Investing in Philly? Consider Kensington


FROM TIME TO TIME, people ask me where to invest in Philadelphia real estate. (Sometimes they ask me where to invest in Brooklyn, and I say: “Philadelphia!”)

IMG_2603But within Philly, I say Kensington, particularly the southern section sometimes known as South Kensington, Old Kensington, or even Olde Kensington, a neighborhood just above played-out Northern Liberties (that was the place to invest 10 years ago) and west of hipper-than-ever Fishtown, recent darling of New York Times reporters. I own a two-unit building in South Kensington — two back-to-back trinity houses, left, built in the 1840s as housing for workers in the area’s massive carpet and textile mills. (My house is the one on the right in the photo, with the peeling cornice; there’s a three-story unit in front and another in the rear, reachable via the alley between my building and the one next door.)

Many of the weavers and textile workers immigrated from England in the mid-19th century, when the area was known as “Little England.” When I bought the house in 2007 for $137,000, the surrounding blocks were really dilapidated — some of the houses, like the ones in the group below, were literally sagging. They’ve since been renovated, and their rooflines are more or less parallel to the horizon.


There were — and still are — vacant lots and hulking mill buildings all over the nabe, like the two below, both within a block of my building. It all looked ripe for adaptive reuse, especially large-scale residential conversion, but not much was happening.


The building above, on 2nd Street and Cecil B. Moore, still looks undeveloped.


At Palethorp and Cecil B. Moore, above, this old industrial building appears inhabited.

That was only six years ago, and now it’s happening in a big, big way. Around the corner from my building, Oxford Mills, below, is well on its way to becoming 141 rental lofts, with an innovative program of reduced rents for public-school teachers, and amenities such as gym, lounge, etc.; and a mixed-use mega-development called Soko Lofts is on its way. There are many other projects of the same ilk: you can find posts about some of the activity here on Curbed Philly.


Across the street from my little building, where once was a vacant lot, a new residential building, below, is going up. It’s of a type often seen in Philadelphia but never in New York. It’s too low-density, I suppose — only four stories high, with box windows and terraces and modernistic use of color. I don’t love the look — these buildings seem insubstantial to me, used to brick and brownstone as I am — but I do find it exciting that the neighborhood is roaring with development.


That’s the 1840s St. Michael’s church in the background, above, the view of which, along with some sunlight, we are sadly about to lose.


The building above, on Second Street, is typical of new Philly architectural design.

South Kensington’s main artery is Frankford Avenue, shared with Fishtown and  quickly becoming lined with bars and restaurants, including a couple of high-profile ones owned by celebrity restauranteur Steve Starr (Fette Sau, an upscale BBQ place, and Frankford Hall, a beer garden) and the new Philadelphia-based La Colombe coffee roasting complex, distillery and cafe.  Each time I visit, there’s more.

It’s spreading, it’s growing, it’s crazy affordable compared to New York City. And it’s a short bike ride to Center City, whose skyline is visible from most parts of the neighborhood.


Priced out of Bushwick, Brooklynites? Think Kensington.

Fishtown Jumping

Photo: Alexis Olsen

THERE’S NO SHORTAGE OF CORNER BARS in Fishtown, a historically working-class Philadelphia neighborhood that has been steadily mutating, these past few years, into a more upscale one (so what else is new?)

Some of those drinking establishments are decades-old dive bars. The recently renovated Fishtown Tavern, above, straddles the line between what was, offering $2 drafts to keep longtime locals coming in, and what is and will be, with ambitious bar food like warm dates stuffed with goat cheese and portabello mushroom sandwiches.

Fishtown (the name comes from its history as the shad fishing center of the Delaware) is characterized by:

  • tiny 19th century row houses

  • electric trollies

  • abandoned industrial buildings on a massive scale

  • new construction in a hyper-modern style (similar to that in the Northern Liberties area, a few blocks to the south and a little farther along the gentrification arc)

  • a growing population of ex-Brooklynites, including my son Max.

On Sunday afternoon, he and I took a walk, and soon I was getting a tour of the latest developments — especially the rapidly changing Frankford Avenue corridor, a diagonal artery of mostly industrial buildings and old storefronts being adapted as we speak for use as restaurants, music venues and, of course, bars. Here’s some of what moved me to take my iPhone out of my pocket as we walked along:

Loco Pez, a new taqueria (with amazing-looking salads and $1.75 tacos) in one of many buildings with rounded or oddly angled corners

Scrumptious detail on a corner building

Little Baby’s, a new ice cream store on Frankford Avenue offering unusual flavors like Earl Grey Sriracha, next door to the also-new Pizza Brain

One of many fish-themed gates by Robert Phillips, a metal artist whose workshop was in Fishtown. He died last month at age 50.

