Brian Gralnick has always been civic-minded and community-oriented. He worked in local and state politics, then for the Pennsylvania Department of Aging in Harrisburg.
When he returned to Philadelphia to pursue a master's degree in social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, he stayed with his parents for a time, and with a girlfriend in Center City. But after graduating, he took a job with the United Way and started to look for a home of his own right away.
At top of his wish list: a house that was within walking distance of a train station; one that had long-term value; and a sense of community in the area.
Six months later, he found it in Elkins Park - just four doors down from the place his family lived in for the first four years of his life.
"I remember the lady who lived here all those years ago," Gralnick, 29, says.
The location fits his criteria, too: It's a "120-second" walk to the nearest train station; mere blocks from the newly renovated Myers Elementary School; close to the planned Creekside Co-op; and minutes from a community garden that Gralnick now frequents.
In early 2008, his family put out the word that he was looking for a house. And, as these things sometimes go, Gralnick's mother's best friend heard that the Elkins Park property, owned by a real estate appraiser/flipper, would be on the market soon.
That owner had redone the kitchen and baths, but kept the circa-1928 house's period details - perfect for a young, single career guy who devoted his after-work hours to civic pursuits.
"Because of my job and my social commitments, I didn't want a house that required major work," says Gralnick, who is manager of United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania's Community Impact Department and oversees the Healthy Aging at Home agenda. When he is not working, he serves on Montgomery County's Board of Behavioral Health/Developmental Disabilities, is board president-elect of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, and is active with local Democrats.
In September, Gralnick moved in, had the floors refinished, and put on a new roof. This summer, he plans to rebuild the second-floor deck, where, like his neighbors, he will be able to spend many a warm-weather evening.
Because of his work with the aged, Gralnick would like to convert his garage into an in-law suite.
"I am mindful of the challenges older adults are faced with in terms of their living environments. Pennsylvania has one of the oldest populations in the United States," he says. He talks about the growing trend of "visitability," or making single-family homes accessible to people with mobility issues.
For energy efficiency, he hopes to convert some of the original windows. He also would like to install new banisters that match his new floors.
"The house appealed to me because I've always liked old homes," Gralnick says. "In college, I lived in the Foggy Bottom section of [Washington] D.C. in an 1898 house. I do have an appreciation for the Colonial look."
Original brick endures at the front entrance. Gracious moldings adorn its main living spaces.
Gralnick has decorated with fine art from family members, such as a painting of Margate done by his aunt, Philadelphia artist Dori Spector, and three pieces done by his grandfather Sidney Spector, who was also a dentist in Logan.
"I've also tried to incorporate pieces from my work into the house," he says - like an Asian-inspired fan in the master bedroom purchased at a silent auction for the Philadelphia Emergency Fund coalition, and a silk-flower arrangement made by a newly arrived Asian immigrant who teaches seniors at one of Gralnick's community centers.
Outdoors, he has ripped out the ivy that covered the front of the house, as well as a hedge that made the front yard look smaller. A lovely dogwood was preserved in the back, however.
Gralnick, who enjoys gardening, tends a space in the nearby community garden in Lamont. "I want to install a rain barrel on my back gutter to use to water my community-garden plot," he says.
He's eagerly anticipating the opening in the fall of Creekside Co-op, which already has 1,000 members. "I'm looking forward to getting off the train and walking a few steps to get fresh and local ingredients for dinner," Gralnick says.
Elkins Park may not have many people his age or the nightlife he finds in Center City or Northern Liberties, but Gralnick loves his house, the life he is building, and what it represents.
"It feels like it fits very well. And it feels like a real community here," he says.