BEHOLD THE TRANSFORMATION of a neighborhood before your very eyes. That’s what a walk around parts of Philadelphia’s Kensington is like. Whenever I visit, every two months or so, there’s new development, and it’s spreading fast.

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In 2008, when I bought a tiny row house (above right) in the area, it was bleak. Neighboring lots were vacant, nearby houses were falling down. Now, on my one-block block, there’s a new condo building on the corner, the weed-choked lot next door has been cleared for 17 new townhouses, and foundations for two more new townhouses have been poured directly across the street. My house has become the most rundown on the block, and I hope to address that come spring.

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Fan out to neighboring streets, and there are warehouse conversions everywhere (that’s Oxford Mills, above). In the 19th century, Kensington was a district of textile mills called Little England. Those that have survived are being converted to housing for an influx of mostly young people (some priced out, perhaps, of New York City).

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Frankford Avenue, which divides the neighborhood from further-along Fishtown, has been in the throes of commercial development for a few years now (La Colombe, a coffee roaster/cafe, and Fette Sau, a Korean barbecue restaurant, are two of the big-capital investments).

More recently, Front Street, along which runs the El, has become a desirable location for restaurants, too (Good Spoon Soupery, Front Street Cafe, above).

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The architecture of the new residential construction is not much to my liking, but for some reason this same look has taken hold all over north Philadelphia. Wherever there’s a vacant lot, Mondrian-esque low-rise buildings comprised of colored boxes seem to fly up.

Kensington is currently in the running for the grand prize in Curbed Philadelphia’s (pretty silly) annual best-neighborhood contest. Here’s how they describe Kensington’s advantages:

Kensington (7)—This North Philly neighborhood—which encompasses a series of sub-neighborhoods, including East, Lower, and West Kensington—is feeling the heat from Fishtown. As housing prices continue to rise in that hipster haven, more first-time home owners have looked to Kensington for more affordable options. And developers have noticed: Postgreen Homes has established plenty of their projects in the mostly industrial area, filling once-vacant lots with modern homes. Other signs of revitalization: The opening of New Liberty Distillery in the Crane Arts complex, the continued growth ofGreensgrow Farms on E. Cumberland St., and the annual Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby & Arts Festival.

The neighborhood still looks pretty bleak, as these photos taken on a gray Sunday after Christmas attest. The main pocket of greenery is Norris Park, a square of majestic trees. The surrounding streets are full of small row houses, used as workers’ housing 150 years ago, bearing ‘For Sale’ signs. Some have been renovated, perhaps well, perhaps in a slapdash way; others are being offered as-is.

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The double-wide beaut, above, on East Norris Street, has been converted to condos.

On a single block of Martha Street, I counted at least four houses for sale, at prices Brooklyn hasn’t seen for years, but a lot more than they would have asked a while back.

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#2031 Martha St., above, renovated, 229K

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#2061 Martha St., left, 159K; #2059, right, 339K

I’m not as confident a real-estate investor as I was a few years back when I started this blog. I’ve over-stretched, had to do more repairs and renovation than anticipated on all my properties, and rents are a bit soft.

But my experience as a landlord in Kensington has been good. It’s been relatively easy to rent my two units, and it’s getting easier. And I love being involved, in a small way, in something that’s so tangibly happening.

Related posts:

Ambling Around Kensington

Investing in Philly? Consider Kensington

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I FEEL DISLOYAL saying this, but I have a favorite public garden, and it’s not the Brooklyn Botanic Garden — as much as the BBG is a local treasure and a restorative for my spirit in all seasons. It’s Chanticleer in Wayne, PA, just outside Philly, a garden that exists for no reason beyond unabashed pleasure.

Chanticleer, which opened to the public in 1993 on 35 acres formerly owned by the Rosengarten family, heirs to the Merck pharmaceutical fortune, it’s probably the ‘artiest’ garden I know, dynamic and contemporary, framed by great trees.

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It’s one delight after another, around a 1920s Mediterranean-style house: the Teacup Garden, above, around a fountain; exuberant perennial beds on the flat, sunny space once occupied by a tennis court; an Asian woodland; a sun-soaked garden around a brick folly known as the ‘Ruin,’ and all manner of other beds and borders, bleeding into native woodland at the property’s edges.

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Chanticleer has evolved over the years and with the seasons, lovingly tended by a team of 15 gardeners who are not purely horticulturalists, but creative artists working with color and texture and shape, as a painter works with paints and a sculptor with stone.

The garden is stuffed with ideas for the borrowing. Now many of them have been incorporated into a big, luscious book, The Art of Gardening: Design Inspiration and Innovative Planting Techniques from Chanticleer (Timber Press, $35)

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The book is a group effort by Chanticleer’s executive director, R. William Thomas, and its team of 15 gardeners, who have each written essays on their various specialties, from color schemes for container planting to using ribbons of grasses as a unifying element, planting in a native woodland and under mature trees, and designing meadows where once was lawn, as well as pruning and planting basics and plant suggestions galore.

