Whose Legacy Is Preserved in Public Memory?

Earlier this year the John Coltrane House Philadelphia was named to the 2020 Preservation at Risk. The Coltrane House is a National Historic Landmark, the highest designation for a historic property. Coltrane enthusiasts worldwide should be outraged that the place where Coltrane composed “Giant Steps” and experienced a spiritual awakening has fallen into disrepair. 

John Coltrane House

Before the coronavirus lockdown I was having conversations with credible parties who were interested in the property. Those conversations are now on pause.

In a 2016 interview with CBC Radio, artist, preservationist and urban planner Theaster Gates observed that preservation is not a neutral process:

If you look at the John Coltrane House, it’s not worthy of a particular architectural value but John Coltrane is the most important jazz musician ever in the world, one might say. And how can that Philly house, how can that New York house, just be left to rot. Because my fear is sometimes when you take the material thing away, it becomes that much easier to forget the thing altogether, to forget the person altogether.

[…]

Preservation starts with caring for the material things and then there’s the harder question of like what did this person’s legacy typify? … There should be these reminders in the world that help conflate our today and our histories lest we forget.

For 20 years, the City of Philadelphia spent untold thousands of dollars preserving and securing the Frank Rizzo statue to white supremacy. The statue was finally removed in the wake of a fiery protest. Meanwhile, the city has not spent a dime to preserve the Coltrane House.

It’s not enough to celebrate Coltrane’s birthday on September 23, write about “the most important jazz musician ever in the world,” or sing his praises on social media. We must remind current and future generations about Coltrane by preserving his legacy in public memory. 

National Black Voter Day

BET and its partners launched #ReclaimYourVote, a voter education and voter mobilization campaign:

This year-long, nonpartisan campaign — #ReclaimYourVote — will galvanize our community by educating, engaging and empowering action. BET will execute a high-energy campaign that lays out the biggest issues, breaks down otherwise confusing processes and highlights specific ways we can reclaim our collective power.

To register to vote, check your registration, locate your polling place, or information about vote by mail or early voting options in your state, visit vote.org.

As of this writing, Election Day is 51 days away. Get ready, y’all.

Jazz at Home Club

Jazz at Home Club was organized in 1961 by Chet Carmichael, education director of radio station WDAS (pictured at 1963 March on Washington).

Chet Carmichael - WDAS - 1963 March on Washington

The club was launched during Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz. It was designed for casual jazz fans who were turned off by the perception that jazz clubs were for jazz aficionados. The membership dues were one dollar per year. At their Jazz Listening Session, members listened to newly released albums.

As the club grew in popularity, luminaries from the jazz world were invited to speak at the monthly meeting including Billy Taylor, Gloria Lynne, John Hammond, Art Blakey and Rufus Harley Jr., the world’s first jazz bagpiper.

Jazz At Home USA - Rufus Harley - Insert

Jazz at Home bestowed the “Jazz Musician of the Year” Award on musicians who advanced the jazz culture – Jimmy Smith (1962), Clark Terry (1963), Duke Ellington (1964), Nina Simone (1966) and Horace Silver (1967).

Jazzz at Home Club - Nina Simone

Jazzz at Home Club - Horace Silver - October 22, 1967

Rev. John Garcia Gensel, creator of the Jazz Vespers at Saint Peter’s Church, spoke at a monthly meeting of Jazz at Home.

Abolition Hall is Saved – For Now

With 170,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 and millions unemployed, 2020 has been an “annus horribilis” (h/t Queen Elizabeth II). This month brought a ray of hope: Developer K. Hovnanian Homes dropped plans to construct 67 townhouses that would have degraded Abolition Hall and the surrounding fields where the ancestors found sanctuary on their way to freedom.

#AbolitionHall - Overlay - August 14, 2020

Located in Whitemarsh Township, Pennsylvania, the former Underground Railroad stop was constructed in 1856 by George Corson. The purpose-built structure was a meeting place for abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison. Abolition Hall, along with the Hovenden House and Stone Barn provided shelter for self-emancipated Black people. The three structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

#Abolition Hall - Michael Feagans

The developer did not give the township a reason for abandoning the project. But the reason seems fairly obvious: With a cratering economy and sinkholes on Butler Pike, Hovnanian didn’t want to sink any more money into the controversial project.

Sybelle Zove, convener of the Friends of Abolition Hall, led the fight to save the historic landmark. In an email, Zove wrote:

This fight is not over! We continue to believe that a better plan is within reach, and we hope that any developer considering a deal with the heirs will appreciate the extraordinary history of this homestead. This is indeed hallowed land, and the historic structures are equally significant. We stand ready to collaborate, to work together to create a project that respects the legacy of this property, the value of its tree canopy, the role of its wetlands in sustaining the local ecology, and the precarious nature of the limestone soils that have yielded to dissolution and sinkhole formation.

I was geared up to collaborate with Friends of Abolition Hall on a years-long battle with the developer. With Hovnanian’s deep pockets and army of lawyers, I didn’t think we could beat them in a court of law. But social media and search engine optimization level the battlefield in the court of public opinion. So I launched VillagesatWhiteMarsh.info to tell the story of the historic landmark and alert prospective buyers that protesters would be at their front door.

