If you’re looking for a burger in Harrisburg, you could do worse than go to Jackson House, a sandwich joint next to a barbershop on the otherwise blighted 1000-block of N. 6th Street. Dave Kegris, the owner, has served food out of the shotgun-style restaurant since the early ‘80s, and his burgers are routinely ranked as the best in town.
Good sandwiches notwithstanding, the block has seen better days. Of the six buildings that once stood there, only four remain. One collapsed in 2004, after Tropical Storm Ivan, and the other, the Bethel AME Church, was demolished after a fire in 1995. Two shuttered properties now bookend the block: the historic Swallow Mansion, which was condemned in April of 2010, and the Jackson Rooming House, which Kegris also owns and which used to rent rooms to prominent blacks, who were unable to stay in hotels during segregation. Depending on the outcome of a court appearance Kegris will make later this month over code violations, the rooming house may be the next to disappear.
I met Kegris on a Friday afternoon in March, as Jackson House was closing for the day. He wore glasses and a loose-fitting navy blue T-shirt, and his gray hair was disheveled from working the grill. When he first opened the restaurant, Kegris rented the space from German Jackson, who had run the boarding house while working as a bellhop at the Penn Harris Hotel downtown. “He was an extraordinary man,” Kegris told me. “The son of a slave. His father was a drayman who set up a business, hauling pianos with a horse and buggy. Six months out of slavery, he owned his own home.”
Jackson had no children, and, as he aged, Kegris began to do favors for him, taking him to get groceries or driving him to a vacation spot Jackson owned in Atlantic City. In 1998, when Jackson died, he bequeathed the restaurant property to Kegris.
Almost immediately, legal troubles began. Jackson had written the will by hand, and there was a dispute about what Kegris could inherit. The lawyers for Jackson’s estate, according to Kegris, spent five years trying to determine whether Jackson had meant to give the whole house or just the part that the restaurant occupied.
“They spent all Jackson’s money on fees,” said Kegris. “By the time I got the property, there was nothing left.” Unable to finance the extensive renovation, Kegris watched the house steadily deteriorate.
This past December, looking for someone to take over and restore the boarding house, Kegris approached Historic Harrisburg Association, a nonprofit devoted to historic preservation. On Feb. 4, John Campbell, HHA’s director, arranged a meeting with several developers, along with Kegris and two other stakeholders. One was Annette Antoun, publisher of the Paxton Herald, who owns the block’s three other properties. The other was Ted Hanson, a long-time resident of Old Fox Ridge, the historic neighborhood just west of North 6th, filled with quaint, brightly-painted brick homes. The conclusion reached at the meeting, according to Campbell, was that preservation “needs to be an entire block conversation.” The developers, primarily interested in residential projects, indicated they weren’t willing to invest if blighted properties would endure next to new developments.
Kegris, who would like to re-divide the double lot and just keep the restaurant, offered his building for a dollar, but Antoun, the majority owner on the block, refused to set a price. As a result, potential development has stalled. On the surface, it would seem that the future of the block depended on persuading Antoun to make preservation a priority. But, as with many cases involving money and land, the dispute runs deeper.
A Study in Brown
The Paxton Herald is a weekly newspaper with a circulation of around 16,000. Its contents are a tabloid-like pastiche of news, ads, event announcements, obits and editorials, which tend to be jumbled together on every page.
Antoun, who is 86, still edits and publishes the Herald out of an office in a vinyl-sided bungalow just off of Allentown Boulevard. On the day I visited, her office, like her outfit, was a study in brown. Sitting in a leather chair on a khaki shag carpet, she wore a brown scarf, brown wool sweater, brown corduroys and tan leather boots, as well as a wooden bracelet, tortoise-shell glasses and a ring of coiled copper.
