In February, 2008, in a Possible City column on PhillySkyline.com, I reported on emerging–and contested–visions for Kensington and Norris Square. The title of the column, “It Really Could Be Something,” was a quote from Dan Rhodes, the former owner of the Buck Hosiery mill that burned down Monday morning, killing two firefighters. Rhodes, who had great, but unrealistic plans for the building before he sold it to current owners Yechiel and Michael Lichtenstein, was referring to the sense of possibility inherent in the post-industrial landscape of East Kensington.
We’re standing in the building’s suggestive cobblestone courtyard, between the soaring mill and the machine house. It’s gray, chilly, and Rhodes is telling me why he loves Philadelphia. “You can’t find this anywhere else,” he says, and “you can get anywhere on the El you want.”
Now, just four years later, we might change the name of that story to “It Really Can’t Be Much,” for so much of what Rhodes–and I–found special is gone (or soon to be gone), including five buildings that instilled so much potential in the landscape: Buck Hosiery, the two monumental banks at Front and Norris, the former Washington Mills, destroyed by fire in 2010, and St. Boniface church.
Monday’s fire wasn’t surprising. In fact, we had just asked Ryan Briggs to report on the building because we knew it to be in danger (click HERE for Ryan’s excellent story), a result of criminally negligent owners, a soft market, and uneven and unenforceable regulation.
But there is more to it, and some of it has to do with the way we mingle our despair with violence, an old Philadelphia trait. Fire and demolition are born of the self-hate and carelessness, which hangs heavy in the Kensington air. Witness the Norris Square Civic Association president Pat DeCarlo’s sang froid in the face of St. Boniface’s deterioration. “Too bad they built it out of brownstone,” she told me in that 2008 story. “It just doesn’t last. Pieces are flaking off, there’s nothing we can do.” It’s the voice of the bloodless killer–and St. Boniface, the beloved church of so many who grew up in the neighborhood, bit the dust last month.
I suppose there was nothing she could do about the two monumental banks at Front and Norris, either. “They [Norris Square Civic Association] own it and they let it die and nothing happens,” said architect and developer Kevin McDonald, in the 2008 article.
And yet it would be disingenuous to place the blame for the neighborhood’s decomposition on DeCarlo–or even people like the Lichtensteins, for they’ve been allowed to let it happen. The bigger issue is what losing these five buildings in four years represents: an enduring colossal failure on the part of policymakers and preservation advocates to protect either neighborhood or industrial architecture. Had we anything close to a rigorous system of incentives for neighborhood preservation, had we more than a handful of weakly regulated historic districts, had we a willingness to see preservation not as an end in itself but as a tool for building interesting and dynamic city neighborhoods, had we learned to treat this enormous inheritance–you can’t find it anywhere else–as something to cherish, love, use, adapt, and build on, we would not have allowed Michael Lichtenstein to leave his building so vulnerable.
I still remember the first time I came off the El at York-Dauphin out into a skyscape of smokestacks above the brick and terracotta fortresses, a place that still reeked of power and possibility. The scale of these buildings, of each of those now or soon to be lost, was immense enough to remind us that this was more than just another city neighborhood down on its heels. It was a place to stir the imagination.
Now, unfortunately, the imagination–and the possibility–is shrinking as the despair only continues to grow.
Each year we limp closer toward making this city a place not worth caring about. What special character will Kensington or, for that matter, any neighborhood in this city have after we allow every building in them to burn down or be otherwise demolished? The hosiery building, the banks, these are just at the tail end of a 60 year process of destruction that will end as it began: with a shrug.
The crux of the situation to me is that Americans are just bad at cities. We built some nice places a few hundred years ago, then we started to desert them in the 50s, and now we regularly starve all but a few of support for programs they might enact to help themselves. I’m sure that neither Michael Nutter nor anyone on city council wants to see our historic buildings neglected to the point of destruction. But when they can’t even figure out how to effectively pay for schooling, a much more immediate and fundamental need for any community, how can they hope to tackle to existential problem of negligent landlords?
The only thing I could imagine happening is that the department of revenue figures out how to enforce the unpaid taxes and liens on a building, forcing the owners to either pay up or sell the building to someone who might take better care of it. They have that weapon – the building had over $60,000 in unpaid taxes.
That said, I hope everyone lives in the city and reads this and gets outraged by it contacts those who might be able to do something about it in the future. This was in the 7th district, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and her email address is [email protected]. Call the mayor’s office, the number’s (215) 686-2181. If you don’t make yourself heard, then the shrug Thesestreets talked about is the best you’ll ever get, and this will be far from the last building to fall.
Councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez is the sponsor of the “land bank” bill. Anyone who thinks the Buck Hosiery fire was not a good thing, or who thinks blight and tax delinquency are bad for the city, should not even bother contacting her office. These problems will be magnified severalfold if her bill is passed.
The plans for a new building at St. Boniface look great. That whole complex has funds to be revitalized so that the Norris Square Park can thrive. You fail to mention that althought the church came down (and was falling down around the community’s ears) there are three beautiful buildings there that remain. If the Council Person doesn’t block the project, the neighborhood will have a great anchor for its future.
We would be thrilled to publish the renderings of the project that would replace St. Boniface and talk in more detail about it. –ed.
There was never a need to tear the magnificent St. Boniface church down. The demolition people said that it would have stood another 100+ years. In the words of one foreman, “You guys were sold a bill of goods that this was crumbling.” Parts of the church that were falling were strictly ornamental and not structural. Those could have been corrected with grouting and pointing of cracks before water caused further damage. Patricia DeCarlo and her NSCA are practicing demolition by neglect.
MQS demolished the church. She got the funds committed and the City of Philadelphia took it down.
NSCA took down the small brick convent to the east.
So now that you know the facts, is it MQS that is practicing demolition by neglect? And the Redemptorist Parish that was sold a bill of goods? NO! They both had data that the foreman and you, did not.
Nathaniel, thank you for writing this excellent article which takes a wider view than the current disaster at the Thomas Buck building. I have been blogging about the destruction of St. Boniface on Facebook for weeks, and thought I was the only one speaking up about it.
The monumental and irreplaceable bank at Front and Norris is next on Norris Square Civic’s demolition list, and I fear that none of us will be able to stop it. Whether it is short sighted groups like NSC who actively erase our architectural and cultural heritage, or deadbeat owners like the Lichtensteins who destroy through indifference and neglect,the results are the same. Our community is deprived of the great possibilities inherent in each of these buildings, and our neighborhoods made less attractive and unique. Without a past, without an understanding of where we have been, we cannot have a meaningful future.
It’s important that for the good of the broader community people who make these comments speak to the facts and stop offering irresponsible accusations and rumors. I was present in several meetings years ago where church officials announced the closing of the St. Boniface parish (merged with Visitation BVM) and provided detailed information as to why they could not finance the extensive and costly repairs (over $2M) necessary just to keep the building up. Demolition people may know a lot about demolition, but they may not know enough about finance, investment and demographic change. So, get your facts correct, do some soul searching and check what’s in your heart. It will do you good, I promise.