Town By Town: Queen Village, a neighborhood of reinvention

Queen Village on 4/17/13. Here, the view from the 100 block of League Street. ( APRIL SAUL / Staff )

One in a continuing series spotlighting real estate markets in this region's communities.

Way back when, Queen Village was the place to buy a house if you couldn't afford Society Hill.

Joseph P. Fanelli Jr., who moved from the suburbs in 1985, readily acknowledges that Queen Village was his second choice.

"But looking at it today," says Fanelli, president and CEO of Quaker City Manufacturing Co., the new townhouse in the 100 block of Catharine Street he bought 28 years ago for $175,000 "was a great buy."

It was a lot of money in 1985, especially when you could buy what veteran real estate agent and Queen Village native Kathy Conway calls "a grandmom house" for $50,000.

Twenty years later, Fanelli sold the townhouse and its two secure parking spaces for $575,000. (He moved to a house on Bainbridge Street that his new wife, Katie, an IBM executive, bought when she transferred to Philadelphia.)

"The buyer lived there a year and then flipped it for another $100,000, which I thought was incredible," Fanelli says.

In the bad old days of the late 1970s and '80s, when interest rates hovered at 18 percent, first-time buyers found Queen Village full of bargains.

Newly married artist Denise Fike and her city engineer husband, Lane, bought their tiny three-story rowhouse on Hancock Street for $48,000 in 1977. In it, they raised two boys and a variety of large dogs, with Lane reconstructing various parts over the years to accommodate the changes that come with an evolving family and careers.

"We reinvented our house at least 10 times," Denise Fike says.

During the last decade's housing boom, she recalls being offered more than $400,000 for the house, but the couple said no.

Post-boom, houses on her block between Beck and Christian Streets still sell for more than $400,000 - recently for $425,000, she says.

The Fikes paid what was considered a lot for their rowhouse, but the previous owner had meticulously restored it. Five years later, a three-bedroom rowhouse in the 200 block of Montrose Street sold for $63,500.

In 1998, as the real estate downturn that began in the late 1980s was ending, the median price there was just $62,000

In 2013, you can enter Queen Village least expensively through a one-bedroom condo for $160,000. The top of the market: $2 million.

On that same block of Montrose Street, Conway, who is with Prudential Fox & Roach, has a rowhouse listed for $325,000.

"That's the first-time rowhouse-buyer entry price these days," says Conway, who has been selling houses in Queen Village for 28 years.

As Center City has become less affordable, this neighborhood has benefited, says Kevin Gillen, senior research consultant at Penn's Fels Institute of Government.

Housing there has been significantly revitalized, as shown by the high concentration of 10-year tax abatements for improvement.

"But it also has seen significant price appreciation, as evidenced by the recent AVI assessments, which will lead tax bills of many homeowners to double or triple, or even more in some cases," Gillen says.

Before getting into real estate, Conway spent many years as a community organizer.

"I grew up at Front and Fitzwater Streets," she says, bristling at suggestions that Queen Village, then known by its 18th-century name, Southwark, was a slum.

Everyone who grew up there expected to stay in Queen Village - a name invented in the late 1970s by developers to counter negative perceptions created by the Southwark public-housing project on Washington Avenue between Third and Fourth Streets.

In the 1990s, the rehabilitation of Southwark by the Philadelphia Housing Authority boosted prices and opened up more blocks to development "by removing the invisible barrier" the projects created, Conway says.

Fanelli and Fike agree the changes at Southwark had a positive effect on real estate development there, and safety. They also agree that South Street, once a source of noise and vandalism for Queen Village and Society Hill, has grown calmer.

"Younger people have moved on to Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and the riverfront," Fanelli says. "South Street is getting artsy again, as is Fabric Row along Fourth Street."

"It's also cleaner, and there are more parks," says Fike, recalling that when her boys were young, only Three Bears Park in Society Hill was available.

Eileen Gargano is one native who had to go elsewhere as buyers with deeper pockets moved in. She bought a house near Fourth and Tasker in Pennsport in 1981.

She remains close to Queen Village physically and spiritually, however, as chair of the neighborhood's May 4 tour of eight houses, three churches, and gardens.

"We lost our funding but decided to continue, doing so with a small committee and bare-bones budget," says Gargano, emphasizing the importance of the event to Queen Village.

For many residents, Conway says, the 35-year-old tour, or breakfast at Famous Deli on Fourth Street, or the word-of-mouth of a friend who just bought here, is how they discovered Queen Village.

For Fanelli, who was looking for things the suburbs couldn't offer, "Queen Village called to me."

"Sure, there's lots of blight and a crime issue," he says, "but the city has magnetism."


Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472,, or follow @alheavens at Twitter.