You might not have heard Leo Razzi’s name before, but you’re likely familiar with his work.
A single person can’t really be credited with giving a whole neighborhood its vibe, but one thing is certain: without Razzi, Northern Liberties would look and feel a lot less fun.
The artist, who died April 10 at age 56 from complications with cancer, left his mark on the neighborhood via the quirky metalwork sculptures scattered across the area.
Faces of gears and chain conveyors that manage to smile despite their rigid composition. Surprisingly comfortable benches fashioned from discarded scraps twisted together. Gates that are welcoming instead of offputting, thanks to cheerful geometry welded into their doors.
In NoLibs, Razzi’s touch is almost everywhere you look.
‘A generous dude’
“He has art ALL over the neighborhood,” said William Reed, a longtime Razzi friend and co-owner of local gastropub pioneer Standard Tap.
“The best part about them is they’re interactive — they have these crazy moving pieces. Growing up, my kids would clang every single one of them as we went by.”
But Razzi was beloved in the the neighborhood for more than just his art. Though he had a gruff exterior, Reed said, “he was a super generous dude.”
The area’s turn-of-the-millennium transformation from industrial hub to residential hot spot was sparked by a group of intrepid folks who swooped into old warehouses and turned them into restaurants, studios, boutiques and homes. Razzi was among the first to arrive — and was always the first to lend his neighbors a hand.
“Back in the early 2000s, Northern Liberties was a bit like the Wild West,” said Warren Holzman, a fellow Philly metalworker.
“[Leo] used to help me on so many jobs. He was always willing to just drop whatever he was doing to help out.”
A former union electrician from New York City, Razzi moved to Philly around 20 years ago, his sister Deirdre said. Though he was always creative with engineering — tinkering with train sets for hours as a kid — he never showed his artistic side until he landed in the River Wards.
“I can’t remember what drew him here,” Deirdre Razzi said, “other than he just always had a knack for knowing, had a vision of what he wanted. He was an electrician when he arrived,” she continued, “and he slowly became an artist.”
Restaurateur Bob Bitros, who eventually became one of Razzi’s best friends and tended to him during his final weeks, remembered meeting Leo as a customer, and forming an immediate bond.
“I always describe him as ‘a miserable, loving person,’” said Bitros, who formerly owned Azure (now Dos Segundos) on Second Street and Interstate Draft House in Fishtown. “He was still cracking jokes at the end.”
An end with friends
Razzi first realized something was wrong around the winter holidays, and when he finally heeded friends’ urgings to visit a doctor, they discovered he had kidney failure. But it was worse than that — they also discovered advanced stage prostate cancer. It had spread to his liver and bones, his sister Deirdre said, and doctors gave him 1 to 3 years to live.
“My gut was telling me that wasn’t right, that he was way too sick,” Deirdre recalled. “They were trying to get him into some longterm facility, but he would never have wanted to live that way.”
Instead, Razzi hunkered down in his house, which was itself a popular landmark, with its fascinating railings, balconies overflowing with metalwrought flowers, and windows always open.
When Bitros discovered the extent of his friend’s illness, he sent out a call to all the area restaurants — and all of them immediately offered to provide meals at no cost, which Bitros and Deirdre would bring to Razzi at home.
“I don’t think he really made food for himself, so he would always go out to eat,” remembered Rocco Avallone, a 32-year-old industrial designer who enlisted Razzi to teach him welding. “He would always tip, but he never had to pay for his food — he had tabs” because of work he did for the restaurant owners, whether it was helping wire new lighting or creating custom art.
One of Razzi’s most visible contributions to the area is the beer garden seating in front of North Bowl, which he considered his home away from home. He became close with bartenders there, and would often take them on what Avollone called “platonic dates,” like to go see the opera.
Over the past decade, Razzi’s sister Deirdre explained, her brother had become somewhat estranged from other relatives, partly because of his disregard for social norms, like not wearing work boots and jeans to Thanksgiving dinner.
“He never married, doesn’t have any children,” Deirdre said. Instead, “the neighborhood was his family.”
That adopted family has come together to commemorate Razzi’s life and contributions to his community.
On Saturday, May 19, starting at 7 p.m., North Bowl is hosting a “Leo Style” party. In lieu of flowers, and in keeping with Razzi’s love of animals (particularly cats), the family is requesting donations be made in his name to Street Tails Animal Rescue.
“He would do anything for anybody,” said Erdnic Oktay, Deirdre’s boyfriend and a fan of her brother’s moxie and talent.
“He would see beautiful art in what other people consider junk.”