What I love most, after the stunning photos by Rob Cardillo, which include many of Chanticleer in the months from November through March when it is closed to the public, is the encouraging “throw caution to the winds” tone. “We experiment in public view,” writes one gardener, and so should we, even if our experiments are not always successful.

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The book is a tonic to Northeast gardeners like myself who need something to sustain them during the nearly half-year when outdoor garden work is normally impossible, and until Chanticleer opens for the 2016 season.

Read about one of my springtime visits to Chanticleer here: Sheer Pleasure: Chanticleer

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CALL ME A PHILISTINE, but I have trouble seeing banged-up gym lockers and plaster utility sinks mounted on a wall as art, much less masterpieces. That’s what one of the Whitney Museum’s curators called Robert Gober’s Ascending Sink, below, at a press preview late last month to launch a 550-work gift to the Whitney by collectors Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner. (The exhibition of new works runs through March 6, 2016.)

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I’ve heard of Cindy Sherman, the photographer who made a fetish of selfies long before the rest of us, and Jeff Koons, my least favorite artist of all time, and a few others, but most of the names were new to me, and most of the art, said to address such issues as advertising, technology, identity, celebrity and capitalism, inscrutable.

The Whitney’s mission is to collect, present and interpret the art of our time, and this is the art of our time, so who am I to say? I’m glad the Hoppers and Calder’s wire circus are still there in the permanent collection, though the latter has lost the prominent lobby placement it had in the uptown building.

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And I was glad to move on to the Frank Stella retrospective, up through February 7, 2016, where I enjoyed the graphic works of his 1960s Pop phase, below, though he lost me with the busier compositions and Day-Glo colors of more recent times.

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Mainly, I had come to see the museum’s new home, by Italian architect Renzo Piano. The building didn’t impress me, or seem much less brutal than the museum’s previous location in Marcel Breuer’s reviled Madison Avenue building, but I love the easy access to outdoor terraces and the views in all directions, notably over the river and the mile-and-a-half-long High Line, top.

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The trip brought me to the Meatpacking District for the first time in a while. I miss Florent, the bar/diner that for many years was the only late-night place to go on Gansevoort Street, though not the metal cans full of cowhide and bloody animal parts.

I lament the fact that, because hole-in-the-wall Paradou was closed at lunchtime and Pastis being renovated and the Chelsea Market claustrophobic, I ended up having lunch at Le Pain Quotidien, the suddenly ubiquitous chain about which the best I can say is that it’s handy when you need a kale salad.

Not being a tourist, or, I suppose, a young person, I felt unhappy with the changes I saw in the neighborhood where once I was young (I lived in the far West Village in the early ’70s), particularly the blocks full of fashion emporia I have no use for. Why must it be all about shopping?

There’s no charm to the new Meatpacking District, no soul, none of that New York grit.

Walking back along 14th Street toward the subway restored my mood somewhat. The city hasn’t all turned into shiny metal and glass. Graffiti lives.

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“I live in Brooklyn. By choice.” So begins Truman Capote’s cheeky essay for the February 1959 issue of Holiday. The travel magazine had hired the writer pre-Breakfast at Tiffany’s, when he was practically an unknown, to craft a piece about his then-down-at-the-heels neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights, which they ran without even putting Capote’s name on the cover of the issue.

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They published the article with just four black-and-white photos by a young photographer named David Attie, the result of several days spent in the Heights in the spring of 1958, at Capote’s rented digs on Willow Street (Attie photographed him there, above, though Capote actually lived in the ground-floor apartment and not in the part of the house with the grand staircase) and then along the gritty waterfront and the area’s back streets.

Attie captured a horse cart filled with flowers for sale, children in school uniforms doing their homework on a stoop, a barber shop, a wedding reception, an antique store, waiters at Gage & Tollner, the Promenade in the rain.

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Meanwhile, boxes full of negatives from that shoot lay untouched in the Manhattan brownstone where Attie, who went on to have a long career in commercial photography, lived until his death in the 1980s. Only very recently, Attie’s son Eli, a TV writer, was motivated to look carefully through this trove for reasons he explains in an afterword.

He brought them to the attention of The Little Book Room, the boutique publisher that had brought Capote’s evocative essay out in book form years earlier, and the result is this brand-new, profusely illustrated edition, Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir by Truman Capote with the Lost Photographs of David Attie.