El Bar, so named for its location under the elevated railway that runs along Front Street. It may look at first glance like an old-school dive bar, but don’t be fooled. It’s hip.

The plants on the Juliet balcony are a hint that someone lives above these commercial garages on Frankford

Above, a high-end, limited-edition motorcycle shop is coming in next to a hair salon called Parlour

A fine converted carriage house

As-yet-unrealized potential in a building next to a music venue called Barbary

Restauranteur Steve Starr’s Frankford Hall, above, an indoor/outdoor beer garden that opened a couple of years ago, has been a major turning point in the development of Frankford Avenue. A Korean barbeque spot is coming in next door.

Max and Lexy’s Kitchen


MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENT to report down in Philadelphia: my son Max and his girlfriend Alexis, who bought an 1870s house in Fishtown in June of last year, now have a beautiful, functioning kitchen.


They’ve been working on it all spring and summer. (Go here to see how the room looked in May.) First, they tore out what was there before, reducing the 120-square-foot room to studs. Then, working mostly on the weekends and almost entirely by themselves, they created a kitchen a mother would envy, with abundant storage space and a slew of bells and whistles.


Max, who is a woodworker, rented shop space and used it to build custom  cabinets with those swanky smooth-gliding drawers. The cabinet boxes are birch ply, with solid maple doors and drawer fronts.

Below, century-old brass cabinet handles from architectural salvage emporium Provenance.


Then, both Max and Lexy primed, brush-painted, sanded, and painted the cabinets again (and again, and possibly again — I lost count). They painted the walls, too — Benjamin Moore’s soft Palladian Blue — and installed and painted the tin ceiling.

IMG_1213Left, beyond the stainless fridge with the ice/water thingie in the door and the 8″-wide pull-out pantry that nicely fills otherwise unusable space, you can glimpse dangling BX cable and open ceiling beams for a sense of what remains to be done in the apartment.

Coming next: a subway-tile backsplash above the butcher block counters, below.


Since I haven’t had to personally live through it, this kitchen seems to have come together reasonably fast, though I gather it’s been eons in young-person time. Onward, soon, to the bathroom and the rest of the apartment, much of which still resembles a construction site. But first, I hope they’ll give themselves the luxury of a few weekends off to savor their progress.

Diary of a Suddenly Busy Lady

imagesLATELY, I’VE BEEN RUNNING hither and yon and back again. In the five days since my last post, I put 450 miles on my car — from East Hampton, L.I., to Brooklyn (108 miles), down to Philly and back (150 total), and out to Long Island again today (another 108), plus side trips. And if you count subway miles — well, I’ve been on the Upper East and West Sides of Manhattan and in Brooklyn neighborhoods from Carroll Gardens to Bedford-Stuyvesant.

<- Colored Rhythm, Sonia Delaunay, 1946, Cooper-Hewitt

A few months ago, I could be heard telling people my life was “quiet with a capital Q.” It was, and even with my highly-developed tolerance for solitude and quietude, I was a little unnerved by it at times. When I began my dual-home lifestyle in earnest this spring, I found myself gardening to exhaustion here on Long Island, then going back to Brooklyn to relax. That program has now been discontinued.

Suddenly, there aren’t enough hours in the day or days in the week no matter where I am (and I haven’t even been doing any work work — I polished off the last of five magazine deadlines a week ago). I was reminded of one of my English friend Diana’s visits to New York, when she drew a grid, divided each day into boxes for morning, afternoon, and evening, and wrote an activity into each time slot.

Much of my recent busy-ness has revolved around the life-defining events that June will bring (graduations, baby showers, weddings). I’ve been to a Broadway show (Jerusalem: the hype about Mark Rylance is true), a museum (the Cooper-Hewitt, to catch the wonderful Sonia Delaunay show before it closed), a public garden (the Conservatory Garden in Central Park), and three new-to-me restaurants.


Tin City, a coffee shop/cafe on Lewis Avenue in Bed-Stuy

My new camera, a Canon S95, stayed in my bag most of the time. Taking pictures seemed too much like work. But occasionally, something compelled me to take it out for an airing, like the morning I met my cousin for a spot of house-shopping in Bedford-Stuyvesant.


