Buckle in, because this is a long one!
Over the past few months, my spouse and I made the big decision to move out of our South Philly corner rowhome (which also housed my wonderful studio). We’ve been renting the space for 5 years.
We are moving to Germantown, a neighborhood in the northwest part of Philadelphia. For the time being, my studio will be moved into a spare bedroom while I continue to work at my temp job through the end of April. I have big plans for relaunching my small business in this new neighborhood, once we’ve settled in and gained a bit more stability.
I am very sad to leave the studio behind. This space held a lot of dreams for me, and felt like the culmination of something I’ve wanted throughout my career. There is also a story (well, many stories) behind the space that I’ve mostly kept private until now. The truth is, this property was owned by someone I was really very fond of, who was generous and kind to me, and who passed away suddenly about a year and a half ago. My grief over this loss is one of the reasons why I have felt so emotional and conflicted over this space.
So here is an elegy to my South Philly studio, and to its sweet owner Dana, in a 5-chapter blog post. It’s long and personal, and I’ll issue a CW in advance for trauma, home intruders, and traffic deaths.
First, a bit about me, and how I got here:
Chapter 1: Brooklyn
For the 5 years after I graduated from fashion school in New York City, I bounced from apartment to apartment, working part-time as an admissions recruiter and taking on any fashion-related freelance work I could find, designating a corner of my bedroom as studio space. I taught sewing lessons, altered Power Rangers costumes for the NYC Toy Fair, and sewed several hundred of itchy burlap napkins for a fancy restaurant’s big promotional launch. I made custom couch cushions for a wealthy Brooklynite, and batch-sewed spandex booty shorts for a burlesque performer who was starting her own clothing line. I did all of this from one room, laying a large piece of cardboard across my full-size bed as a makeshift cutting table, and using a folding screen to partition the room for fittings.
It was tight, awkward, sweaty work. I ended up with bits of thread in my bed, pins in my carpet. I slept next to my projects. It was not glamorous. But I didn’t know how to make it work any other way. I looked for studio space, but there was nothing even remotely affordable in Brooklyn. I was undercharging for my time and labor, and I didn’t understand how I’d ever scrounge together an extra $1k/month and still make any profit at all from my sewing and design work.
In 2016, after finishing a bike tour centered around reproductive health (that’s a whole other story there), I enrolled in a low-residency graduate program for education that was based in Philadelphia. As I spent more time commuting to Philadelphia for weekend classes, I started to believe that maybe I could make a life for myself in this other city. Philly was more affordable, more scrappy. It felt closer to how I thought Brooklyn must have felt for the generation that moved there in the 1990’s. Plus my best friend at the time was about to move away from Brooklyn. Other friends were moving out and moving on, too.
It was around this time that I discovered Listings Project, a grassroots listserv of studio and living spaces rented by artists, for artists. Most of the listings were in New York, but occasionally other cities would pop up on the weekly listings. In February of 2017, one particular listing in Philadelphia caught my eye. It was a two-bedroom apartment with a large outdoor patio, and it was priced at $100 less per month than I was currently paying to live in a 2-bedroom apartment with a couple. I sent an inquiry.
Chapter 2: The Big Move
The next time I was in Philadelphia for grad classes, I made a special trip to see the property. It was a two-unit, or so I was told. The tenant on the first floor was like a live-in super, and he showed me the upstairs unit. He was an older guy, a little bit eccentric perhaps, but friendly and kind-seeming. The apartment was a dream come true. A corner unit with big airy, sunny windows. I wanted it.
I met Dana, the property owner, at a corner coffee shop in Brooklyn to discuss the rental. I was surprised to find that we were similar in age, though she seemed to be more of an “actual grown-up” than me. She explained over coffee that the house had been her father’s, and that he had passed away and she now rented it out. She’d hired the guy who lived on the first floor to make some repairs in exchange for discounted rent. We were polite and professional with each other, as she explained the terms of the rental and handed over some paperwork for me to sign.
A grad school classmate and friend helped me drive the UHaul from Brooklyn. I began to settle in to the new place. Two weeks after moving, I embarked on a second bike tour. I was gone for two weeks, during which time the guy downstairs said he wanted to re-grout the tiles in my kitchen.
When I returned from the bike tour two weeks later, I found the door to my apartment open, all of the lights on, and the guy from downstairs sleeping in my bed, his belongings strewn about all over my unit.