Antoun was born in Franklin, in northwestern Pennsylvania, but spent much of her childhood in New York City and Washington, D.C. When she was young, her father succumbed to a mysterious illness, which she later came to suspect was celiac disease, and the family fell into poverty. “When my dad got sick, we didn’t have a pot to you-know-what in,” she said. “My mom would scramble one egg and spread it over two sandwiches for me and my brother to take for school lunch.”
In light of these humble beginnings, the year 1979 must have represented a substantial change in fortunes. That year, with the help of her son, Antoun acquired a total of seven properties on Boas and Herr streets, in the neighborhood that would become Fox Ridge. All seven were sold by proxy through the Tax Claims Bureau, which had assumed control from owners unable to meet their tax obligations. The Antouns picked up some, like the house at 306 Boas, for as little as $50.
Because of the volume of her purchases, and the fact that Antoun had no intention of living in the houses she acquired, some neighbors have come to regard her as a “slumlord.” But Antoun sees her real estate legacy as a matter of control. “I thought it should be saved as a historical place,” she said. She believed that, by buying the properties, she could determine the future of the neighborhood. “I’m not a historical nut. I just think if there’s a reason to preserve it, you should.”
Whatever her preservationist motives, Antoun was also making a bet that her investments would pay off—and, for the most part, they did. In a few cases, the Antouns improved the properties and sold them many years later for respectable sums. (One house on Boas, which the Antouns purchased for $1,100, sold in 2009 for $89,000.) But several returned an immediate, if modest, profit. Much of the area had been slated for acquisition by the city, as part of an urban renewal project led by the Redevelopment Authority. The project was primarily focused on infrastructure improvements, such as sewer and sidewalks, but the Authority also used its funds to acquire blighted properties under eminent domain.
In the early 1980s, the Authority claimed five of Antoun’s homes in Fox Ridge. Antoun was awarded compensation well in excess of what she had paid: nearly $15,000 for five of the properties, which she had bought for just over $4,000 a few years before. I asked Antoun why, if her true interest was preservation, she didn’t fight the city’s acquisitions. She told me, “There’s only so much you can do.”
Antoun also bought properties on nearby N. 6th Street, starting with the barbershop next to Kegris’ restaurant and later adding the house on the opposite side, between German Jackson’s old house and the Bethel church. These were also a gamble, as the aging buildings would require substantial upkeep. In addition, Antoun would have to contend with a force she may not have expected: a neighborhood group with high hopes for urban renewal, with Ted Hanson at the fore.
Really Bad Decision
Hanson bought his house on Boas around the same time as Antoun, in 1978, when the block was 70 percent vacant and prostitution and crime were rampant. Unlike Antoun, however, Hanson had a long-term interest in residing in the area. “I was the first person to move in with the intent of restoring and actually living here,” he told me.
When Hanson bought his home, the interior was falling to pieces, and the neighborhood had been targeted for demolition. “This neighborhood was going to be a huge surface parking lot for state workers,” Hanson said. “I realized that, in order to ruin their plans, we’d have to have it declared a historic district by the state.” Hanson worked in the press office of the House Democrats and had some political connections. In 1979, on his birthday, his home was declared eligible for historic preservation.
With a handful of other residents, Hanson formed a neighborhood association, Fox Ridge Neighbors, Inc., which positioned itself as a watchdog for the area’s progress. Occasionally, their actions made headlines. In 1984, they staked out a resident whom they suspected was involved in a spate of burglaries; their sleuthing, and the successful arrest it produced, was written up in the Patriot-News. The paper also covered a minor scandal that surfaced when Hanson, then serving on the Architectural Review Board, called attention to substandard materials being used by a city-approved contractor in the repair of a nearby home.
It did not escape Hanson’s notice, therefore, when a “for sale” sign appeared in the window of Swallow Mansion at N. 6th and Boas in the summer of 2000.The mansion, which had once been the home of Silas Comfort Swallow, an abolitionist preacher, later became the Curtis Funeral Home, which primarily served local black families. In 1997, it had been donated to Historic Harrisburg, prompting “a collective sigh of relief” from Hanson and his neighbors, who believed HHA shared their interest in urban development. But a mere three years later, it was back on the market. In a matter of months, and without consulting the neighborhood, HHA quietly sold the property to Antoun for $30,000.