Love the awning — you don’t see many like that


A freestanding mansion on MacDonough Street in Bed-Stuy


Saraghina, a farmhouse-style place with a lovely garden on Lewis Avenue, Bed-Stuy


Front-yard greenery on MacDonough Street, Stuyvesant Heights Historic District

On Sunday, I zipped down to Philadelphia to consult with my son and his girlfriend about what to do with the somewhat bizarre 800-square-foot space that has just become vacant on the ground floor of their 1870s townhouse. At one time, there was an ice cream parlor/candy store there, but now the interior is as charmless as the outside is charming. There may be wainscotting and other details hidden by wall paneling, acoustical tile ceiling, and industrial carpeting, but we’re not going to find that out right now. The priority is to rent it as quickly as possible to someone who can use the space as-is: a CPA? Massage therapist? Art gallery? The location is prime Fishtown and the rent is cheap: $795/month. Spread the word!


There’s a vast disconnect between the vintage exterior, above, and the clean but commercial-looking interior, below (it’s still zoned as a store, by the way, and is also legal for living).


We had dinner at prolific Philly restauranteur Steve Starr’s newest, Frankford Hall, below, a beer garden set in an atrium constructed within the shell of an old brick industrial building. I think German food is the wurst, but who cares — it’s mostly about the beer.


Dig the funky two-tone paint job on the woodwork of the Fishtown building, below


Today I traversed the Isle of Long in the opposite direction, arriving back in Springs around 8PM. That’s Accabonac Harbor, below, as it looked last week. Not a bad place to be at all. Think I’ll stay awhile.


Renovation Progress in Philly


Five weeks ago

AS I WATCH MY SON Max and his girlfriend Alexis renovate the 1872 house they bought last June, I’m reminded of a few eternal truths about renovation:

  • It always takes longer than you expect
  • It always costs more than you plan for
  • Things get worse before they get better, because before you can do anything, there’s always something else you have to do first, ad infinitum, so you feel like you’re actually going backwards
  • Contractors (electricians, plumbers, etc.) invariably say previous contractors’ work is shit

Also, when you’re in your 20’s, a year seems like a really long time. It’s been almost that since, taking advantage of last year’s Federal tax credit, Max and Alexis bought a building in the rapidly gentrifying (hipstifying?) Fishtown section of Philadelphia. It’s a former corner cigar store with a bay window — the store had been converted to a rental apartment before they bought it — plus a 2BR duplex apartment above, where they live.

The ‘kids’ probably thought they’d be done by now. Instead, having torn out the existing kitchen and not quite put it back, and spent nearly all the money they had set aside for the renovation, they’re still living in near-chaos, especially on the lower floor, with an uncomfortably cramped bathroom, and eating out a lot.


Not fun

That said, much has been accomplished. Walls torn down to create open space out of a warren of small rooms; new electrical wiring; original pine sub-floor partly exposed and sanded; upstairs bedrooms painted.

The most spectacular part of the project to date is the kitchen, where Max has been building cabinets in shop space he rented not far away. (His day job is as a woodworker building high-end custom furniture, and at his previous job in Brooklyn, he installed a lot of super-duper kitchens at fancy addresses, so his standards are high.) They’ve bought all the appliances and a farmhouse sink, and installed a vintage-looking tin ceiling.


I spent Mother’s Day weekend there, mostly in work clothes, though we did find time on Sunday for a lovely visit to the Morris Arboretum, below.


Max’s goals for the weekend were two: to chisel a hole, below, in two layers of brick, which took a good couple of hours; and then install an aluminum duct pipe for a stove hood in the exterior wall.


This required his climbing up a 24′ ladder and drilling through the brick from the outside, below. I was very unhappy until he got down safely, and hope he never does anything like that again.


The other goal was to make three cuts in a massively heavy butcher block counter top to fit the L-shaped lower cabinets, below, with space for the sink. This required exactitude, and kicked up a fair amount of dust, but with earplugs, three pairs of hands, and a trusty Shop-Vac at the ready, that too was accomplished.


I feel somewhat responsible for this whole thing, since I encouraged them to buy the house in the first place. I may have forgotten (renovation amnesia, let’s call it) how stressful it can be, and how one needs a certain mindset to live through it. Some day, I hope, they’ll thank me. Right now, they just want to get it done.