To those who haven't been properly introduced, or who've only seen it on the fly, the stretch of Baltimore Avenue that approaches 50th Street in West Philadelphia is not quick to reveal its quirky charm.
Rosemarie Certo admits to being guilty on both counts. Offered space to open a brewpub at this western edge of Cedar Park, she balked: "It was too far." Too far from what? "Too far from 46th and Baltimore," which was about as far as she saw commercial possibility.
She has come to adjust her view since, saying she has discovered profound value in the racial mix, arts scene, and political consciousness (ranging from prisoner-advocate vegan anarchists to establishmentarian Penn profs), and now sees in the diversity and coexistence a utopia - a model for "the way we should all live." (For now, though, she'll live in leafy Gladwyne, 12 miles away in suburban Lower Merion.)
Cedar Park was itself one of the city's original suburbs, former farmland planted with handsome, porch-fronted, bay-windowed Queen Anne homes when the trolley line linked it to Center City a century ago. But it has been in decidedly urban decline for years.
There are bright spots: Vientiane Cafe, for instance, the tidy Laotian spot that once operated out of a backyard blue tent. From an alcove, the Satellite Coffee shop winks warmly. Local anarchists do a Wednesday vegetarian lunch at the gritty A Space, inviting the postman to stay for a $4 plate of ginger triple squash, garlic rice, and Brazilian black beans.
But passersby are more likely to register the visible downers - the Soviet-style liquor store (soon to be replaced), sad thrift stores, grated windows, and forbidding steel security doors.
The biggest disappointment of all, of course, has been the grand, 1903-vintage brick firehouse - an emblem in its heyday of Cedar Park's status as a West Philadelphia "beauty spot," but in recent years a depressingly faltering, and finally kaput, sort-of farmer's market.
What was meant to be an anchor business and community hub had become a millstone around its neck; a symbol of civic stall, a dead tooth at an intersection in desperate need of a reassuring smile.
So it is hard to overstate the change in mood, in vibe, in the very dynamic of Cedar Park occasioned by the opening in that firehouse of Certo's reimagined Dock Street craft brewery and its modest menu of wood-fired pizzas, burgers and salads. In the four months since it arrived (over the objection of a nearby church and a smattering of anti-gentrification activists) it has become a hangout for local grad students and their children, for librarians from Drexel, for John Overmyer, the legendary illustrator who lives close by, and, appropriately, for off-duty firefighters from Engine 68, Ladder 13, whose station moved out of the airy space in 1985, relocating two blocks away.
They called it their Cuckoo's Nest, and if you'd dropped in a week or so before Christmas, the pub was serving Cuckoo's Nest Red, a rather sharp, malty red ale Dock Street's brewers had cooked up in their honor in the tall copper tanks that gleam behind the bar.
Indeed, if you'd dropped in on one particular Monday, you could have witnessed one of those truth-is-stranger moments as a sheet of flame erupted on the sidewalk across the street when the gas can used to fill the generator powering the lights at a Christmas tree lot tipped over.
In short order, a server in the firehouse charged from between the old arched window bays with a fire extinguisher, helping to snuff the blaze - reliving (and creating) a little neighborhood history.
At present, the brewery is still getting its feet wet. The beers on the rotating list - Rye IPA, Gold Stock Ale, Barley Wine - can have a note of experimentation about them. And except for the sweet-natured Helles, a traditional German lager, they lack the finesse of the original Dock Street styles that date to when the brewery had a nearly decade-long run on 18th Street.
But though the firehouse pub's first brewer is already gone, Eric Savage, the original brewmaster, is now consulting. So the beer boasts its signature individualism, even though a few of the brews, as one aficionado put it, are still "rough drafts."
The pizzas ($8 and up) - nearly half of them vegetarian or vegan in deference to the sizable vegan presence - are baked in a wood-fired oven, giving them good crunchy crusts; not as thin and crackling as the champs at Osteria on North Broad, but also not as dear. (Osteria's are twice the price.)
The margherita is ordinary. But the caramelized-onion
the Greek topped with fresh greens after it's cooked, and the tangy Sicilian with black olives, capers and pine nuts are worthy companions to a pint. Certo is a native of Sicily and says her inspiration for the pizzas came from a cousin's place there with a big, outdoor wood oven. (After the original Dock Street closed in 1998, she operated Pizza Rustica, the wood-oven pizza place at 36th and Chestnut.)
Her infatuation with craft beer, on the other hand, is from closer to home; her husband, Jeff Ware, was the original proprietor of Dock Street Brewery until parting ways with his investors.
But that is all unimportant and somewhat beside the point - the occasional roughness of the brews, the smoky scent of the pizza, the sprawling, concrete-floored eating space and long, industrial bar, the dark-eyebrowed windows and convivial beer-hall vibe.
That the firehouse is open at all, alive in the night, a civic hub again, and a fresh investment in Cedar Park - in the netherworld at 50th and Baltimore - is the point; it is a blow against inertia and despair.
The University City District is promising sidewalk lamps nearby. Mariposa, the once-insular food co-op, is reeling from a surge in membership. The crisp Vietnam Cafe a few blocks east is teed up for launch within weeks.
Even the anticapitalist skeptics at the A Space concede a silver lining: "At least," said puppeteer Beth Nixon, "it's not a Starbucks."