Op-Ed: Preserve Cultural Legacy, Too, Through Rebuild

May 21, 2024 | by Ashley Hahn

Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the Spring 2024 issue of Extant, a publication of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

Kingsessing Recreation Center at 4901 Kingsessing Avenue was built in 1916. It is currently undergoing major renovations through the Rebuilt program. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Rebuild was billed as a generational chance to reinvest in and rehabilitate our parks, recreation centers, and libraries–many historic but few designated–and the program may be former Mayor Jim Kenney’s most positive preservation legacy. While preservation is not an explicit Rebuild objective, it is one of its outcomes. Rebuild represents a renewal of our collective commitment to stewarding the city’s legacy public assets, honoring their civic promise, their enduring programs, the deep and generational community relationships they support, their historic architecture, and quality public design. That’s just the kind of layered preservation our current moment demands. To date, however, Rebuild’s focus has been largely physical. The task ahead is to foreground forms of cultural preservation as part of Rebuild’s projects.

Our historic Carnegie libraries and recreation centers like Kingsessing or Athletic are public places that were built to express clear civic pride. But their impressive architecture is not their primary heritage value. They are even more important because of their continued use as public places where residents gather, bond, learn, remember, and grow. Their social and cultural legacies demand serious preservation attention.

Consider Francis J. Myers Recreation Center in Southwest Philadelphia, a historic (undesignated) former Presbyterian orphanage transformed into a recreation center in the 1960s thanks to a deeply invested community. Despite lean and difficult years, its community and a dedicated staff kept Myers Rec running. Its overdue renovation and redesign through Rebuild retains the original orphanage-turned-recreation building and replaces a 1960s addition with new spaces that provide better natural light, circulation, and recreation spaces. Physically, it’s a preservation victory, not because the building was designated or because preservationists were particularly vocal, but because the original building was sturdy enough to be reused. There is reason to hope, too, that Myers Rec’s tight community will ground its future in its strong social ties and a common past. Projects like this should be celebrated as preservation victories, but they should not be accidental.

For its larger projects, Rebuild’s process includes community engagement, largely to keep neighbors informed and give them a voice in shaping design interventions. Typically, this type of engagement does not emphasize the kinds of memory work that would prize the shared histories and generational stories that give these places meaning. But Rebuild’s engagement activities, particularly those taking place over long planning periods, are potent opportunities to connect with the lived experiences and memories of thousands of Philadelphians. Preservationists are uniquely positioned to help broaden the program’s scope to be more inclusive of the cultural and social values of these places, as recognized by their communities. That way, as a recreation center or library changes, their futures may truly reflect their significance.

George A. Vare Recreation Center at 2600 Morris Street was demolished in 2022. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Vare Rec Center in Gray’s Ferry was one of the city’s largest and most impressive. But after more than 100 years of continued use and inadequate reinvestment, the building was evidently too far gone to be rehabilitated and has been razed. Rather than rely on the building as a vessel of memory, a team led by Make the World Better Foundation worked with the Vare community to build a collective archive, including oral histories, family photographs, and contemporary community portraits. This kind of deep memory work has been all but missing in Rebuild projects, partly as a function of budget and capacity.

As our historic civic assets see much-needed reinvestment, physical changes should be accompanied by efforts similar to those at Vare, ensuring the rich community pasts woven through these places are appreciated and sustained. Achieving this requires values-centered preservation methods that are all but missing from Rebuild conversations. But there are points of convenient alignment. The City’s Department of Planning and Development is piloting a cultural resource survey process, and it would be wise to expand this effort to City-controlled Rebuild sites. For preservation advocates, this is a chance to find common cause with other communities of interest and actively democratize Philadelphia preservation by meeting people where they are and helping to surface the attributes they value about the places they share.

Mayor Cherelle Parker has signaled support for Rebuild to continue, and helpfully, the revenue from the soda tax is still earmarked for this purpose. Preservation advocates need to stand with public space advocates and residents to demand that Mayor Parker deliver on the promise of Rebuild and set up maintenance funding to prevent us from needing another Rebuild anytime soon. The way to make that case isn’t through arguments about irreplaceable historic architecture, but the ties that bind communities together through these places.


About the Author

Ashley Hahn is a writer and researcher focused on public space, public life, and preservation. She is a lecturer in the Department of Historic Preservation at the University of Pennsylvania, where she led a 2023 studio on Rebuild sites in Southwest Philadelphia.

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