Last summer, the Philadelphia Housing Authority embarked upon its most ambitious redevelopment project in almost a decade, a 10-year, half billion-dollar redevelopment project that would create 1,200 units of mixed-income housing in North Philadelphia’s deeply impoverished Sharswood neighborhood. To realize this sweeping vision, the agency will tear down the crumbling, 1960s-era Norman Blumberg apartment towers and replace them with low rise, single-family housing, much as it has done elsewhere in the city.
What makes this project different–and a source of concern to preservationists–is that PHA will also condemn at least 372 structures, including hundreds of row houses and more than two dozen commercial properties along Ridge Avenue, along with more than a thousand vacant lots spread across 40 city blocks. Although many buildings in the area are dilapidated and not “historic” in a classic sense, Sharswood remains a 19th century row home neighborhood steeped in history spanning from the city’s beer-making heyday to the Jazz Age through to the Civil Rights era.
While the project is already underway — condemnation notices were sent out months ago, and demolition of vacant row houses on the 2100 of Master Street and 2400 block of Oxford Street has begun — PHA officials told the Hidden City Daily in December that the agency has yet to decide which of the structures obtained through eminent domain will be demolished and which, if any, they intend to rehabilitate.
“We’re going to be looking at buildings on a case-by-case basis,” said Nichole Tillman, a spokesperson for PHA. “We are committed to balancing the need to develop affordable housing with the needs of historic preservation.”
Despite these assurances, the agency has not completed a federally-mandated “Section 106” review, which requires surveying the entire project area for historic structures, and exploring ways to minimize any adverse effects. The delay prompted an October 15th letter from the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). “The area for consideration includes several previously identified properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places,” wrote SHPO deputy Serena Bellew. “There may be additional properties as of yet unidentified that warrant…consideration.”
The letter urged the agency to conduct a historical review as soon as possible. A PHA official insisted in December that they would complete the required review, however the agency still had not done so as of late January. That delay, along with the agency’s spotty history of incorporating infill and rehab into its projects, has preservationists worried.
“This is not a matter of insufficient prodding or interest,” said Aaron Wunsch, an assistant professor with the University of Pennsylvania’s Historic Preservation graduate program. “PHA has all but ceased to work with other city and state agencies, notably those involved with planning,”
Others are concerned the agency will use the blighted nature of the neighborhood as an excuse to justify demolition.
“[PHA’s] language at community meetings is always that the neighborhood is beyond repair,” said Molly Lester, co-chair of Young Friends of the Preservation Alliance, which is lobbying PHA to rehab historic structures in the project zone. Lester noted that many properties could be repaired for far less than the $400,000 per unit PHA plans to spend to build new housing.
Beyond preservationists’ concerns, there are neighborhood residents who don’t want to lose their homes or businesses. At least 73 of the properties subject to eminent domain proceedings are currently occupied by residents or business owners, which PHA says it will pay to relocate.
“Where am I supposed to go?” asked Kelvin Polanco, whose family owns a corner store and two apartment units at 24th and Oxford streets. “I have two daughters who depend on the income from that business. I have employees with families depend on that income. We don’t want to leave.”
A Rich and Varied Neighborhood History
What PHA calls “The Sharswood/Blumberg Choice Neighborhoods Transformation Plan” covers the area between Girard to the south, Cecil B. Moore to the north, 19th Street to the east and 27th Street to the west. For most of Philadelphia’s first two centuries the section was known as the Penn District and consisted mainly of rambling farmland.
That changed in 1848, when Girard College finally opened to white, male orphans after decades of construction, but development didn’t begin in earnest until the late 1850s, when German immigrants built breweries from the area’s western edge toward the Schuylkill River, attracted by its fresh water and ice caves available along its banks. Blocks of modest row homes for brewery workers were built nearby in the decades that followed. In those boomtown days, the western part of Sharswood was known as Engelside, after the sprawling Bergner & Engel brewery at 32nd and Thompson Streets.
