John Coltrane House Digital Reconstruction

National Preservation Month began as National Historic Week in May 1973. It has been a month-long celebration since 2005. This year’s theme, “People Saving Places,” encapsulates efforts to save the John Coltrane House.

The Coltrane House has been in a deteriorating condition for more than two decades. Restoration has been stymied by, i.a., legal entanglements (the owner of record died in 2007) and lack of imagination. Over the past 20 years, there have been several schemes to repurpose the property as a historic house museum. The schemers failed to recognize that the historic house museum business model wherein an organization has to raise millions of dollars before the property is open to the public and millions more to keep the door open is no longer feasible.

As I wrote in an op-ed published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, an Act 135 conservatorship is the only viable option to save this National Historic Landmark.

I am collaborating with Chris Hytha, a digital artist and founder of the Rowhomes project, to raise awareness that the rowhome in which Coltrane lived from 1952 to 1958 is at risk. Hytha will create the John Coltrane House NFT, a unique digital artwork. He said:

NFTs are deeply rooted in the culture of collectability. Featuring the John Coltrane House would add another layer of historical significance, and has the potential to introduce this piece of Philadelphia history to a global audience. Collecting memorabilia has been a part of our culture for centuries, and NFTs provide a new outlet to raise funds for the preservation of this National Historic Landmark.

At the same time, I will team up with an architecture firm that is a pioneer in virtual design and construction. Building on architectural drawings, archival photos, scholarly research and oral histories, we will reconstruct the exterior and interior. In so doing, we will create a new paradigm for historic preservation. The interior of the rowhome where Coltrane experienced a “spiritual awakening” will be accessible to virtual visitors wherever they are in the world.

We will cast a wide net for a financially-capable alternate stewardship – an Act 135 conservatorship – to preserve the structure, the tangible reminder of John Coltrane, in public memory. We are taking giant steps to preserve for current and future generations the rowhome where John Coltrane composed “Giant Steps.”

For more info, contact All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson at phillyjazzapp@gmail.com.

Women’s History Month: Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith famously told us: “Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.”

I have made it my business to oppose the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s proposed Christian Street Historic District which would memorialize a small “light, bright, and damn near white” Negro elite. Cataclysmic events during the period of significance (1910 to 1945) include the Great Depression, the Great Migration, two World Wars, and the New Deal.

The Empress of the Blues lived on Christian Street. Her house is located less than 500 feet outside the arbitrary boundaries of the proposed historic district. The fact that one of the highest paid Black entertainers in the 1920s and ‘30s is excluded from the gentrifiers’ narrative about “Black wealth” tells you all you need to know about the merits of the nomination.

Bessie Smith shaped a fashion aesthetic for blues singers. Drexel University professor Alphonso McClendon, author of Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation, wrote:

Contrary to the sad lyrics they espoused, the blues ladies dressed in extravagant designs that articulated their growing wealth, as well as the changing attitudes of women. … In a publicity photo for Columbia Records [1914], Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, captured the Oriental aesthetic, elegantly draped in a sleeveless net tunic embroidered with beads and floral appliqués that scalloped at the hem. Smith was known for her opulent headdresses that exploited beads, fringe and feathers, conceivably a strategy to emphasize the head as practiced by early African societies.

For info about the “Oriental aesthetic” and the Jazz Age, check out “Venus and Diana: Fashioning the Jazz Age” exhibition presented by the Fox Historic Costume Collection at Westphal College of Media Arts and Design.

Why Christian Street?

Historian and founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, launched Negro History Week the second week of February 1926. Black history became a month-long celebration in 1976. Several Philadelphians are included on Woodson’s iconic broadside, Important Events and Dates in Negro History, including Richard Allen, Anthony Benezet, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, and Robert Purvis.

The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia erased 371 years of Black history and nominated six blocks of Christian Street for designation as Philadelphia’s first “Black-themed” historic district. I voiced opposition to the proposed Christian Street Historic District from the jump (here, here and here). February is the shortest month so I’ll keep it short: Why Christian Street? The most accomplished albeit largely unknown former resident of the proposed historic district, architect Julian F. Abele, did not identify as Negro. His biographer, Dreck Spurlock Wilson, told Smithsonian magazine, “For all intents and purposes, Julian did not consider himself black. He was almost a-racial. He buried himself in being an artist.”

