JoAnn Manuel

JoAnn Manuel line dances with neighbors at the Pennsgrove block party.

JoAnn Manuel line dances with neighbors at the Pennsgrove block party.

JoAnn Manuel – 5200 Pennsgrove Street

Stoop culture is big on Pennsgrove. Climb the eleven steep steps up to JoAnn Manuel’s front porch, pass through a small iron balustrade gate at the top, look left and right, you will see through every one of her neighbors’ identical porches. Look across the street for an eye-level view of all the porches on the odd side. Pennsgrove’s heartbeat pulses from these stoops.

“We gather!” says Manuel, who has been the block captain since 2001. “It happens in the evenings, especially on Saturdays. It’s a good way to share with your neighbor the things going on.”

Manuel’s first act as block captain generated lots of stoop talk. She petitioned the city to correct the misspelling of “Pennsgrove” on their street sign. Manuel remembers, “My neighbors were surprised. They told me, ‘We called our street  Penngrove!’”

Manuel decided to raise money for more block improvements. Through her block’s association (5200 Pennsgrove Street), she applied to the Philadelphia Activities Fund for a grant to fix the pole lights next to each stoop. “Eighty percent of the pole lights were out.”  After two unsuccessful applications, she finally received $1,500. She hired an electrician to fix the lights. With the rest of the money, she and some neighbors bought and planted flowers to spruce up the green spaces and vacant lots on the block.

Manuel applies for money each year and receives around $500, which they use to buy paint for houses, flower boxes for sidewalks, as well as maintain the exteriors of the five vacant houses on the street.

Manuel works hard to keep up vacant properties to prevent squatters from moving in. She even used the porch of one vacant house to host a weekly after-school reading and gardening program for 4th and 5th graders

Manuel joined forces with Urban Tree Connection’s Sue Witte. Witte, who is also a children’s librarian, would meet with kids to work in the community garden at the corner of Pennsgrove and 53rd Street, then retreat to the stoop to read books.

Witte remembers how important that porch became to her and the children. “We would begin and end on that front porch. It was our space, and everybody knew it.”

Perhaps the greatest celebration of the Pennsgrove stoop culture is its annual block party, which is set for the first Saturday of August every year. Almost all of the residents participate.
“Morning time is set up time. We are up early. Everybody is excited about the day, getting their own space ready. But we all share in the work,” Manuel explains.

The residents sell raffle tickets to pay for the moonwalk and kids games. The cooking, eating and drinking happen on the steps and porches. “The stoops are where we hang out and talk. Some say its gossip. I say it’s a culture of neighbors being neighbors.”

**A search to find more information about the Philadelphia Activities Fund led me to a 2011 pdf file with contact information; a facebook page; and a couple critical articles like the piece “Council’s Secret “WAM” Fund”, by Ryan Briggs found in Metropolis Report, about the Fund’s political impact and lack of oversight.