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Yorktown Under Siege

11 Jul

General George Washington’s decisive victory over British forces in the Battle of Yorktown, aka Siege of Yorktown, was the turning point in the American Revolution. Yorktown, a North Philly neighborhood whose name is derived from the 1781 battle, is under siege.

The planned community was built between 1960 and 1969. Banker and developer Norman Denny acquired 153 acres of blighted blocks that were cleared by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. Denny constructed 635 rowhouses that were marketed to first-time African American homebuyers with children. Yorktown provided suburban-style housing for Black families who did not have access to suburban tract houses due to discriminatory lending practices and residential segregation.

In an interview with Scribe Video Center’s Precious Places Community History Project, Bright Hope Baptist Church pastor and former congressman William H. Gray III said:

The church under the leadership of my father who was then the minister, Dr. William H. Gray Jr., got involved with the urban renewal project and joined forces with a man named Mr. Denny of the Lincoln [National] Bank … who had a radical idea. And the radical idea was that instead of building tenements, instead of building tall public housing, what he wanted to do was to build middle-income housing for homeownership. Everybody said you got to be crazy. This is one of the worst slum areas, inner-city, ghetto areas. African Americans don’t have money to buy houses.

Homebuyers included lawyer and civil rights activist Charles W. Bowser who is pictured raising the Yorktown flag. City Council proclaimed October 9, 2018 Charles W. Bowser Day “in recognition of his lifelong dedication to public service and his significant contributions to the African American community in Philadelphia.”

Grammy Award-winning singer Billy Paul lived on Kings Place.

Gospel pioneer and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Sister Rosetta Tharpe lived on Master Street.

Edmund N. Bacon, then-executive director of the City Planning Commission, planned Yorktown. Landscape elements that Bacon introduced in Society Hill are featured in Yorktown. In a progress report to Mayor James H.J. Tate, Bacon wrote:

Denny has finally put landscaping and play equipment in three of the central squares. These are really remarkable and exciting. I have the feeling that this is a unique project and that nothing of its kind has ever been built. I think it is an achievement worthy of some attention.

The project is indeed worthy of attention. The Yorktown Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. It is one of urbanist Bacon’s crowning achievements.

For two decades, Yorktown has attracted unwanted attention. The neighborhood is located immediately south of Temple University. In 2004, the Yorktown Community Organization, founded by Charles Bowser, sued 30 homeowners for illegal conversion of single-family homes into boarding/rooming houses for students. City Council subsequently amended the zoning code to create the North Central Philadelphia Overlay District to, i.a., “preserve and protect the area from the conversion of houses into multi-family buildings that have the potential to destabilize the area; and foster the preservation and development of this section of the City in accordance with its special character.”

Fast forward to today, proposed development projects have the potential to destabilize Yorktown with out-of-scale apartment buildings marketed to students and other transients. The neighborhood is low-rise, low-density by design.

In June, City Council passed legislation to amend the zoning code and create the Girard Avenue Overlay District which would establish height controls. Joe Grace, spokesperson for Council President Darrell Clarke, told PlanPhilly, “The Council President wants to control density along the corridor to protect historic neighborhoods like Yorktown and West Poplar that are adjacent to Girard Avenue. Too much density along the corridors impacts quality of life for the adjacent neighborhoods that are full of single-family homes and long-term residents.”

Black homeowners are fighting to preserve the setting and feeling of the Yorktown Historic District. To paraphrase Revolutionary War Commander John Paul Jones, they have just begun to fight.

Tulsa Race Massacre@100

30 May

Memorial Day marks the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. When I first wrote about Greenwood in 2008, Black Wall Street was a footnote in history.

In 2021, everyone from ABC News to the Wall Street Journal is going back to Tulsa.

There are new documentaries (here, here and here) and a hip-hop tribute.

On June 2, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Smithsonian magazine will hold a virtual panel discussion, “Historically Speaking: In Remembrance of Greenwood,” focusing on the development of Black Wall Street, the events leading up to the one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history, and the Black community’s resilience. The event is free but registration is required. To register, go here.

Preservation Month 2021

23 May

May is Preservation Month, a time to celebrate historic places that matter to you. The former Douglass Hotel matters to me. Built in 1926, the Douglass Hotel was first listed in the Green Book in 1938. The property was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1995. The historical marker out front notes that when Billie Holiday was “[i]n this city, she often lived here.”

The Douglass Hotel was a safe haven for Black travelers. While the hotel rooms were basic, the basement was magical. For nearly four decades, and several ownership and name changes, the basement space played host to jazz greats from Cannonball Adderley to Joe Zawinul. In the 1950s it was known as the Rendezvous Club. In the 1960s, it was renamed the Showboat. In the 1970s, it was the Bijou Café. This door leads down to the basement where Sidney Bechet, John Coltrane and Grover Washington Jr. recorded live albums.

The future Queen of Soul performed in the basement of the Douglass Hotel on January 2, 1961. In Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul, John Wilson, a pianist for the legendary Clara Ward and the Ward Singers, recalled:

Aretha Franklin came to Philly to sing at the Showboat Club on Lombard Street. After checking in at the hotel upstairs over the club, she took a cab over to Mom Ward’s house to get connected to familiar souls. She was a little nervous about breaking into pop singing. That night Clara, me, and Rudy (the Wards’ chauffeur) went to the Showboat to catch Aretha’s performance. The only people familiar with the name Aretha Franklin were gospel people, who weren’t about to show up. They were angry at her crossing over to pop. When we went in the door we heard that wonderful voice and saw that it was being wasted on an almost empty house.

Sixty years later, there will be full houses to see the movie RESPECT starring Academy Award® Winner Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin.

RESPECT will be in theaters in August. If the movie lives up to the trailer, a second Oscar might be in Jennifer Hudson’s future.

John Coltrane House Philadelphia Update

9 May

On May 5, 1959, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane entered Atlantic Studios to lay down the tracks for “Giant Steps” with pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Art Taylor.

Coltrane composed “Giant Steps” while living in Philadelphia. His rowhouse in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places. The property was designated a National Historic Landmark, the highest recognition for a historic property, in 1999. For more than a decade, the house has been deteriorating before our eyes and the subject of hand-wringing. So I nominated the historic landmark for 2020 Preservation At Risk.

On May 3, 2021, the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation (SMCDC) announced the completion of the John Coltrane Museum and Cultural Arts Center Site Feasibility Study:

For years now, questions regarding the future of the Coltrane House have been circulating within the preservation, jazz, local, national, and international realms. SMCDC has always viewed the house where Mr. Coltrane, his mother and cousin Mary lived, as a significant cultural and community asset that represents the community’s long-time relationship to jazz and Fairmount Park. SMCDC views the site feasibility study as the basis to implement its plan to restore the house as a museum, preserve the row’s architectural character, create a gateway to Strawberry Mansion and develop a world class venue where jazz can be heard, studied and appreciated.

As important, the Estate of Norman Gadson is involved. Gadson purchased the property from Cousin Mary in 2004. Aminta Gadson, an heir to the estate, said:

While my family and I have had a challenging time maintaining this property, we are happy to have been able to preserve it thus far because of the value it holds. We hope and pray that as future stewards, SMCDC, can restore it and share it with jazz fans worldwide.

If you are interested in volunteer planning and professional services opportunities, contact Strawberry Mansion CDC at coltranemcac@strawberrymansioncdc.org.