Flash of Hope

An ode to Frankford Ave. And the El
by Nathaniel Popkin

The third-floor factory window frames the view, the restive city in the side-glance of the winter sun. Here’s a swollen plume of white smoke and the granite-colored river, and the Betsy Ross Bridge in the muted but improbable green invented by the Pennsylvania Railroad. Amtrak flies past. Gulls float above a scrap metal yard that faces funny little twin houses with gingerbread details along the roof line.

Downstairs, among the used car dealers, whose flags crack somberly in the wind, there are side yard body shops and women whose carved faces betray hunger and addiction. There are cemeteries, too, in this part of Frankford, and magnolia trees replete with thick, fuzzy buds, and stone walls, and dormer windows, and street names—Orchard, Cloud, Pear—as old and evocative as anything in Society Hill.

This ancient streetscape compels newcomers, among them a handful of renovators who are drawn by a beauty here they say they can’t find elsewhere. They see the neighborhood as a lush hope, and they wonder constantly, obsessively, how it fits into a city yet reinventing itself. I stand before the window with one of them, Charlie Abdo, who has put his careful stamp on buildings across Philadelphia. He’d never thought much about Frankford before. Now a funny little Victorian house on Church Street dances before his eyes. “We came here a bunch of times; by the eighth time I was sold,” he says. These days he spends his time in the frigid labyrinthine skeleton of the Globe Dye Works, carving space, stepping gingerly forward.

Across the cement factory floor, the window gazes back toward Frankford Avenue; only the London plane trees are tall enough to profit from the low morning light. They reach over the two-story rowhomes, over the workshops, over the silence just now pierced by the flash of the El. It comes every ten minutes, hour after hour, its bellow insistent, its presence persistent.
  
The El is the fastest and most efficient means of transportation in Philadelphia; it carries more people than any other line by far, and it connects otherwise disparate places. Once, about 100 years ago, planners envisioned a dozen such lines, but only the El and the Broad Street Subway would emerge. The rest of the sprawling architecture of a cosmopolitan city was lost to small thinking, infighting and corruption.

It’s taken almost three decades to rebuild the El, a process so immense and slow, and managed so poorly, that it put countless stores out of business. In Frankford, the project started in the middle of a substantial suburban exodus. SEPTA came along as a bloated undertaker, to bury the avenue once and forever. The lackluster Frankford Terminal, completed in 2003, only reinforced the sense of urban defeat.
Now the faces on Frankford Avenue are circumspect, and many storefronts are empty. Otherwise, there are numerous African braiding salons, a pair of soul food restaurants, a store that sells parakeets and other domestic birds and an antiques dealer who specializes in mid-century modern. Thanks to the recently revived Special Services District, the sidewalks are clean; there are bright blue trash cans at every corner.
   
And there is the El. With three stops, Frankford is among the most connected, accessible places in Philadelphia. It moves. What’s felt for so long like a disadvantage—the light-blocking hulk that drove business and people away—is now perhaps Frankford’s greatest asset. That’s what Abdo and his partners say. They point to Frankford Avenue and explain, We have this. Says Jim McCarthy, who heads up the Special Services District, “When gas prices start to go up again—well, nothing beats it. A dollar-fifty, you go anywhere you want to go.”