Garden Court: Block meetings keep social cohesion on Osage Street

This story package was written and edited for my Philadelphia Neighborhoods class at Temple University and is published on its website.

By Candice Monhollan, Audra Neff-Williams and Mike Polinsky

Freda Egnal moved into her house 41 years ago and has been the block captain. (Mike Polinsky)

Freda Egnal moved into her house 41 years ago and has been the block captain. (Mike Polinsky)

If it weren’t for the pristine, manicured lawns and cars parked on the streets, a walk down the 4800 block of Osage Street in West Philadelphia would lead to thoughts of being vacant.

It’s a quiet neighborhood and on this day, not a person could be found outside, but that doesn’t mean the residents live a secluded life. In fact, this block is socially active with each other and features a variety of races.

“I think we have probably the world’s most diverse block and I think that’s fun in every which way,” said Freda Egnal, the block captain. “We have gay people who are male, gay people who are female. We have single women. We have African families. We have families from India, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Norway, China, the suburbs and people from the city.”

With the racial diversity that highlights the neighborhood, Egnal became the block captain to ensure social cohesion. She noted there isn’t a multitude of problems and it is, in fact, a very low-key spot.

“Our block doesn’t have a lot of problems like some blocks do,” Egnal said. “Our goal was for people to be aware to watch out for each other, to be aware of what was going on and over the years, there have been some break-ins, but not very much.”

The block was built as part of Garden Court, an idea of Clarence Siegel. He developed the area in the 1920s and had the idea it would be for multi-income families, said Dorothy Welch Berlind, the secretary for the Board of Directors at Cedar Park Neighbors.

“This was for professional people,” Berlind said. “His notion was upper-middle class.”

The block doesn’t give off an air of urban life as the homes have flourishing lawns full of flowers and trees.

“The gardens have been cultivated for close to 100 years,” Berlind said.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, there was a period of “white flight,” as Berlind put it, where white people left the city to live in the suburbs instead of integrated neighborhoods.

Residents of the neighborhood enjoyed some food at the block meeting. (Mike Polinsky)

Residents of the neighborhood enjoyed some food at the block meeting. (Mike Polinsky)

The University of Pennsylvania helped keep the area going through this time with its mortgage plan. The university paid for a person’s mortgage just to get them to live in the area.

“It was for staff and faculty,” Egnal said. “That was certainly an influence in people buying.”

The 4800 block is not unusual with its use of a block captain. Philadelphia has had a long history of organized blocks, said Egnal, and it helped to maintain neighborhoods. She decided to organize this block shortly after buying the house in 1971.

“The block has changed,” Egnal said. “There has been some turnover, but this [organized block] is really a mechanism to greet new people and to make them feel welcome and connected.”

Bob Dabrow, a longtime resident of the block, has been witness to the transformation over the years.

He moved with his family in 1958 at the age of 5 and took a hiatus later for eight years while living in a monastery before returning.

“When I first moved here, I can remember a lot of older people,” Dabrow said. “We had a few doctors on this block that had their offices in their home and they would see patients.”

Dabrow may have moved back to the block from the monastery, but he brought a little bit of it with him.

“[My dad] built a chapel in our home and I got permission to live the monastic life here,” Dabrow said. “The block has a chapel with a resident monk.”

Dabrow may have a long history on the block, but his housemate is different.

“I’m not the youngest, but I’m the newest,” said Hector Rodriguez, a seven-year resident. “This is the first time I’ve lived in Philadelphia. It’s very quiet and people are nice. It’s a mixed neighborhood.”

Betty and Vino Saigan add to the diversity of the block. They met in Argentina and married in 1968. The couple lived in New Orleans until Hurricane Katrina displaced them in 2005.

To them, life was much different when they came to Philadelphia.

“I think we have a much better community of neighbors,” Betty Saigan said. “It is a much more sense of community here.”

Vino and Betty Saigan participated in the block meeting. (Mike Polinsky)

Vino and Betty Saigan participated in the block meeting. (Mike Polinsky)

Block meetings help to keep that feel of a close-knit neighborhood. Though not everyone attends, it is still a popular event and something worthwhile in the eyes of some.

“I think it’s very important to know who your neighbors are and what you can do,” Betty Saigan said.

Vino Saigan added, “And to feel close to everyone who is your neighbor.”

Dabrow said he wasn’t good with attending meetings, but lately because of Rodriguez, he’s gone to the last two.

“[Rodriguez] is very friendly with everybody on the block,” Dabrow said. “When we were getting emails, he goes, ‘I think we should go.’ We started coming and now they know him pretty well. I get to know what’s going on now, in a positive way.”

In this day and age, it would be easy for residents of the block to introverted and keep to themselves, but it’s not the case on Osage Street.

“There’s quite a sense of community,” Berlind said. “Everyone’s not involved. Some people live like city people and don’t reach out too much, but this is a very friendly community in many, many ways.”

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