Hanson was appalled. “There was no vetting, no investigation,” he told me. Another of Antoun’s acquisitions, a mere three homes away, was in a terrible state of repair. At the time, Hanson served on the board of directors for the Broad Street Market Corp., a subsidiary of HHA. When he learned about the sale, he promptly resigned.
Campbell, HHA’s current director, was reluctant to impugn his predecessors, but he agreed that the sale to Antoun was “a really bad decision.” He believes it had to do with HHA’s troubled finances. At the time, he said, HHA was “practically bankrupt.” Campbell cites the sale of Swallow Mansion as a reason HHA is now pursuing preservation of the block. “HHA had a role in this 15 years ago,” he said. “We have a responsibility to the community.”
Accusation and Spite
Antoun and Hanson had scuffled in the past, but after the Swallow Mansion sale, he began to pursue her with particular fury. He chronicled her actions on a website, Paxtonheraldsucks.com, which he no longer updates but preserves as “an historical archive.” Visitors to the home page are greeted by the words “Paxton Herald Sucks” in dripping green letters. Loaded with internal links and thumbnail photos of blighted buildings, court summonses and deeds, the site is a virtual labyrinth of accusation and spite. It describes numerous disputes, including a battle over a wooden fence that Antoun attempted to erect around one of her properties. Hanson filed a complaint about the fence, which had not been given a proper permit, and it was torn down. (Antoun claims the fence was necessary because someone was stealing the boards covering up the windows.)
According to the site, the central element in the block’s collapse was a secret collusion between Antoun and former Mayor Stephen Reed beginning shortly after Antoun purchased Swallow Mansion. At the annual Black History Gala, in February 2001, Reed announced plans to build a museum of African-American history. The museum, which Reed claimed would be “national in scope,” would occupy the 1000-block of N. 6th Street.
Page after page of Hanson’s site is devoted to virulent opposition to the museum scheme. Much of the criticism focuses on alleged ways that the proposal is misguided. Hanson observes that aspirations for a “national” museum were overblown, because there were simultaneous plans for an African-American history museum in Washington, D.C., under the purview of the Smithsonian. In addition, the plans were ill-conceived as a matter of pure logistics, he wrote. “It was the wrong place for the museum,” Hanson told me. “There was no parking, no festival grounds, no room for expansion.”
At the same time, the site offers an alternate, more sinister explanation. One page concludes with the following lines:
What is really driving the museum project at the corner of Sixth and Boas streets?
In our view it has nothing to do with black history… it has everything to do with money and political favors.
The site goes on to claim that Reed and Antoun had no intention of building a museum and were only using the plan as a justification for a multi-level parking garage to be erected on the empty lot of the former church. The “cynically evil beauty of the scheme,” the site says, was that, with a nearby parking lot, the Antoun properties would “skyrocket in value,” because of the proximity of the lot to the Capitol complex.
The site is meant to be a chronology of events, but it’s not hard to detect Hanson’s resentment simmering beneath the text. One reason for his harsh language, not mentioned on the site, is that Hanson had his own hopes for North 6th. He showed me a proposal he had drawn up for the creation of a bed and breakfast in Jackson’s old house, to be run by students from HACC’s hospitality school. Hanson had floated the idea to Reed in early 2000, and initially, he said, Reed was “very, very supportive.” But, at some point shortly thereafter, Reed apparently changed his mind. Hanson is convinced that Antoun interfered.