In Julian Abele, Architect and the Beaux Arts, Wilson notes that Abele was not adverse to following in his brother Joseph’s footsteps but he was not light enough to pass for white. He wrote:

Abele’s racial denial approached delusion. He was both a cocoon with interstitial space for only himself and a shell to ward off unwelcome intrusions. It insulated his talent giving him precious time to mature and repelled the exigency of racism from subverting his ambition. He chose an existence that was neither black nor white. It was beige.

In view of his lifelong rejection of his racial identity, Abele would roll over in his grave at the notion that he would anchor a “Black-themed” historic district.

Abele’s great uncle, Absalom Jones, cofounded the Free African Society with Richard Allen who founded Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The historical markers memorializing this history are located at 6th and Lombard streets. Fact is, from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill River there are extant buildings on Lombard Street where Black history happened.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Mother Bethel is central to African American history and culture. Henry O. Tanner, who is included on Woodson’s broadside, created a bas-relief of Bishop Richard Allen, Sarah Allen and the blacksmith shop where the first AME church was built.

I am once again asking: Why Christian Street?

Christian Street Historic District: Which is Negro? Which is White?

The April 1952 issue of Ebony magazine included a quiz, “Which is Negro? Which is White?”

The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia has nominated six blocks of Christian Street for designation as a “Black-themed” historic district. The notables who lived on that stretch, including architect Julian F. Abele, are largely unknown. According to his biographer, Abele did not identify as Negro; he classified himself “other.” Abele and his French wife lived at 1515 Christian Street. In 2021, African Americans are again asking, “Which is Negro? Which is White?”

The Preservation Alliance’s architectural historians claim that “between 1910 and 1945, the west side of Christian Street—from Broad to 20th—was ‘the social center of colored wealth and pride’ in Philadelphia.” Two white men crafted a narrative that flies in the face of decades of research by Black scholars, primary source documents, and African Americans’ lived experience. During the period of significance, “colored wealth” was concentrated among professionals. More doctors, dentists and lawyers lived on Lombard Street, and in West Philly and North Philly than on Christian Street. Colorism was the defining characteristic of the professionals who lived on so-called “Black Doctors’ Row.” Colorism is anti-Black racism by another name. By the way, when did the descriptor Black Doctors’ Row come into use? Before 1968, calling a Negro “black” would lead to a fight.

The myth of Black Doctors’ Row stems from a random article in the Philadelphia Tribune. In Black Bourgeoisie: The Rise of a New Middle Class in the United States, Dr. E. Franklin Frazier noted:

Although the Negro press declares itself to be the spokesman for the Negro group as a whole, it represents essentially the interests and outlook of the black bourgeoisie. Its demand for equality for the Negro in American life is concerned primarily with opportunities which will benefit the black bourgeoisie economically and enhance the social status of the Negro. The Negro press reveals the inferiority complex of the black bourgeoisie and provides a documentation of the attempts of this class to seek compensations for its hurt self-esteem and exclusion from American life. Its exaggerations concerning the economic well-being and cultural achievements of Negroes, its emphasis upon Negro “society” all tend to create a world of make-believe into which the black bourgeoisie can escape from its inferiority and inconsequence in American society.

As for Christian Street’s bougie Negroes being the center of racial pride, don’t get me started. Instead, listen to Dr. Frazier:

Their emotional and mental conflicts arise partly from their constant striving for status within the Negro world, as well as in the estimation of whites. Moreover, they have accepted unconditionally the values of the white bourgeois world: its morals and its canons of respectability, its standards of beauty and consumption. In fact, they have tended to overemphasize their conformity to white ideals. Nevertheless, they are rejected by the white world, and this rejection has created considerable self-hatred, since it is attributed to their Negro characteristics. At the same time, because of their ambivalence towards Negroes, they are extremely sensitive to slights and discriminations which Negroes suffer. Since they do not truly identify themselves with Negroes, the hollowness of the black bourgeoisie’s pretended “racial pride” is revealed in the value which it places upon a white or light complexion.

I will oppose the Christian Street Historic District nomination when it comes before the Philadelphia Historical Commission. For now, I will share some observations of Lawrence Otis Graham, the foremost authority on the Black elite. In his New York Times bestseller Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class, Graham acknowledged:

Skin color has always played an important role in determining one’s popularity, prestige, and mobility within the black elite. It is hard to find an upper-class black American family that has been well-to-do since before the 1950s that has not endured family conversations on the virtues of “good hair, sharp features, and nice complexion.” These code words for having less Negroid features have been exchanged over time for more politically correct ones, but it is a fact that the black upper class thinks about these things more than most.

