most people in the area hope that the new neighbors are not renters.
Generally, renters care less about the house they are living in than actual home buyers. The history of my own house illustrates this nicely. Former renter-occupants, years ago, let the bathtub run until it overflowed and flooded the bathroom floor and ripped a hole through to the living room ceiling. When I bought my house "as is" I had to contend with a patio filled with discarded kids' toys and an old swimming pool that been allowed to rot. In my basement crawlspace five feet off the basement floor, the window entrance way was covered with a cute Martha Stewart draw curtain (all since removed), behind which were throw-away items of every description: chairs, kitchen utensils, broken baby dolls, piles of wood, broken furniture, more broken baby dolls, and a fossilized mouse that I wanted to present to the Mutter Museum in Center City.
The image of the fossilized mouse has stayed with me all these years. To me it is symbolic of how close some people can get, through sloppiness and carelessness, to the world of unruly farm animals.