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Move Over, Liberty Bell

Postcard from Tacony, Philadelphia

By Jonathan P. Abel

TACONY, PHILADELPHIA—On my first day in the Tacony neighborhood of Philadelphia, the murder of a local man caused a stir, but it wasn’t the violence that had people upset. In a city where 288 murders last year marked a 17-year low, people don’t get too upset about one more. Rather, the outrage was directed at the press for misreporting the crime’s location as Tacony, when everyone knew that it happened in Mayfair, the next neighborhood over.

According to one woman, there is an official in the 15th police precinct with a vendetta against Tacony and all its residents. “Whenever something bad happens, the police say it’s in Tacony. When something good happens, they call it Mayfair.”

Maybe there is some mysterious minister of misinformation torpedoing Tacony’s reputation, but given that Tacony and Mayfair interlock like two Tetris pieces, the report was probably just a mistake. Tacony and Mayfair blend together with dozens of other neighborhoods to make up the sprawling morass of row homes and factories, which we Philadelphians call the “Great Northeast.” And yet the borders between neighborhoods are a source of much contention.

Northeast Philly is not Northern Ireland. There are no political realities to the boundaries between Mayfair and Tacony. Residents in both neighborhoods pay the same property taxes, send their kids to the same schools and vote in the same elections. But in spite of the boundaries’ irrelevance—or maybe because of it—talk of Tacony’s borders soon leads to shouting.

Louis Iatarola, the 30-something director of Tacony’s Historical Society, took me on a looping car tour of the neighborhood, lecturing about Tacony’s storied industrial past, its current struggle against urban blight and its future resurrection. The neighborhood has to come full circle, he kept repeating, as we circled Tacony’s perimeter. Some people in Tacony like to claim they’re from Mayfair because it has the connotation of being more modern, but he’s seen enough maps and pictures to know that they’re full of it. If your house was in Tacony in 1903, it’s still part of Tacony 100 years later. Besides, it’s easy to tell where Tacony begins and ends, just look for the Victorian architecture on the east-west cross streets.

For a real estate appraiser like Lou, these details might be obvious, but I’ve passed these neighborhoods for years without noticing the smattering of Victorian houses. One block of row homes looks much like the next. Here in Tacony, however, the details matter because this neighborhood is trying to reclaim its “historic” past-trying to clutch onto its former industrial grandeur. And this legacy remains at the center of Lou’s and others’ plans to fix Tacony.

Perhaps “grandeur” overstates Tacony’s legacy. In its heyday at the end of the 19th century, Tacony was a factory town, dominated by the Henry Disston and Sons Saw Works. Makers of the strongest files and saw blades in the world, Disston and Sons was a jewel of American industry. Henry Disston bought up 390 acres of land in 1871, when Tacony was mostly farmland, and built a town on his estate so that his workers could live close to the factory. Like other paternalistic titans, Disston controlled the workers inside and outside of the factory. He owned the houses where they lived. He ran the sports teams they played on. Even a century after his death, alcohol may not be sold anywhere on his former estate because of the provision he wrote into his deed.

These days, the mighty Disston factory languishes in abandonment, a symbol of the neighborhood’s decline. A Superfund site sits to one side of the old factory complex that President Rutherford B. Hayes once visited as an example of American industrial efficiency. But now the factories are abandoned and decaying. Within Fortress Disston, the only building with any action is the Day Dreams gentlemen’s club, where the women “only wear a smile.”

In a city with rich history like Philadelphia’s, the remnants of Tacony’s past hardly seem worth preserving. People laughed at the Historical Society of Tacony when it first opened in 1990. Its collection, which consists of matchbooks from the 1920s, saw blades from the 1890s, and photographs of the factories productively belching smoke, does not draw giant crowds to the one-room museum. But the treatment of history in this industrial neighborhood is more passionate than anything in Philadelphia’s Old City.

Unlike the Liberty Bell and the Constitution Center, Tacony’s collection of knickknacks has real emotional significance to the people of this town. This grassroots approach makes history personal for the residents of Tacony. The turn-of-the-century clutter brings people back from Tacony’s growing diaspora, and it makes the people who remained proud of their neighborhood’s past.

In Tacony there is a desperate need for history to bolster the town’s confidence. It is no coincidence that the leaders of Tacony’s Historical Society are also the stewards of its Civic Association. History matters here; it’s not an entertaining diversion. The neighborhood’s 20-year vision calls for a return to the past. Tacony wants to lure back the types of craftsman and shopkeepers who once lived above the stores they operated. It plans to extirpate fast-food restaurants and interstate ramps, which have invaded the neighborhood. All along Torresdale Avenue, the main drag, this neighborhood plans to install Victorian lighting and revive Henry Disston’s ban on alcohol.

Outsiders doubt this plan. In fact, it seems the only ones who can imagine Tacony’s successful reconstruction are the ones who have pored over its history. In this aging industrial neighborhood, history is the inspiration for the future.

Jonathan P. Abel ’05, a Crimson editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House. Join him as he visits all 63 of Philadelphia’s exotic neighborhoods.

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