As a longtime voting rights activist, I want people to vote. I also want them to stay engaged beyond Election Day because that’s how you bring about change. That said, I believe one’s voting habit is no one’s business unless that person is receiving a taxpayer-funded six-figure salary to oversee elections.
Indeed, at last year’s Code for Philly Apps for Democracy Hackathon, I expressed my dismay that a team had developed an app, Social Voting, which would allow users to check to see whether their neighbors voted. Vote-shaming is of a piece with slut-shaming and fat-shaming.
Disclosing voting data sows distrust of government. If private citizens believe their voting record will be open to public scrutiny, they will be reluctant to register to vote.
While I tend to fall center-right on the political spectrum, I’m sick and tired of all this bull that’s doing down.
The conference featured a who’s who of black radicals, including Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Patrice Armstead, Cornel West, Anthony Monteiro, Angela Davis, Pam Africa and Charlene Carruthers. While they all dropped knowledge, West’s remarks particularly resonated with me. He observed that gospel, blues, jazz and rhythm-and-blues are rooted in our spiritual striving.
West excoriated the black “misleadership class.” He said comparing today's leaders to leaders of the 1960s is akin to comparing Kenny G to John Coltrane.
The misleadership is in stark relief in Philadelphia where we have the spectacle of an elections chief who doesn’t show up for work and doesn’t vote.
Anthony Clark said he exercised his right not to vote. Philly’s black leaders have maintained a deafening silence about this buffoon who dishonors the sacrifices of the civil rights leaders and foot soldiers who fought for the right to vote.
Back in the day, Ridge Avenue was a vibrant commercial corridor. The heart and soul of North Philadelphia was also an entertainment district. The Blue Note was at Ridge and 15th Street.
The Bird Cage Lounge was one block up at Ridge and 16th Street. I don’t know whether it was named after him, but Charlie “Bird” Parker played there. The legendary Pearl Bailey began her singing and dancing career at the Pearl Theater, which was at Ridge and 21st Street.
Some of the jazz giants who roamed Ridge likely stayed at the LaSalle Hotel, which was across from the Pearl Theater. The hotel was listed in the The Negro Motorist Green Book. The Point jazz spot at Ridge and Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore Avenue) was at the western tip of the storied “Golden Strip.”
Ridge began its steep decline in the aftermath of the 1964 Columbia Avenue race riots and construction of the Norman Blumberg Apartments public housing. Fast forward 50 years, Ridge is on the rise.
In 2014, the Philadelphia Housing Authority announced that transformation of the Blumberg/Sharswood neighborhood was its top priority. The Sharswood Blumberg Choice Neighborhoods Transformation Plan is a massive $500 million project that would, among other things, revitalize the Ridge Avenue corridor.
In an op-ed piece published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, PHA President and CEO Kelvin A. Jeremiah wrote:
The redevelopment of a community is about turning ideas into public policy and putting policy into action.
PHA's revitalization efforts are a targeted, coordinated development model designed to maximize the economic benefits of neighborhood revitalization, not the piecemeal dispersed development model of the past. To transform communities into neighborhoods of choice, there must be good schools for every child, quality affordable housing for all families, and a vibrant small business commercial corridor. The challenge is turning the ideas and rhetoric into policy and practice.
In remarks before the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s recent conference, Marion Mollegen McFadden, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Grant Programs, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, noted a community has both tangible and intangible assets:
I see preservation’s efforts to recognize and honor the cultural heritage of minority and ethnic groups as a valuable component of strong communities, in particular many of the communities that HUD serves. And I don’t just mean preservation of buildings and places, but also of diverse cultural ties and traditions, the intangible dimensions of heritage that together enrich us as a nation.
McFadden concluded with a quote from HUD Secretary Julián Castro:
History isn’t just a subject for books and documentaries. It’s alive and well in buildings, sites, and structures that shape our communities. They tell us who we are and where we come from – and it’s critical that we protect our past for present and future generations.
The Sharswood/Blumberg Choice Neighborhoods Transformation Plan raises the question: Does PHA value the area’s tangible and intangible assets that give the neighborhood its identity? If so, will a transformed Ridge Avenue preserve the neighborhood’s cultural heritage for present and future generations?
I am an accidental preservationist. For this lifelong activist, the movement to save diverse places is about racial justice. It’s about staking African Americans’ claim to the American story.
In his remarks before the National Trust for Historic Preservation's annual conference, Bryan Stevenson, founding director of the Equal Justice Initiative, spoke eloquently about the ways in which the built environment reflects social inequalities:
Identity matters. You can tell the identity of a nation by looking at what they honor. . . . There is power in memorialization. You preserve the things that matter. . . . We do an injustice when we tell stories about history that are incomplete.
From the Civil War to Civil Rights, Philadelphia’s historic resources tell a more complete American story. But in Philly, only two percent of historic properties are protected. Incredibly in the 1950s, City Hall narrowly escaped the wrecking ball. Much to the chagrin of city leaders, including Edmund Bacon, then-head of the Planning Commission, rehabilitation cost less than demolition. In other words, it was “cheaper to keep her.”
Fast forward to today, gentrification is laying bare Philadelphia’s culture of demolition. As I write this post, a developer is demolishing the church where Marian Anderson learned to sing and the congregation nurtured her talent. The world renowned contralto helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement.
The Royal Theater was a center of the African American community from the 1920s to the 1950s. It was Philly’s first and largest movie theater to cater exclusively to African Americans. Although it’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the Philadelphia Register, the historic property is about to undergo a “facadectomy.”
These places are at the intersection of historic preservation and social justice. The buildings’ social history of resistance and triumph is connected to contemporary issues, including gentrification, displacement, income inequality and social inequity. Truth be told, developers are deciding which places are important.
In Los Angeles and Phoenix, adaptive reuse is a matter of public policy. Philadelphia’s culture of demolition has been exacerbated by the 10-year residential tax abatement which provides a perverse incentive for developers to tear down historic buildings.
To bring about policy changes, we must engage and empower accidental preservationists to become stewards of historical assets in their neighborhood.
Philadelphia's construction boom is fueled by the ill-conceived residential tax abatement. Historic structures are being lost because only new construction is exempt from taxes. And it's not just happening in gentrifying neighborhoods. A developer wants to demolish the 113-year-old building that's home to the Society Hill Playhouse to build condominiums for the one percent.
And then there's Rev. Terrence Griffith, pastor of the First African Baptist Church, the oldest African American Baptist church in Pennsylvania and the fifth oldest in the country. The church has been continuously occupied since the Department of Licenses and Inspections filed a complaint in April. L&I is concerned about the 16th Street wall and parapet (see arrow). That section is separate from the building which houses the main sanctuary. The same sanctuary where Rev. Griffith held Sunday Worship today.
The ancestors are rolling their eyes at this out-of-order pastor who is hell-bent on selling the historic church to a developer who plans to demolish it.
Rev. Griffith ranted and raved before the Philadelphia Historical Commission, which voted to list the First African Baptist Church on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. In my comments before the vote, I noted:
With or without the east parapet, the First African Baptist Church of Philadelphia is a place where history happened. The church retains its historical significance to the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of Philadelphia, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the nation.
He now has to investigate adaptive reuse of the historic structure. Indeed, in an interview with Axis Philly in 2013, he acknowledged that repurposing should be considered:
If we do move, then we do want to preserve the history of this place [and] we will consider making the church a museum.
Rev. Griffith owes it to the ancestors to explore alternative uses for an edifice that was built with their blood, sweat and tears.