I’ve heard the story (urban legend?) of new homeowners finding stacks of vintage porn hidden within drop ceilings. That’s cheeky and amusing, but imagine finding a loaded gun while pursuing a renovation. Would you walk away slowly, then start to sprint as fast and as far away as possible? For Neal Santos and Andrew Olson, the discovery of a loaded gun was no urban legend, but it is a strong metaphor for their ability to turn abandoned, rejected corners of Philadelphia, PA into beautiful spaces with lots of heart.
With a background in horticulture, Andrew was in search of a place to live where he could garden and keep chickens and bees. He found an amenable landlord, which landed him on 51st Street, but his green thumb quickly surpassed the yard and spilled into the adjoining abandoned city lot. Andrew and Neal began working with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s City Harvest Program, which equipped them with compost, lumber and seedlings, enabling them to expand their garden endeavor. Farm 51 was born and became a community hub (as evidenced by the many pictures of cute kids tending to vegetables via Instagram). They ran a weekly farm stand, selling veggies, eggs, honey and flowers.
But before there was a picturesque farm stand, there were thousands and thousands of pounds of trash to be hauled, weed trees to be cut back and general debris to clean up. It was during one of the initial volunteer clean-up days that they discovered the loaded gun, and they admit, “We’re still never sure what we might find when digging deep for a new tree or shrub.”
A few years into their urban garden project, the house adjacent to the garden lots, a three-story Victorian, went on the market. Andrew and Neal, a freelance photographer, bought the house and fully committed to 51st street. Having suffered decades of neglect, the house was in poor enough condition to send several contractors running for the hills. Plaster walls and ceilings were collapsing. Plumbing leaks had rotted and buckled the floors, but they finally found a brave contractor who, like them, could see the potential in the old bones. He lovingly restored any original elements that could be saved, then Neal and Andrew did what they do best: they filled the space with life and beauty.
Owning the home enabled them to buy one of the adjacent lots through Philly’s Side Lot Program and added more security to their farm endeavor. They hope to someday open up more of the house to create more flow from home to garden. In the meantime, their house brims with Andrew’s painterly floral arrangements, which Neal seems to freeze in time with his lens. Between garden, home and camera, these two have so much inspiration to offer, and if that’s not enough, they have plenty of cute dogs, too! —Quelcy