My reaction to this was truly an out-of-body experience. He had seemed so harmless, and I had trusted him to be professional about the work he needed to do. I luckily had all of my essentials already packed (having just returned from a bike tour), so I took some photos, and basically just made a U-turn right the hell out of the there and went to a friend’s house, where I calmly called the police, called the landlord, and then proceeded to completely fall apart.
Dana was aghast when I told her what happened. “He’s going to be evicted,” she assured me. Keep in mind that this was mid-2017, several months after the Women’s March, when #MeToo was spreading like wildfire across the internet. I felt this affinity with her, like together we were going to take this creepy motherfucker down.
For the next 2 months, I lived with a family friend who happened to have a spare room available while her kitchen was in the process of being renovated. I ate microwave meals off of paper plates, and was grateful to have a roof over my head. I found a full-time job that meant I had some income and I didn’t have to be in a construction zone for most of the day.
Dana sent me updates from her lawyer on the eviction case, and assured me that it was all going to work out. During that time, I felt so uprooted and easily panicked. I would see men that looked even a little bit like the guy downstairs, and I would start to hyperventilate. I went to look at other apartments. I knew Dana would let me break the lease if I wanted to. But nothing compared to the magic of her dad’s place. Plus I was getting to know her a bit throughout this wild process, and she was so nice. At least if I stayed, I knew I’d have a landlord who was a kind and trustworthy person.
The eviction finally happened (Dana really protected me from the messy details), and she came down to Philly from New York to do a walk-through with me. She’d had the locks changed, and she handed me the new keys. I gave her a hug, which was maybe a weird way to greet your landlord. We both laughed.
My mom and sister came to Philly shortly after to help me settle back in. We moved furniture around, and tried to make the apartment feel like mine again. I loved it, despite the fact that I couldn’t sleep through the night. Despite the fact that I thought someone might be trying to break in every time the wind blew past the window or a car door opened down on the street below. The apartment was mine, my little slice of peace and quiet, two whole bedrooms, one of which I turned into a studio.
The space on the first floor had been gutted. I’m honestly not sure the condition it was in when the guy downstairs had lived there, but there were holes in the wall, no bathroom, no kitchen, and and raw plywood subfloor where the linoleum tiles had been ripped up. Mouse shit everywhere, years worth of grime caked into every corner. It sat there, bare and haunted feeling, just beneath my apartment, for the next 2 years.
Chapter 3: The Studio Comes Alive
In 2019, my partner Travis moved in with me. We had met shortly after I moved to Philly. I felt safer with him around, and I looked forward to sharing the space with him. I was also beginning to fantasize about quitting my day job to go back to sewing and design work more full-time.
What if we talked to Dana about the vacant space on the first floor, what if we offered her a little bit more rent money in order to use it? She didn’t seem to have any plans to fix it up any time soon. Without a bathroom, and in its current condition, it wasn’t really rentable to anyone else except for us. We would rent it as-is, she wouldn’t have to do anything. She enthusiastically agreed to our proposal, and we got to work turning this once-haunted space into something that felt comfortable, clean, and joyful.
We spent about 6 months deep cleaning, painting, and replacing water-stained ceiling tiles and burnt out lightbulbs. During this time, I discovered a clothing factory liquidation sale through Craigslist, and Travis and I drove a UHaul out to the suburbs to scoop up a bunch of industrial cutting tables, dress forms, furniture, buttons, and trims for a pocketfull of cash. We began to organize and outfit the space for my sewing work. I even hosted a sewing workshop in the space.
And then the pandemic hit. I got cold feet about quitting my seemingly-stable job at a time of chaos. The bike shop that Travis had been employed at closed permanently. We decided that I would stay at my day job and cover our expenses while he enrolled in a coding bootcamp program.
Dana, true to her spirit of kindness and generosity, gave us a hefty discount on the rent for nearly the entire first year of the pandemic. I would not have been able to support us both on one income if it hadn’t been for her. We adopted two cats around the same time that she did, and we began to exchange photos of our cats via email. She got involved with and passionate about the Black Lives Matter movement, and told us that she planned to divest from her inherited wealth through voluntary reparations and wealth redistribution. I thought that was so admirable and badass.