The Negro press also thought about skin color more than most. A large part of their revenue was derived from advertisements for skin bleaching products.

Graham’s kind of people — “the doctor-lawyer, high-church, high-yellow, Episcopalian crowd” — lived on Christian Street where the first meeting of Jack and Jill of America Inc. was held at the home of Marion Turner Stubbs who was married to Dr. Frederick D. Stubbs.

Graham grew up in Jack and Jill. In his chapter, “Jack and Jill: Where Elite Black Kids Are Separated from the Rest,” he wrote:

In its early years, Jack and Jill—like many groups that catered to the black establishment in the first half of the twentieth century—attracted a negative reaction from many blacks who lacked the resources, the pedigree, or the physical appearance to be considered for membership. History shows that some chapters, particularly the ones in the larger southern cities, were clearly guilty of placing a great emphasis on these characteristics, but others were unfairly attacked for doing the same thing when what really was happening was that they were just nominating people who were in their social circle, their church, their bridge club. And not surprisingly, these darker, less-pedigreed people had long before been shut out of those institutions.

Jack and Jill kids did not play with the kids at the Christian Street YMCA which was founded in 1889. The founding meeting was held at the Washington Square West home of William Still.

The Christian Street Historic District would memorialize a caste system that stems from slavery and the rape of Black women and girls by their enslavers. White supremacy comes in many guises, including colorism and self-hatred. Christian Street notables were “light, bright, and damn near white.” If Negroes did not have white-adjacent features or an economic status that “compensated” for their skin color and hair texture, they had to “get back, get back, get back.”

Henry Minton House, Systemic Cronyism and Historic Preservation

John Brown launched the raid on Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859.

The home of elite caterer Henry Minton was one of the last places the freedom fighter laid his head. Minton was an abolitionist and stockholder in the Underground Railroad. In The Philadelphia Negro, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that Minton “wielded great personal influence, aided the Abolition cause to no little degree, and made Philadelphia noted for its cultivated and well-to-do Negro citizens.”

Minton was a cosigner of an iconic Civil War recruitment poster.

In Black History Month 2019, the Henry Minton House was considered for listing on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The Committee on Historic Designation unanimously recommended designating the property a historic landmark. On April 12, 2019, the Historical Commission ignored the recommendation and denied historic designation. City Council President Darrell Clarke’s designee was the lone vote in support of the nomination. Mayor Jim Kenney appointed 12 of the 13 commissioners.

On the eve of Black History Month 2021, New York City-based Midwood Investment & Development demolished the Henry Minton House. Midwood’s lawyer, Matthew McClure, was a member of the Mayor’s Task Force on Historic Preservation.

Since April 2019, I have railed against the Commission’s vote (here, here and here). As it turns out, the denial of historic designation was less about systemic racism and more about systemic cronyism. Last week, Josh Lippert, Department of Licenses & Inspections’ designee, blew the whistle. Lippert said he was “directed by the administration as a designee to the commission for L&I to vote against designation for a specific project for what I can tell was for development and/or political reasons.” He has since resigned.

Paul Chrystie, a spokesperson for the city, shrugged off Lippert’s allegation. Chrystie told WHYY, “There is nothing untoward about a Commissioner instructing his representative about how to represent him. Accordingly, in those cases in which the administration [read: Mayor Kenney] has a position on a proposed designation before [the historical commission], those departments are expected to be receptive to that position.”

Chrystie’s comment begs the question: Why would the Mayor and his appointees have a “position” other than to preserve one of the few extant buildings associated with the Underground Railroad?

The Office of the Inspector General has opened an investigation. Councilmember Helen Gym (At Large) said in a statement:

We need to trust in the integrity of our public institutions. The recent allegations by a member of the Philadelphia Historical Commission must be taken very seriously.

Last year, I joined organizers, historians, and activists across the city to protect the Camac Baths, which proudly displayed our city’s tribute to LGBT visionary Gloria Casarez, and the Minton Residence, home and workplace of abolitionist Henry Minton. I share in the community outrage when the Commission denied these locations historical designations that could have protected them from destruction.

The OIG says, “See Something? Say Something.” At the April 12, 2019 meeting of the Historical Commission, I saw the commissioners ignore the unanimous recommendation of the Committee on Historic Designation. The chair of the Committee switched sides and voted to deny protection to the Henry Minton House.