In the early 20th century, African-Americans fleeing southern Jim Crow laws began to settle into what was then a mixed German, Irish and Jewish neighborhood, and by the mid-1930s, the area had become predominantly African-American. Cecil B Moore Avenue, then named Columbia Avenue, became known as “The Golden Strip” for its string of jazz clubs and raucous nightlife. The northern edge of PHA’s planned redevelopment swallows the western edge of the Golden Strip, near the five point intersection at Ridge and Cecil B Moore avenues, frequented by greats like Charlie “Bird” Parker, John Coltrane and Odean Pope. The Ridge Cotton Club, the Blue Note, Little Harlem and the Crystal Room were a few of the dozens of high-profile jazz venues that emerged from the 1920s into the 1960s, often described as a tough, working–class proving ground for young jazz artists trying to make it big. The Negro Motorist’s Green Book, a guide to safe places for black travelers in the segregated United States, detailed numerous other hotels, restaurants and taverns in the vicinity.
“Philadelphia has a rich jazz heritage…But as I got into this project I was stunned at how much there was. I’ve found maybe ninety or a hundred clubs,” said Faye Anderson, director of All That Jazz, a non-profit dedicated to Philly’s jazz history.
Lawyer and civil rights leader Cecil B Moore also called the area home, and rose to fame by reconciling the neighborhood’s past and present. He organized a string of sit-ins against a century of black exclusion from Girard College, and was eventually elected to Philadelphia City Council. But decades of economic deprivation and police oppression of black residents came to a head with the Columbia Avenue race riots of 1964. The last white residents fled and prosperous black residents left, too, causing the neighborhood to slide deeper into poverty. About five years ago, condo developments began to pop up in the southern fringes of Sharswood, with new coffee shops, bars and restaurants opening on Girard Avenue west of 25th Street. Yet little has changed for many residents, as recent census data shows: 44 percent of residents live in poverty, 16 percent are unemployed, and 20 percent of the existing structures are vacant.
An Uncertain Future
The clubs that once defined the neighborhood are gone now, but some of the buildings that once played host to jazz greats still stand: “The Point” bar is now a pizza joint, and the former Hotel LaSalle, where many traveling acts stayed, has become a stuccoed apartment building. The skeletal Checker Club at Ridge and Oxford streets, a narrow bar that sat next to the legendary, now-demolished Pearl Theater, stands vacant. Anderson is convinced people like Coltrane frequented the Checker Club. “It’s safe to say that the greats played there because they played all the clubs along Ridge and Columbia [Avenues],” said Anderson.
Whoever may have played there, today the old Checker Club building is on PHA’s eminent domain list, its future uncertain. Few structures have been surveyed for historical merit, by the PHA or any other agency, to the chagrin of Anderson and many preservationists. Only a single structure in the entire neighborhood, master block printer Dox Thrash’s former residence on Cecil B Moore, is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.
“The reason there are so few designated buildings in Sharswood is the same reason there are so few designated buildings elsewhere in Philadelphia outside of its center, it’s because the research hasn’t been done,” said Penn’s Wunsch.
Yet even if a handful of properties are protected, that still leaves entire blocks of surviving row home stock likely facing demolition by the PHA. In addition to Polanco’s storefront, the rest of his block of Oxford Street, vacant and dilapidated, but with largely intact facades, is also being condemned.
Amy Lambert, a Penn Preservation Program grad student, who spent the Fall, 2015 semester looking for buildings worth nominating to the Historic Register, believes PHA could be overlooking an opportunity not only to rehab numerous historic structures, but also to save money on construction costs. “We need to define preservation and the cultural landscape for them so they know that what we want is not incongruent with what they’re doing in Sharswood,” said Lambert. “PHA says it’s committed to historic preservation, but I don’t think they know what that term means.”
To PHA’s credit, it has donated $580,000 to Habitat for Humanity to fund the renovation of 40 existing row homes in the area. Yet that investment represents about .01 percent of the project’s total cost over ten years and is not available to property owners on the condemnation list. People like Polanco, have two options: accept PHA’s relocation services or engage in a costly legal battle.
“We’re on the list, but we’re fighting it,” said Polanco, about his store on Oxford street. “It’s depressing. I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”