Friday, June 17, 2005

Breaking Ground

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania's largest and wealthiest city, is gentrifying at a maddening pace. What began as a mid-90's public/private Center City renewal project spearheaded by then Mayor Ed Rendell, has spilled over into neighborhoods long given up for dead. Fishtown, a poor neighborhood between the Northern Liberties and big bad Kensington, is entering its own chapter of fast-paced renewal. But the most exciting facet of this latest sweeping rebirth is the re-defining of what a Philadelphian considers home sweet home.

Downingtown, on the PA Turnpike outside of Philly, exhibits the typical suburban moonscape of shitbox Ryan Homes and 'Dead Worm w/ Cul-de-Sac' street plans. 2,500 sqft Downingtown McMansions, bespeckled with all the pretentious flourishes of colonial and Victorian styles in styrofoam-composite, form the latest wave of 'breeding grounds' for aspiring booring white people. People lock down their houses, never meet the folks down the street, and commute 1 1/2 hours to work... the American dream. Downingtown is the sort of place that make you lose faith in humanity.

Yet deep in North Philadelphia's Fishtown neighborhood, a new urban prototype is challenging a completely different type of buyer with a new concept of living. How does the Philadelphia rowhouse, designed to house millions of poor, working class immigrants in a 1,000 sqft box, fit a 2,500 sqft. society. An architectural firm focused on redefining architectural and real-estate perceptions, is trying to perfect the new urban rowhouse: one that transitions the densely packed streets of Philadelphia from their current treeless, grassless design into something a little more livable.

Pittsburgh, watch closely. As every city has its own housing stock, every city has its own challenges. Philadelphians are working hard to figure out how to live in Philadelphia... which frankly is a damned hard question considering the hostile layout of a city composed of miles of rowhouses. We need to consider how our current lifestyles jive with existing buildings designed for a past lifestyle, and design a new prototype of housing that complements our city's existing fabric to create a truly livible city.

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