To this day, Emily Cooperman has not explained why she changed her vote. So I reported the switcheroo to the OIG. Stay tuned.

John Coltrane House Update

Two years ago my call to action to save the John Coltrane House generated pushback from folks who have been hanging around the historic landmark for decades and on whose watch the property deteriorated.

I ignored the naysayers and nominated the National Historic Landmark for listing on 2020 Pennsylvania At Risk.

As jazz lovers commemorate Coltrane’s heavenly birthday on September 23, there’s cause for celebration: Coltrane’s Strawberry Mansion rowhouse is not under imminent threat of demolition by neglect. On May 25, 2021, the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation was awarded $300,000 under Pennsylvania’s Blight Remediation Program. According to state Rep. Donna Bullock, the funds will be used “to restore the currently blighted Coltrane House and its neighboring blighted properties which will expand the footprint of the Coltrane House to lead to the creation of the John Coltrane Museum and Cultural Arts Center.”

Truth be told, the state grant is a drop in the bucket of the funds needed to restore the blighted residential row, and establish a museum and community arts center. On May 3, 2021, the Strawberry Mansion CDC announced the completion of the John Coltrane Museum and Cultural Arts Center Site Feasibility Study undertaken by the Community Design Collaborative which provides pro bono preliminary design services to nonprofit organizations. Parenthetically, the Collaborative noted that renewed interest in the Coltrane House was “due to the building having been recently placed on the Preservation Pennsylvania’s 2020 Pennsylvania At Risk list.”

The Collaborative proposed three development options that require access to or ownership of neighboring properties. The costs range from $3,454,884 to $5,825,575. The estimates do not include acquisition, staff, program and exhibition costs.

The Coltrane House is located at 1511 N 33rd Street. 1509 N 33rd Street was sold to 1509 N 33rd St LLC for $235,000 on January 27, 2021. 1509 N 33rd St LLC transferred the deed to Bluebird Lending LLC for $0.00 on March 18, 2021. Bluebird Lending LLC is a private real estate lender that specializes in access to fast capital, and “construction management in neighborhoods undergoing urban revitalization.”

1513 N 33rd Street is privately owned. After years of nonpayment, there are no delinquent property taxes. The property’s assessed value is $132,800. The Philadelphia Housing Authority owns 1515 N 33rd Street which has a market value of $439,700. PHA intends to convey the property to Strawberry Mansion CDC subject to approval by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the financial feasibility of the Coltrane House Project.

The road to rehabilitation of the Coltrane House is long and winding. In the meantime, there are things we can do to signal a change is going to come. For instance, I recently reported illegal dumping to Philly 311.

Philadelphia has a chronic trash problem. So if you see illegal dumping on the sidewalk, you can submit a report to Philly 311. I also reported the unsealed window on the second floor of 1509 N 33rd Street which exposes the property to the elements and further water damage. The building code violation is a threat to the Coltrane House with which it shares a party wall. L&I “is actively working to solve the issue.”

Mary Lyerly Alexander, aka Cousin Mary, did her part. We must step up and do our part to ensure the jazz giant’s legacy is not erased from public memory.

International Underground Railroad Month 2021

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared September International Underground Railroad Month in 2019. More freedom seekers fled from bondage in Maryland than from any other state. September was chosen because it was the month that Frederick Douglass (September 3, 1838) and Harriet Tubman (September 17, 1849) took their flight to freedom.

In 2020, Pennsylvania was one of eleven states that recognized International Underground Railroad Month. From Adams County to Warren County, Pennsylvania was a hub of organized resistance to slavery.

Hundreds of fleeing bondmen passed through Bucks County where there were numerous Underground Railroad stations, particularly in the boroughs of Quakertown, Buckingham and New Hope. Stationmasters included George Corson, Mahlon Linton, Jonathan Magill, and the Paxson and Pierce families. According to Dr. Charles L. Blockson, a small group of free blacks who settled in New Hope used Mount Moriah A.M.E. Church, founded circa 1818, as a hiding place for the self-emancipated. In his book, The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, Blockson notes the “well-concealed settlement was known as ‘Darkeytown.'”

Mount Moriah A.M.E. Church Cemetery is the final resting place for some formerly enslaved, including Henry Lee, and Rachel Moore and two of her children.

