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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.

Gentrifiers and Black History in Philadelphia Update

27 Jun

Philadelphia is the best place to discuss race relations because there is more race prejudice here than in any other city in the United States.
 — W. E. B. Du Bois, 1927

City Council passed a one-year demolition moratorium for six blocks of Christian Street in the most gentrified neighborhood in Philadelphia. The mayor is expected to sign the bill which is sponsored by Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson who is under federal indictment.

The purpose of the moratorium is to give the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia time to prepare the nomination for the proposed Christian Street Historic District. Architect Julian Abele and Rev. Charles Tindley are the most notable residents of that stretch of Christian Street. Abele and Tindley lived on the 1500 block but gentrifiers are pushing to designate six blocks. As I told a reporter with PlanPhilly, the proposed historic district trivializes Black history in an effort to preserve the historic fabric of blocks from which African Americans have been displaced:

However, Faye Anderson, a local historic preservationist who has focused on saving vulnerable Black historical sites, said she opposed the effort.

She said the district was an “excuse” to preserve some statelier buildings in a gentrified neighborhood that has become majority-white in recent decades. Anderson said a blanket designation for a thematic district based on the presence of some wealthier African American residents for a period of time in an otherwise segregated neighborhood was “trivializing” to the city’s wider Black history.

Historic preservation is about storytelling. The period of significance of proposed Christian Street Historic District, aka Doctor’s Row, spans the Great Migration, the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and World War II. Doctor’s Row would memorialize a minuscule number of Black professionals who moved on up from racially segregated blocks in the 7th Ward to racially segregated blocks with nicer rowhouses in the 30th Ward.

While the elites of Doctor’s Row were serving tea, NAACP Executive Secretary Carolyn Davenport Moore was serving justice. Prior to 1944, Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC) consigned Black workers to jobs as porters, messengers or tracklayers. The positions of motorman and trolley operator were for white workers only. Moore organized protest marches. The NAACP filed complaints with the Fair Employment Practices Committee on the grounds PTC’s hiring practices violated Executive Order 8802 which banned discrimination in the defense industry.

The NAACP prevailed in the first civil rights battle of the modern era. Legendary drummer Philly Joe Jones was a drum major for justice. He was in the first group of eight African American trolley operators.

Philly Joe later moved to New York City where he likely spent time on Striver’s Row. The two blocks of rowhouses were home to, among others, jazz luminaries. Striver’s Row was designated the St. Nicholas Historic District in 1967 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Striver’s Row represents a Who’s Who of Black America. By contrast, Doctor’s Row has Black folks asking: Who dis?

For updates, follow me on Twitter @andersonatlarge.

Gentrifiers and Black History in Philadelphia

13 Jun

The first enslaved Africans were brought to Philadelphia in 1639. Philadelphia was the center of organized resistance to slavery. A visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture shows that the African American story cannot be told without Philadelphia.

In a city with Black National Historic Landmarks and National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom sites, gentrifiers in the most gentrified neighborhood have proposed that six blocks – 1400 to 2000 Christian Street – be designated Philadelphia’s first “Black-themed” historic district. The notables who lived on this stretch of Christian Street are largely unknown but they lived in elegant townhouses. The 1300 block of Christian Street is not included in the proposed historic district because it is lined with basic rowhouses. The Bessie Smith House is located at 1319 Christian Street.

Philadelphia has a demolition crisis. Gentrifiers are exploiting Black history to preserve the historic fabric of the blocks from which African Americans have been displaced. If it is about Black history and culture, how do you exclude the Empress of the Blues? Download my statement on the proposed “Black-themed” historic district 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.