#AbolitionHall Deserves Better -Villages at Whitemarsh

Abolition Hall is saved – for now. Zove urges everyone to “keep your hand on the plow, and hold on.”

For updates visit Friends of Abolition Hall on Facebook. You can also follow me on Twitter.

A Quest for Parity in Historic Preservation and Public Art

What happens when the institutions making the decisions about removing the Christopher Columbus statue from public view are themselves the legacy of systemic racism?

In my WHYY/PlanPhilly essay, I wrote you get the spectacle of the Philadelphia Historical Commission denying protection to the Henry Minton House, one of the last places where John Brown laid his head before the Harpers Ferry Raid. Commission members know the wealthy developer plans to demolish the building to construct cookie-cutter apartments for the “demographic moving to Philly.”

Seven weeks ago, Mayor Jim Kenney announced his desire to remove the Christopher Columbus statue from South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza. The move came in response to violent protests against anyone who dared to challenge the controversial Italian explorer’s place in colonial history. In a tweet, Mayor Jim Kenney said, “Part of reckoning with the legacy of systemic racism means reconsidering what figures deserve to be commemorated in our public spaces.”

Mayor Jim Kenney - Systemic Racism Tweet - June 24, 2020

But what happens when the institutions doing the reckoning – Philadelphia Historical Commission and Philadelphia Art Commission – are themselves the legacy of systemic racism and racial exclusion?

[…]

At the Historical Commission, the white gaze is the default standard for historical or cultural significance. Implicit bias led to the spectacle of commissioners overruling the unanimous vote of the Committee on Historic Designation and denying protection to the Henry Minton House, one of the last places where John Brown laid his head before the Harpers Ferry Raid. While acknowledging the property meets the statutory criteria for designation, the Commission ruled the façade is not “recognizable” because of an 1894 renovation that concealed the original building.

#HenryMinton House - #PhilaHistorical

Read more

New Foxhole Café

While an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Jon Hinck co-founded the New Foxhole Café in West Philly. Now a lawyer, environmentalist, and former member of the Maine House of Representatives, Hinck recounts:

The space in the basement of the parish hall of St. Mary’s Church hosted two jazz clubs. The one opened by Geno Barnhart [Geno’s Empty Foxhole] perhaps as described above. It closed by the end of 1972. In 1974 a club called the New Foxhole Café opened in the same space started up by a collective including Larry Abrams and myself, Andy Charnas, Rene Charnas, Jules Epstein, Michael Shivers and others.

New Foxhole Cafe, exterior view

Sam Rivers, Sun Ra, Hank Mobley, Philly Joe Jones, Rufus Harley, Dave Liebman, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Pharaoh Sanders and Anthony Braxton all played there.

Foxhole concerts were broadcast over Penn’s radio station, WXPN-FM. Sun Ra & His Arkestra’s “The Antique Blacks” was recorded in the radio station’s studio on August 17, 1974 (the album was not released until 1978).

Playhouse in the Park

West Fairmount Park’s “Playhouse in the Park” opened on July 30, 1952. It was the brainchild of John B. Kelly Sr., commissioner and later president of the Fairmount Park Commission (renamed Fairmount Park Conservancy in 2001).

Playhouse in the Park -Tent

In 1956, the tent was replaced with a permanent 1500-seat wooden structure, the country’s first “theater in the round” owned and managed by a municipality.

Playhouse in the Park - Feature

The Playhouse summer stock theater included “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Zorba,” “A Little Night Music” and “Kiss Me, Kate,” “The Sty of the Blind Pig,” and “The Poison Tree.”

Playhouse in the Park - Moses Gunn - Frances Foster - The Sty of the Blind Pig

Playhouse in the Park - The Poison Tree

There were programs for children, as well as jazz and blues concerts. Cannonball Adderley recorded a live album here.

Playhouse in the Park - Cannonball Adderley - July 6, 1970

A bootleg audio of the concert is available on YouTube.

The last full season was in 1979. The building was demolished in 1997. The site is now a picnic grove.

Grendel’s Lair

Grendel’s Lair was a popular South Philly cabaret theater.

grendels-lair-cropped

Jazz musicians were showcased weekly.

Grendel’s Lair - Dizzy Gillespie

Regina DeAngelo shared her story:

It was around 1987. I was 22. I brought my mom with me to see Dizzy Gillespie at Grendel’s Lair. As Dizzy warmed up on stage, he looked out at the audience. “A lot of young people,” he said. “I don’t see any old people like me.” My mom lifted her bourbon into the air and shouted “I’m old!”

After the show, we waited at 4th and South for my father to come and pick us up. He must have been late because we were still waiting when Dizzy and the band came out. They crossed the street to a busted old white station wagon. They opened the doors, sat sideways facing the street, and had some fun blowing off bottle rockets.

Regina is a technical writer with Keeley DeAngelo LLP.