Jesse Crooks, an independent researcher and archivist, has done extensive research on Mount Moriah. He shared Edward H. Magill’s remarks before the Bucks County Historical Society on January 18, 1898. Magill, second president of Swarthmore College and son of an Underground Railroad stationmaster, recounted:

Rachel Moore was a slave near Elkton, Maryland, more than fifty years ago. She was manumitted by her master, and received free-papers from the court at Elkton. I had hoped to present these papers, as they were long carefully cherished in her possession, but they have been mislaid since her death. She had six children who were still slaves, and succeeded in bringing all of them North, aided by the Underground Railroad. As usual they traveled only by night, resting in concealment during the day. Think of a mother starting unaided, with her six children, to a distant and unknown country, seeking for her children the blessings of freedom which she herself had already acquired! Does not the fact speak volumes for the cruelty of the system of oppression from which she was making her escape?

They sometimes met with friends who took them in and cared for them during the day, and sent them on at night. Sometimes they were less fortunate, and spent the day of anxious concealment all alone. The first names that I have of those with whom they stopped are a family of Lewises with whom they spent two days at Phoenixville, and who then sent them on, in a wagon at night, to a friend named Paxson, near Norristown, who in turn took them into Norristown to the home of that well-known friend of the slave, Jacob L. Paxson, where they remained two weeks. From there they were forwarded to the home of W. H. Johnson, where homes were found for the four eldest children in the families of Thomas Paxson, Joseph Fell, Edward Williams and John Blackfan. Rachel, with her two younger children, came to the home of my father, Jonathan P. Magill, where they remained for several years. I am indebted to Fanny, one of these children, for the details of this account.

Sadly, Moore’s final resting place has been abandoned. Jesse Crooks and I are collaborating to save Mount Moriah Cemetery from decades of neglect. Burial grounds matter. They are places where the ancestors were honored and accorded the dignity and respect in death that were denied them in life.

Help may be on the way. The “African American Burial Grounds Study Act,” introduced by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), unanimously passed in the Senate on December 20, 2020. Sen. Brown is expected to reintroduce the bill which would help identify, preserve and restore Black burial grounds. In a letter in support of the Senate bill, a national coalition of organizations representing, i.a., preservationists, historians, archaeologists and conservationists wrote:

Cemeteries are places of tribute and memory, connecting communities with their past. Unfortunately, many African-American burial grounds from both before and after the Civil War are in a state of disarray or inaccessibility. Beginning with slavery and continuing through the Jim Crow era, African-Americans were restricted in where they could bury their dead. Local laws segregated burial grounds by race. These sites were often confined to remote areas or marginal property, and they frequently were not provided the same sort of state or local support or assistance as predominantly white cemeteries. As a result, many jurisdictions are unaware of the existence of these historic sites; even when their location is known, the task of restoring, preserving, and maintaining these burial grounds can be expensive, difficult, and require technical expertise

For information on how you can help ensure the ancestors’ graves are kept clean, contact Faye Anderson at andersonatlarge@gmail.com.

Christian Street Historic District: Real Evidence of Colorism, Systemic Racism, Displacement and White Privilege

Philadelphia is in the throes of a demolition crisis. In #Demodelphia, nothing is sacred.

Gentrifiers in Graduate Hospital, the city’s most gentrified neighborhood, are concerned that developers are erasing the historic fabric of blocks from which African Americans have been displaced. To preserve their streetscape – and property values – they propose that a stretch of Christian Street be designated a historic district. They unilaterally determined the period of significance for Philadelphia’s first Black-themed historic district is 1910 to 1945. They blithely erased 271 years of Black history. The first enslaved Africans were brought to Philadelphia in 1639.

Tellingly, in “Philadelphia’s African American Heritage: A Brief Historic Context Statement for the Preservation Alliance’s Inventory of African American Historic Sites (2009),” Dana Dorman wrote:

Meanwhile, the large influx of southern blacks into Philadelphia and other northern urban centers helped spur a new flourishing of African American culture from the 1910s to 1940s. Encouraged to seek inspiration in their own history and experiences, artists like Jessie Redmon Fauset, Marian Anderson, John Coltrane and Paul Robeson helped to promote black self-determination and equality through their art.

