Friday, December 08, 2006

Doing Stuff: Day 10, Elfreth's Alley

It's not every night you get to see how people better than you live.

Elfreth's Alley is the nation's oldest residential street, housing residents since the early 1700's. In modern times, this block of road serves as both tourist attraction and as a group of houses in Old City, the only neighborhood in Philly which approaches Manhattan's rent levels. And tonight was one of two nights a year that residents of Elfreth's Alley open their houses to the general public for tours.

Ilana and I went down for their annual winter open house. This was a welcome change-of-pace for me on my project, since tonight I got to see how people actually lived as opposed to how people live in their fantasy lives. And not just any people, but the lives of rather wealthy people who live in a neighborhood literally stuck in time.

Things started off on the right foot. I paid for two tickets with my debit card. The girl at the table asked me for the expiration date of my card. I told her the date -- sometime in the next decade -- and she excitedly screamed "OH, WOW!"

The front of these houses look like ancient, colonial rowhomes. The insides are decorated with the flashy style of a "freelance designer" who married a young bank executive. Us visitors would oooh and ahh at these houses in front of their proud owners, tossing out comments like "this is a great use of space" and "I love the color scheme and angles in here." I really wish I could have a time machine so I could garrote the executive producers of Trading Spaces sometimes.

Some of the comments weren't interior design cliches. Others expressed "this debit card won't expire for a really long time"-level amazement at the religious diversity amongst wealthy residents of a block in the heart of a downtown neighborhood in a major American city.

"Wow, look! There's a Christmas tree AND a menorah AND even some dradles," one old woman said in front of everyone.

Whenever we wandered into a new house, I would immediately scan any available bookshelves or CD racks. Nearly all of the bookshelves contained various money management advice guides. And nearly all of the homeowners owned a Harry Connick, Jr. album.

Most of the residents of Elfreth's Alley were very pleasant. But some people made me wish they lived on Osage Avenue around the time of the 1985 MOVE Bombing. The two nicest houses, in fact, had the most cock/box-punch worthy habitants.

One house ws a rental property divided by six college age guys who might as well have had "ROOFIES" tatooed on their foreheads. One guest asked how much the house cost. "I dunno, man. Probably around $1 million or so," the host said, before cracking open the bottle of a high-end microbrew.

The second was a 4-story building so narrow Plastic Man would have had trouble entering. But the first-floor living room had a flat-screen wall TV with huge speakers. This was the one house where guests could go up to another floor. Up there, we met the property owners -- a man and wife with thick Long Island accents not heard since Billy Joel sang about Brenda and Eddie in "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant."

Ilana asked them how they moved into the second floor of this apartment, which had a big couch and more top-notch electronics equipment. Captain Jack started talking about how he had to remove a second floor railing and hoist the couch up.

"A place like this is a lot of work, but this place is worth it. Hell, we even have a parking space in the back. That's worth like $50,000 alone probably," he said.

Someone else asked him how long he lived in the place.

"Oh, I don't live here. We just own the place. My daughter lives here," he said, pointing to a girl who looked barely old enough to drink a microbrew with the guys around the corner.

All but one of the houses on Elfreth's Alley are currently lived in. The one that isn't serves as the official Elfreth's Alley museum. A large tent was set up behind the museum, where guests could drink hot cider and have a cookie. We went back to enjoy our snack and realized we were surrounded by historic reenactment actors, the folks hired for the evening to dress around in colonial garb and recite fun-facts about the history of each property. But instead of discussing local history, they were now debating the quality of the heating pads located inside their shoes.

This museum is open all year. The private houses are not. But that doesn't stop tourists from trying to see them anyway. Every resident I asked had a story about tourists trying to invade their property -- bringing in groceries, one guy said, was a total event since tourists just walk in. Another woman said that she learned to keep her door locked after someone just barged in while she was sitting in her living room eating her dinner.

"This woman just came right in. I told her that this was a private home. She started feeling the walls around my fireplace, asking me if this was the original wood. I kept on telling her it was a private home, but she didn't get it," she said.


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