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The regrettably brief essay, in Capote’s breakneck writing style, is pure fun. He introduces us to an old-money matron who insists he sign a petition and adopt a stray cat, pokes around in George Knapp’s curio shop, informs us that the St. George Alley, adjoining the cinema that existed until last year, was a “shadowy shelter for vagrants, wino derelicts who wandered over the bridge from the Bowery.”

He whips us back nearly sixty years to the days when Brooklyn had a working waterfront where you could sometimes — who knew — dine on ships at the invitation of the crew.

“I, for one, am always quick to accept, embarrassingly so if the hosts are Scandinavian; they always set a superior table from larders brimming with smoked “taste thrills” and iced aquavit. Avoid the Greek ships, however; very poor cuisine, no liquor served except ouzo, a sickly licorice syrup; and, at least in the opinion of this panhandler, the grub on French freighters by no means meets the standards one might reasonably expect.”

The whole thing is a delicious read, but it’s the atmospheric photos of the streetscape, still familiar yet not entirely recognizable, and the people, caught in the act of living their ordinary lives, that make this book exquisitely nostalgic — at least for those who, like myself, remember the New York City of that era in vivid childhood memories, when kids thought nothing of jumping into the East River for a swim on a hot day.

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ALL GARDENING ALL THE TIME… that’s how I spent September and October at my beach-house property in Springs, N.Y., before cold nights forced me back to the big city.

I devoted last spring mostly to home improvements, while my garden ambitions lay fallow. I rented in July, and August was broken up by treks back and forth to Brooklyn, to oversee work at my townhouse in Cobble Hill (now rented, happily).

Besides which, though I had done a lot of clearing and planting by this third season at the house, I’m still somewhat lacking in the overall vision department.

But Labor Day weekend, I had a visit from a garden-designer friend who never fails to get me thinking, and things took a conceptual leap forward. I’d had this grand new deck built the summer before last, but hadn’t done much landscaping around it. Mary-Liz suggested that if I enlarged the existing beds, which began a few feet away from the deck, with an expanse of wood chips in between, and brought the beds right up to the edges, you’d feel, while lounging on the deck, as if you were sitting in the garden and not just looking at it.

While she was visiting, we swam in the bay and drank wine and, except for one trip to the dump for compost and some watering, didn’t lift a finger. It was Labor Day weekend, after all. As soon as her car pulled out of the driveway, though, I sprang into action. Over the next few days, I outlined new, expanded beds with some of the bricks from the three huge stacks I inherited when I bought the house two-and-a-half years ago. Then I had more compost delivered and piled in the newly defined areas, where there was only packed-down dirt.

This is all still very ad hoc; the bricks are mere suggestions, not yet dug into the soil, and they don’t quite end anywhere. Things may shift later, when more permanent paths are built. But it was enough to get me going, and on to my next challenge: what to plant in these new areas without spending a lot of money I didn’t have?

As it happened, my friend Stephanie, gardener extraordinaire, had recently sold her East Hampton house and could quite easily part with a couple of hydrangeas, some Japanese silver ferns, hostas and other random things that would never be missed from her intensively planted acre. I procured these donations in late September, along with some pieces of slate for stepping-stone paths.

Then, my dear next-door neighbors were planning to move, too, at the end of October. They had been renting for several years, had done a fair bit of planting, and didn’t want to leave their fabulous weeping spruce, an Alberta spruce, a couple of other evergreens, some irises, etc., to the new owners, nor could they take them along. So these were dug up and brought over the fence to my property, where I carefully chose spots for each.

Finally, around Columbus Day, I made a visit to Lynch’s Garden Center in Southampton, one of my favorite area nurseries — it’s medium-size, not overwhelming, and always has an interesting selection. Even at that late date, to my amazement, they had a table of robust-looking shade perennials, including Solomon’s seal, rodgersia, astelboides and ladies mantle, at the giveaway price of $3 apiece. I bought almost all they had.

I also moved things I’d planted in the outer reaches of my own half-acre to spots nearer the house and deck, where I can enjoy them on a daily basis and where they’ll get more watering. A crape myrtle that was unhappy in the woods is now in a prime sunny spot, and three leather-leafed mahonia that were lost back there now have pride of place in a V-shaped area where two paths meet.

Oh, and then there were several buckets of liriope from Brooklyn, a grasslike groundcover, that had been hastily dug up, thrown into plastic pots and left to sit all summer with an occasional spritz. It was a tangled mess, but alive, when I got to it in September, and I spent two days teasing it apart and painstakingly transplanting what I hope will one day be a glorious carpet on either side of a new path from my brick patio to the… what to call it… well, to the area that still needs conceptualizing.

Add to this my renewed commitment to watering, watering, watering, which I did diligently by hand for approximately an hour-and-a-half each day, with fancy new watering wands and nozzles to make the job easier, and I have every expectation of a great gardening season when I get back to my little Eden next spring.

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