In late 2020, I quit my day job months earlier than I had intended to. The work environment was getting too hostile, unethical, and frankly unbearable. I got a severance package, and I qualified for unemployment. I was finally able to start working on my self-employment plans while Travis looked for work in a new field. After a financially tight six month job search, he found full-time work as a software engineer. We both sighed in relief, and he promised to support me while I got my business together.
I could finally begin to live out my fantasy of having a dreamy workspace attached to my home, that I got to work full-time in! It really felt like a dream come true.
Chapter 4: Unexpected Loss
In spring of 2021, we got some awful news. Dana had died in a horrific traffic crash. The shock of finding out hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt like the floor had been ripped out from under me.
It took a while to get in touch with the people who were closest to her. Both her parents were already gone, and she was an only child. We eventually found out that we had some mutual friends, and got connected to the person who was going to become the administrator of her estate.
We went to her memorial service last summer, which was organized by her best friends. It was incredibly sad. She made an impact on so many people. She was such a special person, a real cheerleader for others’ creativity. She had dealt with a lot of grief in her own life, and was especially skilled at helping others through it. She was funny, smart, and wise beyond her years.
After she died, I began to cling furiously to this idea of the house, and the studio. It had to be ours, we had to come to own it somehow, to keep the artsy energy of her family alive. Things also began to fall apart. The electric company hacked at the tree in front of the house to clear space for the power lines, and the tree died. We began to get graffiti on the boarded-up storefront windows every once in a while. Drug activity popped up on the corner, and became a consistent backdrop to our days spent at home. The litter in front of the house, which had always been a problem, seemed to get even worse. There were increasingly more accidents on the corner, more idling engines out front, fights in front of the bar across the street.
This past August, we got the metal storefront door security gate removed and replaced, which meant that the corner door to the studio could be used as an actual entrance and exit from the space. It was exciting and prompted some wonderful interactions with neighbors, who were excited to see something new opening up in this space that had been shuttered for nearly 20 years.
We began to talk with realtors and mortgage lenders about the prospect of buying this place once the estate was legally transferred to Dana’s friend. We kept hearing the same thing: because of the storefront, the property is technically zoned as commercial real estate, which means that it’s a whole different mortgage process. More money up front, and a shorter mortgage term. Meanwhile, we began to do the math of the repairs needed to the space… new floors, new ceilings, fixing the boarded up windows. Roof repair, cement sealing, new paint. The beginning of a sinkhole on the sidewalk in front of the house… which in Philadelphia, the homeowner can technically be responsible for.
It was out of our budget, entirely.
Chapter 5: What Comes Next
When Dana died, she had been working on a short film about her experience of taking over her mother’s estate after her mother passed away. Dana’s friend Katie finished the film in her memory, and submitted it to a film festival. The film is called Executrix. If you’ve ever been in the position of trying to manage grief alongside the tedious tasks of dealing with your loved one’s bills and accounts, I bet you will find it relatable. I think it’s darkly serendipitous that Dana made this film just before we’d all be unexpectedly grieving her loss and trying to make sense of the loose ends of her properties and accounts.
I watched Executrix shortly after a phone call with yet another mortgage lender who had given us the same info about commercial real estate. I was feeling especially sensitive to all of the street noise on our corner. I was a month in to a temp job I’d taken out in the suburbs to get some steady income while we prepared for whatever comes next.
The realization was slowly unfolding; that it was time to move on from this place.
As of writing this in November of 2022, Travis and I are in the process of buying a house in a different neighborhood of Philadelphia. We are planning on moving in about a month.
I am both excited, and incredibly sad.
This studio in South Philly felt like a symbol of my success. To go from cutting out fabric on a sheet of cardboard on my bed to having two industrial cutting tables in a storefront with a separate entrance felt like I had arrived into the adult life I’d always wanted. My dreams had come true, my fantasies finally realized.
For the next six months, maybe longer, my studio will be relegated back to a spare bedroom, which is hardly awful, but still feels like a step backwards. I will continue to work at my temp job, to regain some financial stability, and prepare for whatever the future holds.
Moving on from this space doesn’t mean that I’ll be moving on from Dana’s memory, or from the memory of all of the kindness and support she gave me when I was new to the city. In fact, I hope that someday I can pass her generosity forward, in my own way.
I don’t know what the next chapter looks like for this space, or for my entrepreneurship. But I do know that life moves on, and the spirits of the deceased live on in our hearts moreso than the physical spaces they once occupied.