Tag Archives: civil rights

Ridge on the Rise

14 Dec

Back in the day, Ridge Avenue was a vibrant commercial corridor. The heart and soul of North Philadelphia was also an entertainment district. The Blue Note was at Ridge and 15th Street.

Blue Note

The Bird Cage Lounge was one block up at Ridge and 16th Street. I don’t know whether it was named after him, but Charlie “Bird” Parker played there. The legendary Pearl Bailey began her singing and dancing career at the Pearl Theater, which was at Ridge and 21st Street.

Pearl Theater Collage

Some of the jazz giants who roamed Ridge likely stayed at the LaSalle Hotel, which was across from the Pearl Theater. The hotel was listed in the The Negro Motorist Green Book. The Point jazz spot at Ridge and Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore Avenue) was at the western tip of the storied “Golden Strip.”

Ridge began its steep decline in the aftermath of the 1964 Columbia Avenue race riots and construction of the Norman Blumberg Apartments public housing. Fast forward 50 years, Ridge is on the rise.

In 2014, the Philadelphia Housing Authority announced that transformation of the Blumberg/Sharswood neighborhood was its top priority. The Sharswood Blumberg Choice Neighborhoods Transformation Plan is a massive $500 million project that would, among other things, revitalize the Ridge Avenue corridor.

In an op-ed piece published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, PHA President and CEO Kelvin A. Jeremiah wrote:

The redevelopment of a community is about turning ideas into public policy and putting policy into action.

PHA’s revitalization efforts are a targeted, coordinated development model designed to maximize the economic benefits of neighborhood revitalization, not the piecemeal dispersed development model of the past. To transform communities into neighborhoods of choice, there must be good schools for every child, quality affordable housing for all families, and a vibrant small business commercial corridor. The challenge is turning the ideas and rhetoric into policy and practice.

In remarks before the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s recent conference, Marion Mollegen McFadden, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Grant Programs, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, noted a community has both tangible and intangible assets:

I see preservation’s efforts to recognize and honor the cultural heritage of minority and ethnic groups as a valuable component of strong communities, in particular many of the communities that HUD serves. And I don’t just mean preservation of buildings and places, but also of diverse cultural ties and traditions, the intangible dimensions of heritage that together enrich us as a nation.

McFadden concluded with a quote from HUD Secretary Julián Castro:

History isn’t just a subject for books and documentaries. It’s alive and well in buildings, sites, and structures that shape our communities. They tell us who we are and where we come from – and it’s critical that we protect our past for present and future generations.

The Sharswood/Blumberg Choice Neighborhoods Transformation Plan raises the question: Does PHA value the area’s tangible and intangible assets that give the neighborhood its identity? If so, will a transformed Ridge Avenue preserve the neighborhood’s cultural heritage for present and future generations?

Whose Story Gets Told?

16 Nov

I am an accidental preservationist. For this lifelong activist, the movement to save diverse places is about racial justice. It’s about staking African Americans’ claim to the American story.

In his remarks before the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual conference, Bryan Stevenson, founding director of the Equal Justice Initiative, spoke eloquently about the ways in which the built environment reflects social inequalities:

Identity matters. You can tell the identity of a nation by looking at what they honor. . . . There is power in memorialization. You preserve the things that matter. . . . We do an injustice when we tell stories about history that are incomplete.

From the Civil War to Civil Rights, Philadelphia’s historic resources tell a more complete American story. But in Philly, only two percent of historic properties are protected. Incredibly in the 1950s, City Hall narrowly escaped the wrecking ball. Much to the chagrin of city leaders, including Edmund Bacon, then-head of the Planning Commission, rehabilitation cost less than demolition. In other words, it was “cheaper to keep her.”

Fast forward to today, gentrification is laying bare Philadelphia’s culture of demolition. As I write this post, a developer is demolishing the church where Marian Anderson learned to sing and the congregation nurtured her talent. The world renowned contralto helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement.

Union Baptist Church

The Royal Theater was a center of the African American community from the 1920s to the 1950s. It was Philly’s first and largest movie theater to cater exclusively to African Americans. Although it’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the Philadelphia Register, the historic property is about to undergo a “facadectomy.”

These places are at the intersection of historic preservation and social justice. The buildings’ social history of resistance and triumph is connected to contemporary issues, including gentrification, displacement, income inequality and social inequity. Truth be told, developers are deciding which places are important.

In Los Angeles and Phoenix adaptive reuse is a matter of public policy. Philadelphia’s culture of demolition has been exacerbated by the 10-year residential tax abatement which provides a perverse incentive for developers to tear down historic buildings.

To bring about policy changes, we must engage and empower accidental preservationists to become stewards of historical assets in their neighborhood.

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