For Hanson, the key piece of evidence that Reed and Antoun were collaborating dates to the summer of 2002. That year, the city had condemned Antoun’s property at the north end of the block. Antoun was scheduled to appear in court on July 22 on charges of violating the building code. But, days before her court date, the charges were mysteriously withdrawn. When I asked Antoun, she denied that Reed had any involvement in her properties. But David Patton, the city’s codes administrator, confirmed that citations had been issued for her building and subsequently withdrawn. He showed me a record of an executive order, which states that “all legal action” on the relevant citations “has been suspended as per direction of the mayor’s office.”
So, why would Reed stake his political reputation on such a favor for Antoun? After years of promises, the museum never materialized. Eventually the plan joined the ranks of other failed projects—most notably the Wild West Museum—that have come to define Reed’s final years in office. Was it really just bluster to cover a plan for paid parking? The accusations on Hanson’s website are over a decade old; if Hanson still adheres to the parking lot theory, he didn’t emphasize it when we met. But he remains convinced that, behind the scenes, Antoun and the former mayor were conspiring. “What no one can figure out,” Hanson said, “is why Annette and Stephen Reed are in cahoots.”
In the foyer of the offices of the Paxton Herald, the walls are covered with pieces of paper in frames. Among various certificates and newspaper clips is a proclamation signed by Mayor Reed, designating March 23, 1988, as Annette Antoun Day. Among other approbations, Antoun is acknowledged as a “singularly rare individual” who “knows her own mind.”
When I asked Antoun about Reed, she was quick to praise him. Before Reed’s tenure, she said, Harrisburg was a “crime-infested hellhole. There would not be any Harrisburg if not for Stephen Reed.”
I asked about their relationship, and whether she had supported his mayoral campaign, expecting, at most, an admission of financial contributions. As it turns out, Antoun’s support went a good deal further. Early in his run, according to Antoun, Reed expressed doubts about his ability to reach the public. “I said, ‘Bull****, Steve, I have a press downstairs,’” Antoun told me. “‘Write what you’re gonna write, and I’ll print it.’” She related the story of an all-nighter printing campaign material, during which she dried the ink with Avon bath powder. She laughed. “They were the sweetest-smelling political ads ever printed.”
Antoun maintains that her primary interest is in preserving the block’s history. She told me again and again that she’d still like to see a museum of some sort on North 6th to commemorate African-American culture. “I want something to show these young black kids: You didn’t just come from slaves in chains. You came from productive, accomplished people,” she said. In February, after the meeting hosted by HHA, Antoun wrote a sprawling three-page letter to Campbell in which she reiterated her commitment to developing “the most visible block in the entire city of Harrisburg.” In it, she referred to her roots in northwestern Pennsylvania, an area “rich in history,” and said she was “vitally interested in the history of slave runaways” who “went up the Allegheny.”
It’s hard to reconcile these claims with the theory that the museum was nothing but an elaborate smokescreen for a garage. But a landlord and a mayor need not be part of a profit-driven conspiracy in order to do a city significant harm. In some cases, mere inaction will suffice. It seems possible that Antoun had a sincere dream for a nationally prominent museum. But it’s also likely that, rather than preserve the buildings herself, she stalled in hopes that the city would pay to take them off her hands. It’s telling that it required a condemnation order, in 2010, to force Antoun to fund renovations of Swallow Mansion’s crumbling exterior.
In chess, a stalemate typically occurs when neither side has sufficient pieces for a decisive victory. At present, the fate of North 6th is a stalemate in that sense. Antoun owns three of the block’s five remaining properties, but lacks either the money or the interest to develop them. Hanson has won the battle for Boas, but says he is “no longer interested” in creating a bed and breakfast. Historic Harrisburg would like to restore the block, but it can’t do so without money from developers. And developers are only interested if they can renovate the block as a whole, which Antoun seems poised to resist in perpetuity, unless they can pay a sufficiently high price—a price that, so far, she has declined to name.
Kegris, for his part, appeared weary of the saga, and eager for Jackson’s old boarding house to leave his hands. He told me to advertise it in my story. “If someone wants it, they can come and get it,” he said. “Otherwise I’ll probably have to pay to rip it down.”