Philadelphia is home to Mother Bethel AME Church, William Still House, Robert Purvis House, National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom sites, Marian Anderson House Museum, Paul Robeson House, Black National Historic Landmarks, including the Johnson House, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper House and John Coltrane House, and the Institute for Colored Youth, now known as Cheyney University, the first HBCU. Yet the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia nominated six blocks of Christian Street for designation as Philadelphia’s first Black-themed historic district. The character-defining features of “Black Doctors Row” were classism and colorism, a legacy of slavery.

By the end of the 1920s, Bessie Smith was the highest paid Black performer. She lived on Christian Street but not on Black Doctors Row. The Empress of the Blues’ skin tone was too dark.

The Wander Inn was the last place where Bessie Smith performed in Philadelphia before she was killed in a car accident in Mississippi. The Green Book site was owned by Forrest White Woodard, founder of The Philadelphia Independent. Published from 1931 to 1971, at one point it was the Black newspaper with the widest circulation. Woodard was the richest Black man in Philadelphia in the 1930s.

Philadelphia’s Black elite dates back to the eighteenth century. Under Pennsylvania’s gradual abolition law, slavery did not end in the state until 1850. James Forten was one of the wealthiest men in antebellum Philadelphia. Was that “real evidence of progress?”

Dr. Charles L. Blockson is the leading authority on Black history in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. His books include Philadelphia Guide: African-American State Historical Markers and Philadelphia: 1639-2000. A search for “Black Doctors Row” on Temple University Libraries Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection returned no results. Apparently The Philadelphia Tribune is the only source for Black Doctors Row. During the period of significance, the newspaper catered to “Old Philadelphians,” e.g., Bustills, Montiers and Bowsers. Kathryn Fambro Woodard was Philadelphia’s first female publisher. She took over The Philadelphia Independent after the death of her husband. In a 1984 interview, Mrs. Woodard said, “The Tribune was more of a sensational paper, and The Independent was more of a community paper.”

To be clear, some Black notables and professionals lived on Christian Street. However, many more lived on Lombard Street, and in West and North Philadelphia. The reference book, “Who’s Who in Colored America: A General Biographical Dictionary of Men and Women of African Descent,” was first published in 1915. The First Edition included 17 Philadelphians, none of whom lived on Christian Street; two lived on Lombard Street.

The Sixth Edition, “Who’s Who in Colored America: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living Persons of African Descent in America, 1941-1945,” included 11 Philadelphians, two of whom lived on Christian Street – John Cornelius Asbury and Agnes Berry Montier, MD. Asbury, a lawyer and state legislator, was married to Ida Elizabeth Bowser Asbury, the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Montier was the first Black woman to earn a medical degree from Temple University.

Realtor, civil rights leader and philanthropist Addie W. Dickerson was listed in the Sixth Edition of “Who’s Who in Colored America.” Dickerson lived in West Philly. Her office was located at 16th and Bainbridge streets.

Bainbridge Street is two blocks south of South Street which during the period of significance was the center of Black Philadelphia. The commercial hub and entertainment district is memorialized in novels and song.

While the “light, bright, and damn near white” crowd was putting on the Ritz on Christian Street, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were putting on a show on South Street.

John Coltrane Lives!

In February 2021, a notice was posted on 1509 N 33rd St. that the building will be demolished on or after March 10, 2021.

The property shares a party wall with the John Coltrane House which is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The Department of Licenses & Inspections (L&I) has long known about the deteriorating condition of 1509 N 33rd St. The National Historic Landmark was included on 2020 Preservation At Risk, in part, due to the condition of the adjacent property. We did not know what, if any, measures the demolition contractor had taken to protect the John Coltrane House.

L&I played Sergeant Schultz.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission did the “Philly Shrug.” They said they do not have the authority to require the owner to stabilize or brace the historic building. In essence, a faceless LLC that is here today and gone tomorrow can whack away at the John Coltrane House and let the bricks fall where they may. With no one holding the owner accountable, I did what I do. I made some noise.

Fast forward to June 17, 2021, City Council passed Bill No. 210389 which would amend the Philadelphia Building Construction and Occupancy Code and provide safeguards for “work impacting historic structures.” The contractor must provide notice to the adjacent property owner, document the existing condition of all adjacent buildings, and submit a construction plan to L&I.

Mayor Jim Kenney signed the bill on July 15, 2021. The provisions go into effect on January 1, 2023. John Coltrane’s legacy will live on in the historic buildings and structures that will be protected from construction activity taking place next door. It’s wonderful!

Yorktown Under Siege

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.