Abandonment

Houses are people. They have faces. They are members of the family, and they appear in your dreams like family members. They grow, change, and wither, and they have character. They become part of childhood memory, part of a community, part of history, during their long lives, and yet they can be demolished in an instant without ceremony.

I have lived in my three-story row house in Philadelphia for eighteen years now, but though it’s old, it lacks character. There was a fire decades ago, and my house was gutted and renovated long before my husband and I moved in. Like a human being who has had a lot of plastic surgery, my place looks both bland and haunted at the same time. The inside is more important to me than the outside, but it does have a window high up, so I can look down from my study at the street and the houses below.

I like my neighborhood. It was tough when we arrived from the leafy suburbs, but I have lived in tougher places. When the realtor showed us the house, I walked around the nearby blocks and noted signs of wear and age in the area: abandoned houses, empty lots, and untended weeds. But I also saw gardens, and a park a block away, and four public transit routes close by. It looked like a place where people actually lived.

Besides, the house was clean, with high ceilings, and it was priced the same as the crumbling cottage we were surrendering to a woman who wanted desperately to live in a wealthy ZIP code.

It was a good decision to move. My husband ended his days in this house, and now that I have retired and given up my car, I can get everywhere by foot and on the bus. I know my neighbors, too. Decades of living in the city off and on have taught me that the best home insurance is getting to know your neighbors.

Most of the empty lots are gone now, because other, later people saw opportunity here too, and they built houses where once there was chain link fence and trash. I couldn’t afford to buy here now. People walk enormous designer dogs down the block, and the next street over they have block parties with classical music and wine.

Across the street from my house is a little row of five two-story brick rowhouses. Four of them are in great shape. But one of those houses, the one right across from me, is a sad, sour, empty little collection of warped lumber, settling brick, ancient paint, and cracked windows. It was called “Althea’s house” by the neighbors, but I never did see Althea, who had married someone who owned the house. When her husband died, his family was a problem to Althea, I hear.

That happens. Row houses in Philadelphia are tangled up in family history, and it wasn’t the only house on my block where owning the house and fighting over it was more important than living in it or selling it. It’s like people who own a dog but leave it tied up in the yard all day and all night. Or like a lottery ticket that might, just might, win the big jackpot someday, if the neighborhood gentrifies, if some damn fool wants to pay a lot of money for a house that was never much good even when someone used to live in it. People cling to those houses, even if they don’t want to live there.

There was a light in the window of that little house across the street in the beginning, at night, but it must have been on a timer. Eventually the light went out.

Later, whenever it rained, men sometimes drifted up to the broken bench on the front porch to smoke weed or do drugs. For a little while there was someone camping on the porch. The neighbor to one side finally tied the front door shut so it wouldn’t blow open and so kids couldn’t get in, and the neighbor on the other side said he had told the camping guy to leave.

But someone wanted the house after all. It was my next door neighbor, who I will call F.

F is a real estate agent, meaning she makes occasional money selling a house. F was renting the house next door to me, but she was always looking to buy. Her landlord didn’t want to sell for what she could afford to pay, so instead she set her heart on that abandoned house across the street.

Even after F moved to another apartment a couple of streets over, she persisted. It was her dream. She saw an opportunity. You see, if a house is abandoned long enough, the city can appoint a conservator for it. The conservator can take responsibility for fixing it up and selling it, and get paid for their efforts.

F had a hard time convincing the people either side of that abandoned home to help out, even though the water from the roof was coming into their basements. Neighborhoods where people have lived a long time are complicated places with a lot of history, and folks have lived here a long time. F has been in the immediate area for quite a while, always renting, and people were wary. It’s sensible to be wary. I get it.

But I didn’t have any problem with her. We looked out for one another the way neighbors do, checking in politely when my husband was dying and when F was in the hospital for a while. When there was gunfire in the street once, F texted me and told me to stay away from the front of the house. She let me get into her back yard to kill the weed trees, before she moved out, so that my concrete yard wouldn’t crack from the roots. And my house is insulated enough that I never heard her fighting with her daughter, unlike the neighbor on the other side.

Therefore, when F asked me to come to court to help her get the house, I agreed.

The day before the court date, I went over and peered into the window in the door. Yes, it was nearly a goner. The roof has a big hole in it. The ceiling between the first and second floors has collapsed, and the house is in tatters.

Yesterday, I went to Philadelphia City Hall, which looks like a wedding cake from the outside and like a Piranesi prison on the inside, and I took a seat in the vast fourth floor courtroom where F was to plead her case. F had hired an attorney, who came with several copies of an exhibit binder. She lined up several witnesses: the executive director of the local community development corporation who could say how blighted the property was; her buddy, who walks her dogs and walks past the house; a realtor acquaintance, who could say that F knew how to deal with contractors; and me.

The heirs of the estate, two nice ladies who lived absolutely elsewhere and didn’t really know much about the house, had already agreed F could take over. They were there without a lawyer, but the judge (a tired looking lady who sat high up on the bench speaking clearly into her microphone) very sensibly insisted on going through the whole process.

I was the first witness. I was that precious creature, the little old lady who sits looking out her window all day and knows everything that is going on around her without talking to anyone about it until someone asks her directly under oath. I knew Althea’s name. I knew that Janey lived on one side, and Troy on the other. I had seen the guys smoking weed, and the guy camping out. I could see the damaged roof from my third floor.

The rest of the witnesses all testified, the exhibit binders were displayed in detail, and the judge decided in F’s favor. F has three months to secure the house, hire a contractor, get permits, and come back to court with documents and a plan.

I told the neighbors either side of the abandoned house about it. As Janey said, “We’ll see, said the blind man,” but when I pointed out that at least the front door would be locked up, Janey allowed as how that made sense. Janey has lived there for more than fifty years, and I am inclined to agree with her.

That abandoned row home reminds me of one of my favorite books from childhood, The Little House, about a cottage in the country that eventually had a city grow up around it until the heirs came back and moved it to the country again. When it was surrounded by the city, the little house in the book had a terribly sad expression, just like that abandoned house across from me with its cracked windows and its hollow, shredded interior.

But I never did agree with that little house in the children’s book, even though I felt bad for it. Actually, I liked the part where the city grew up around the house. I still like that part. I hope that abandoned house across the street gets fixed up at some point and someone moves in, whether it’s F or someone else who doesn’t know anything at all about its history.

Meanwhile, right now I’m sitting at my desk in my third floor study, looking out at the faces of all the houses, looking across the roofs, watching the world shift and change around me.

My cat is sitting in the window next to me, doing much the same thing, but in his case it’s birds he’s watching, the little dusty birds who live out their lives alongside us in the city, treating all the houses with glorious indifference because a house isn’t really a person, after all, except to human beings.

5 thoughts on “Abandonment

  1. Peter Marshall says:

    Hey Delia, what a wonderful read to stumble on after a day of tidy-up on a hill above Lyttelton Harbour. We have houses that remain on the hill regardless of the authorities, and we celebrate their permanence. Thank you for this narrative!

    1. DMT says:

      Hi Peter! How wonderful to hear from you. I was so sad to hear about Jay and I hope you are doing well. I was once in New Zealand for a conference and I envy you the beautiful landscape.

  2. Jeff Conway says:

    What a wonderful read for a fellow Philly row house dweller. “Like a human being who has had a lot of plastic surgery, my place looks both bland and haunted at the same time.”–brilliant.

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