Ambling Around Kensington


I’M MORE BULLISH THAN EVER on Kensington, the Philadelphia neighborhood north of Center City where I bought a small row house for investment in 2007. Eight years ago, the area was full of crumbling, sagging buildings. Now it’s being spiffed up and built up everywhere, with new low-rise residential construction in formerly vacant lots, and the conversion of the area’s many disused textile mills and factories into rentals and condos.

In Philly this week, I wanted to see the area around Norris Square, above, a leafy park I remembered as sketchy several years ago, when small row houses near the park were going for well under 100K. They’re a bit more now (though still under 150K), but the area felt cleaned up and more friendly on a walking tour of the neighborhood with my son Max and his dog Roma.

We ambled up Hancock Street and down Front, under the elevated train, where industrial buildings are being renovated left and right for commercial and residential use. Here, in approximately this order, is what we saw.


The carriage houses that carry tourists around Center City are stabled on Hancock. In the background, one of the many brick factory buildings that have been converted for residential use.


This former feather company building is being developed after a community battle to save it from demolition.


Admiring the newly painted signage on a Hancock Street building, we were invited in for a look. Federal Distilling is a vodka distillery, soon to open with a bar selling house-made products.


The area’s row-house architecture is very similar to that of nearby Fishtown.


Right around Norris Square, the houses are larger and more detailed. Must have been elegant in their day.

IMG_0016Circling around to Front Street, where a milk-bottle-shaped water tower sits atop an old dairy building.


Something afoot here on Front in what looks like an old bank building.


Oxford Mills is a mammoth rental building completed a couple of years ago in the shell of a former textile family. Public school teachers get a break on rent.


On this block of Jefferson Street, a typical mix: some old row houses, a couple of modern interventions, and a former casket factory developed as apartments.


The side of my property is visible, covered with ivy, in the photo above. The new construction across the street was a vacant lot two years ago. The grassy field has been sold to developers and will become 17 new townhouses. The brick building behind mine is one of the neighborhood’s earliest loft conversions.


Lunch was here, in the shadow of the El, at the Good Spoon Soupery (they have salads and sandwiches, too) on the corner of Front and Master — a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

To see my previous reports about the area, go here and here.

BOOK REVIEW: Design: The Definitive Visual History


AS ONE WHOSE SHELVES are already groaning with auction catalogues and design reference books (even wrote a couple of ’em myself), I couldn’t imagine how the new, nearly-500 page tome, Design: The Definitive Visual History, would tell me anything I didn’t know. Published by DK/Penguin Random House in association with the Smithsonian, it was bound to be authoritative, but at this point, what more is there to say or show?

The book is what it says: a comprehensive history of Western design, in carefully chosen photos. It lays out, in a chronological fashion that appeals to my linear brain, the evolution of design from the mid 19th century, when industrialization and the growing demand for household furnishings and decorative wares by a new middle class first necessitated that everything be “designed,” up to the present.

From William Morris and Tiffany lamps to IKEA and cell phones is a broad purview, to be sure, and the book is of necessity a cursory look at a vast subject. It’s a highlights tour of the icons, for the most part, but if you want all your information in one place. this encyclopedic book is for you.

This is the book to reach for first if you need reminding who Achille Castiglione was and what he designed, or the difference between Art Deco and Streamlined Modern. Its clear, sparkling graphics and hundreds of images, which include many period interiors and such enjoyable extras as timelines and pithy pull quotes, make it fun just to flip through.

It also provides something often taken for granted: a definition of good design, or function meeting aesthetics at a price many can afford. At $50 (about penny a page), this book is a case in point.

Block Island on Foot


….is maybe not such a great idea. It’s bigger than it looked on the not-to-scale map in the tourist brochure.

Pork-chop-shaped Block Island, Rhode Island, is about 15 miles off the easternmost tip of Long Island, where I live part of the year. I was bound and determined to get there on the last weekend of seasonal ferry service from Montauk. Unable to convince a friend to join me — admittedly, the night before — I went off solo, as I did last winter to Europe. I even wore the same trusty boots that saw me through Spain, France and Italy, and summoned up an echo of the old travel excitement as I drove the half-hour to catch the 10AM ferry on a perfect October Sunday, having done zero preliminary research. I had a vision of finding breakfast in a Victorian hotel, once I reached Block Island, on a porch overlooking the sea.

I had been to Block Island once before, in the early ’90s, and wasn’t wrong in assuming it would still be much the same — unspoiled and tranquil, with only 600 year-round residents and, by Columbus Day weekend, few vacationers left. I expected the ferry to dock in Old Harbor, immediately across from an old-fashioned high street with restaurants, bars and shops. All that’s still there, but that’s not where the new super-fast ferry from Montauk docks. It docks, after an hour-long crossing over pristine waters, in New Harbor, about two miles away from any hope of breakfast (or by now, lunch).


Leaving Montauk, above


First glimpses of Block Island, below


There was a stand renting bicycles (mopeds too), but I passed it by. Block Island is hilly, and I thought I’d be better off hoofing it. So I walked and took photos, arriving at Old Harbor to discover the grande-dame hotel restaurants mostly closed for the reason, and ended up at the Topside Cafe, a hippie establishment where I had my first-ever acai berry bowl.

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Old walls made of huge stones, found throughout the island, are not why it’s called Block Island (it’s named after Adrian Block, an early Dutch settler).


I wanted to see a bit of the island’s interior and perhaps some of the vaunted ocean beaches. My rudimentary map showed 25 miles of yellow hiking trails, and I chose the Fresh Swamp Trail as a goal — it was the closest and shortest. I passed old farmhouses as I walked to the trailhead, some now used as inns, on roads that became increasingly less paved. The trail took me through woods and open fields and was serene and lovely, if not dramatic. By the time I emerged on the road at the other end, it was mid-afternoon. I had walked a total of five miles and my legs were tired. To get back on foot to New Harbor in time for the 5PM return boat, I’d have to head straight there, on perhaps the island’s least scenic road, past the airport. As I contemplated that walk, a taxi came along the otherwise deserted road, and my hand went up so fast I wasn’t sure I had even made a decision to hail it.


Because the driver had another pickup in that direction, we ended up on the unremarkable airport road, and I was now early for the return ferry. I had him drop me at Old Harbor again, thinking I’d do a bit of shopping and find a cocktail. Racks of cute, arty clothing at drastic end-of-season reductions lined the street, so I did that for a while, then found myself at Poor People’s Pub, crowded and cozy, eating the best pizza I’ve had since Naples — truffled mushrooms and goat cheese, and a Narragansett beer on draft. Then I had to move quickly to make that return ferry, or spend an extra 24 hours on the island (which wouldn’t have been the worst thing). By the time I’d hiked back to New Harbor, I was hobbling.


I never saw the beaches, except for those that could be seen from the ferry, or much of the island, really. But I saw enough to know I’d like to return.