Robyn Mello was walking home over the weekend, near Second and Norris Streets, in a section of North Philadelphia she had up until that moment known as Norris Square, when she spotted an unfamiliar sign tacked to a utility pole.
“Stonewall Heights” was how the sign designated the area from Front to Sixth Streets and Lehigh to Cecil B. Moore Avenues, declaring it, with an inscrutable flourish, “a modern historical district.”
“I was really annoyed,” Mello said. “I was thinking about all the implications of something like that.”
Mello went online and tracked the name to a real estate listing for a $45,000 vacant lot “in the rapidly developing Stonewall Heights area.” She posted on Facebook, and by Monday morning, local residents, businesses, and civic associations were expressing outrage, contacting the developer, the real estate agent, and city officials. Tim Patton, owner of St. Benjamin Brewing Co. at Fifth Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue, was so irritated he offered a bounty on the signs: a pint of beer in exchange for each one.
“It’s certainly a name designed to appeal to New York people,” Patton said.
Paul Janaitis, the 44-year-old inventor of this designation, actually lives in North Philadelphia. He owns a small real estate development company called Stonewall Contracting and has for the past four months published a newspaper called the Stonewall Heights Review.
“I’m not trying to be Columbusing,” he said. He simply came up with a name to describe the area he works in; he uses it widely in hopes it will catch on.
“It sounds a little more dignified, I guess, than ‘the Badlands,’ ” he said. “I don’t know if I want to tell my lender I’m borrowing money to develop in an area called the Badlands. Maybe he’ll be less likely to back me than if I tell him I’m developing in the Stonewall Heights area. So that’s what I say, and I say it with a smile, and everybody moves on about their business.”
He said that he had designed the Stonewall Heights logo himself and that about 50 signs had been posted in the area over the last three months. He was not sure whether he would take them down. Some people, he said, agree with him that Stonewall Heights “has a ring to it.”
Janaitis is far from the first developer to attempt to rebrand an entire neighborhood. Craig Grossman’s Arts & Crafts Holdings has been diligently working to transform Callowhill into Spring Arts; the late Tony Goldman spent years recasting the Gayborhood as Midtown Village; and developer John Longacre has never tried to conceal the fact that, years ago for marketing purposes, he began describing a section of Point Breeze as Newbold.
But Janaitis took an unusual approach in his attempt to advance such branding through illegal bandit signs, which often are associated with scams and house-flipping companies that offer lowball prices for “ugly” houses.
To Jess Noon, 40, a board member of South Kensington Community Partners — part of whose turf was annexed, however briefly, into Stonewall Heights — this initiative was particularly irksome for its disregard of what came before.
“If he wanted to build a block-wide development, he can name it whatever he wants,” she said. “They’re attempting to rename an area that actually consists of three or four vibrant neighborhoods that already have their own community identities.”
Though this stretch of the city is, according to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission map, considered North Philadelphia, boundaries can be fluid and subject to debate. Part of the area, according to the map, is within Fairhill. Many who live and work there consider the whole area part of Kensington, and consider sections of it to include West Kensington, Norris Square, or Eastern North Philadelphia.
By Monday afternoon, Christopher Baker, the real estate agent responsible for the listing Mello found, was weary of angry phone calls.
“Apparently, it has upset some people,” he said. “I have removed the description of said area from these listings.”
To Mello, that’s a minor victory.
“But that doesn’t change anything in the grand scheme of things,” she said. “This wave of development is coming regardless. I’m seeing it every day getting letters in the mail and phone calls from developers who want my house and people who want to buy my garden, and that’s not going to stop.”
She doubts that the kerfuffle will harm the developer’s sales prospects. She just hopes whoever buys his property understands that there’s already a community here and is willing to integrate into it, rather than try to refashion it into something it’s not.
“He’s still going to sell his lots. He’s still going to make his money. But it’s not going to be easy to change this neighborhood.”