Making their block beautiful

800 block of S. 48th Street Mark Stehle

Residents of the 800 block of South 48th Street call it the “Block of the Four P’s,” for the things that have made the block a stable and unique place in University City: people, plants, porches and parties.

The block has a diverse mix of renters and owners—including many Penn faculty, staff and students—and is anchored by the Calvary Center for Culture and Community at the corner of 48th and Baltimore Avenue. It is, residents say, unlike any other place they’ve ever lived.

This is unique,” says Joyce White, a senior research scientist at Penn Museum who received a call about plantings in front of her house even before she moved in, in 1994. “It was an astounding welcome mixed with [high] expectations.”

Those high expectations have paid off over the years, as these days, the block buzzes with porch sales, annual Santa Claus displays, Halloween and Fourth of July parties and porch breakfasts, hosted by White and her neighbor, Beth Van Horn. Flowers and leafy trees abound, and for their efforts, the block hopes to take home top honors in the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee’s annual Clean Block awards. First prize winners take home $1,000 and second prize wins $750. Winners will be announced at a dinner on Nov. 4.

“This came together in a really good spirit of cooperation,” says Van Horn, standing on her stoop at the block celebration the day of judging. “People stepped up to take responsibility for certain events and certain things.” Key to winning, says Van Horn, is the welcome the judges receive on the day of judging, and, naturally, the beauty and cleanliness of all of the lots—including the corner properties. Residents pitched in to sweep alleyways, weed little plants that grow between the cracks in the sidewalk and move all of the cars off the street. They also set up holiday displays, a porch sale and porch breakfast to give the judges a taste of some of their annual activities.

Of course, the block wasn’t always this green or kept up. According to the block history, written by Van Horn, with input from her neighbors, the neighborhood boasted many families in the 1940’s through 1960’s, but began to decline in the early ‘70’s, with deteriorating houses and rising crime. In the 1980’s, Nelson Wicas, a 1992 Wharton Ph.D. grad, planted trees in front of a few houses—the beginnings of the green, gardening block of today.

In the 1990’s, two abandoned houses (818 and 820) fell into extreme disrepair. White remembers it as a time when things looked pretty bleak—there had been a murder nearby and her house had sat on the market for two or three years before she purchased it. But residents banded together to purchase one of the houses, and lobbied Penn to rehab the other house through the now-defunct Housing Program.
The Calvary Church had also fallen onto hard times, with serious building defects and a congregation that had shrunk from 800 to about 30 people.
The Church was in the process of being dismantled and sold, but was saved in part to a desire to keep the building—and stained glass domes inside—intact. Today, the Church is a hub for numerous West Philly groups and organizations, including five religious congregations, the University Historical Society and Curio Theatre Company.

Penn programs have played a large role in the block’s revitalization, from plantings, courtesy of UC Green, to reimbursement of outside lighting through UC Brite. Many Penn faculty and staff have called the block home over the years, including Lynn Grant, a Penn Museum conservator, Professor of Biostatistics J. Richard Landis and his wife, Jean Landis GrEd’06, Robert M. Curley, the senior director of Methodologies and Special Projects at the Center from Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, and Roxanne Bataitis, associate director of Financial Systems in the Office of the Comptroller.

White credits Wicas (who has affectionately been called the “Mayor” of South 48th Street) for bringing many residents together to improve the block. “He pushed and pushed everyone else,” White says, be it through organized tree plantings or passing extra day lily bulbs along to neighbors. “Everyone puts in their two cents. ... It’s a step-up-to-the-plate type of block.”

Originally published Oct. 18, 2007.

Originally published on October 18, 2007