by Rachel Heidenry
It has been just over a month since the closing of Funeral for a Home. Just over a month since an estimated 400 people gathered on the streets of Mantua to mourn a house.
On May 31, 2014, 3711 Melon Street in Philadelphia was demolished. It had stood for 142 years. Over the course of the afternoon, the public was reminded that this vacant was much more than an abandoned structure – it was a home. Nieces of the former owner recounted memories, Pastor Harry Moore, Sr. of Mount Olive Baptist Church led a sermon about legacy, history and friendship, and a choir filled the streets with song.
As the bulldozers began, so did a drum line. Processing through the streets of Mantua, the mourners celebrated the life of a house, of a block, of a community. At the end of the afternoon, a family meal took place in the streets – neighbors passing trays of mac n cheese and string beans from hand to hand.
While actively reflecting back, the residents of Mantua were really looking forward.
Organized by the Dufala Brothers and Temple Contemporary, Funeral for a Home directly confronted Philadelphia’s housing and vacant crisis. Over 600 homes are demolished in Philadelphia each year and there are approximately 40,000 vacant lots in the city.
“Commemorating the slow decline and gradual rebirth of Philadelphia’s housing stock and the lives these homes contain,” the project sought to engage these realities in a manner that enabled a community to both share memories and take a stand – demolition in the service of preservation.
Using the symbolism of a house – of a home – the organizers spent over a year meeting with residents, organizing public forums, and sharing memories in order to deepen a collective history. They worked alongside community organizers and neighborhood organizations – diving into the neighborhood just as eager to learn as they were to create. They examined trends in depopulation, industrialization, and preservation, while also exploring the neighborhood today, specifically as it responds to its newly designated status by President Obama as a Promised Zone.
What Funeral for a Home reveals is the need to celebrate amid critique. The Dufala Brothers and Temple went beyond 3711 Melon as a vacant structure that would cease to stand and discovered and shared the stories still embedded within the walls. They let the residents speak loudest – becoming facilitators of a civic dialogue that became stronger with each additional voice. Each hand played a role with every angle explored. Now the question remains, what becomes of the lot? Of the block? Of the neighborhood?
In the end, Funeral for a Home went far beyond 3711 Melon and engaged a city overwhelmed by its homes. The project elegantly and brilliantly reminded us that the first step to negotiating this plight is to celebrate the home itself.
Funeral for a Home is a Mantua-based effort designed by local artists Billy Dufala, Steven Dufala, and Jacob Hellman working collaboratively with the Mantua Civic Association, Mount Vernon Manor, Inc.; Mantua Community Improvement Committee, The H.U.B. Coalition, and Peoples’ Emergency Center CDC. Patrick Grossi is Funeral for a Home‘s project manager.
All photographs are courtesy of the Funeral for a Home website.