Preservation Month 2019: Gentrification and Displacement

May is Preservation Month, a time to celebrate historic places that matter to you. What matters to me is the loss of historic places that hold the ancestors’ stories of faith, resistance and triumph.

A recent report by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that Philadelphia has the fourth highest rate of gentrification. The 34-page report is encapsulated in a statement by Midwood Development & Investment CEO John Usdan who lays bare that gentrification and cultural displacement go hand-in-hand:

Because the city’s so rich in history and has all these great historic buildings and amazing places where you want to congregate, it’s exactly what the demographic moving to Philly wants.

The demographic moving to Philly does not look like the demographic that is being displaced. At the same time Usdan gushes over Philadelphia’s rich history, he plans to demolish the Henry Minton House. For Usdan, black history apparently is not American history.

As I commented before the Philadelphia Historical Commission when the property was nominated for listing on the local register, this places matters:

Henry Minton belonged to an elite guild of caterers and was a leader in the free black community. In The Philadelphia Negro, W.E.B. DuBois 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.”

There is not much more to add other than Minton provided freedom fighter John Brown “with bed and board” shortly before his raid upon Harper’s Ferry. It should also be noted that Minton is listed on the iconic Civil War poster, “Men of Color, To Arms!” Clearly, the nomination satisfies Criteria A and J for Designation.

The provenance of the front façade is a distraction. The property is not being nominated because of its architectural significance. So the National Register roadmap for evaluating integrity is irrelevant. Viewed through the African American lens, it’s not about bricks and mortar. It’s about recognizing that our stories matter. African American history matters.

Commission members acknowledged the property does indeed meet the criteria for designation. Still, they reversed the unanimous decision of the Committee on Historic Designation and voted to toss the building on the trash heap of history.

Henry Minton Residence - Committee on Designation Vote

#PhilaHistorical Commission Vote to Decline Designation - April 12, 2019
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to British North America. While African American history is more than slavery, our story begins with the arrival of “20 and odd Negroes” in Virginia. So whether one focuses on 1639 when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Philadelphia or 1939 when Billie Holiday first recorded “Strange Fruit,” the African American story cannot be told without Philadelphia.

So where’s our story? I will talk about disappearing blackness on WHYY Radio Times on Thursday, May 9, 2019, 10:00 – 11:00 am. The station can be heard in Philadelphia and New Jersey. You can join the conversation on Twitter (@whyyradiotimes) or call 888-477-9499.

Ironically, WHYY is in the footprint of Pennsylvania Hall, a purpose-built meeting place for abolitionists that was burned to the ground by a pro-slavery mob three days after it opened. Philadelphia’s mayor, firefighters and police stood by and did nothing.

Pennsylvania Hall Marker

Pennsylvania Hall - WHYY

Fast forward to today, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney does nothing as black presence is erased from public spaces.

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Friends of Abolition Hall Appeals Approval of Townhouses Stone’s Throw From Historic Landmark

In October, the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors approved K. Hovnanian Homes’ application to build 67 townhouses on the historic Corson Homestead. The cookie-cutter development would be a stone’s throw from Abolition Hall, an Underground Railroad station where runaway slaves found shelter in the purpose-built structure and surrounding fields.

Abolition Hall - 11.25.18

Friends of Abolition Hall and two nearby property owners have filed an appeal of the Supervisors’ decision. The Friends group released the following statement:

Through an appeal filed on November 21, 2018 with the Montgomery County, PA, Court of Common Pleas, the Friends of Abolition Hall is pursuing its objections to the K. Hovnanian plan to subdivide the historic Corson Homestead at the heart of the Plymouth Meeting National Historic Register District. The Friends assert that in judging the plan’s compliance with local Codes and Ordinances, the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors abused its discretion and committed errors of law.

“The historic values of our Plymouth Meeting area are being infringed upon. We should remember the events that took place here, and the courage of the people whose lives touched this hallowed land. We should be honoring this homestead,” said Appellant Mary Celine Childs, who has lived nearby for 42 years and is a past-president of the Whitemarsh Lions Club. Ms. Childs and another nearby neighbor, Anita Thallmayer, have joined with the Friends of Abolition Hall in filing this appeal.

The Corson Homestead, consisting of 10.45 acres, was a busy stop on the Underground Railroad, the pathway to freedom for fugitives fleeing the abomination of slavery. With the passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, both fugitives and those who gave them shelter were at great risk—of arrest, fines, and in the case of the men, women and children who sought freedom, capture and painful repercussions. After the Civil War, artist Thomas Hovenden, who married into the Corson family, made the farm his home, and converted Abolition Hall to his studio. It was here that he painted The Last Moments of John Brown, Breaking Home Ties, and many portraits that depict the residents, laborers, and artisans of the villages of Plymouth Meeting and Cold Point. Hovenden’s work is featured prominently in major collections throughout the United States and abroad. The homestead is individually listed on the National Register, and is likely eligible for National Historic Landmark status.

Sydelle Zove, convener of Friends of Abolition Hall, said:

We have asked the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas to overturn this bad decision or require that Whitemarsh reopen the hearing. The latter would allow us to offer testimony that was previously blocked. That testimony would have further demonstrated the developer’s failure to comply with key elements of the Zoning Code. Code compliance is a requirement for conditional use approval.

Zove added:

We are not opposed to the development of the historic Corson Homestead, nor are we attempting to block or interfere with the sale of the land from the heirs to this developer or any other buyer. We do believe the property deserves a better plan, one that properly acknowledges and respects the unique legacy of this homestead – its role as a busy stop on the Underground Railroad, as a meeting place for abolitionists, and as the home and studio of artist Thomas Hovenden. Furthermore, we are deeply concerned about the integrity of a documented wetland, and about the fate of the three historic structures – Hovenden House, Stone Barn and Abolition Hall.

Hovnanian is one of the largest developers in the country with a stable of lawyers on speed dial. With this appeal, Friends of Abolition Hall will continue to incur legal fees. They need your support. You can make a secure, tax-deductible contribution here.