Category Archives: Cultural Heritage Preservation

Harlem on My Mind

Gentrification is displacing longtime residents in historically African American neighborhoods from Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn to Baldwin Hills in Los Angeles.

Gentrification - Historically Black Neighborhoods

I grew up in Bed-Stuy and went to college in Harlem where an iconic mural, the “Spirit of Harlem,” was covered up by Footaction, a sneaker and apparel company.

Spirit of Harlem Mural2

Langston Hughes famously asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?”


We know what happens if we don’t fight the collateral damage of gentrification. African American cultural heritage and presence will be erased from public memory. So Harlem activists are organizing to give the boot to Footaction.

Give the Boot to Fooaction

For me, it’s déjà vu all over again. In 2015, Pennrose Properties demolished the “Tribute to John Coltrane” mural in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood in North Philadelphia.

Tribute to John Coltrane Mural2

But rather than simply lament its destruction, I made some noise in my capacity as director of All That Philly Jazz. Fast forward two years, Pennrose Chairman and CEO Richard K. Barnhart thanked me for my activism. Barnhart told me that in raising awareness of the importance of cultural heritage preservation I “made him a better person.”

On September 24, 2017, the “Why We Love Coltrane” mural was dedicated.

Why We Love Coltrane-3

The mural was funded by Pennrose Properties and the City of Philadelphia, in partnership with All That Philly Jazz, Strawberry Mansion Neighborhood Action Committee and Fairmount Park Conservancy.

Why We Love Coltrane Acknowledgements

Footaction is owned by retail giant Foot Locker. Together, we can make Footaction a better corporate citizen. Let’s make some noise.

UPDATE: After making some noise on Twitter, I received a DM from Footaction.

Footaction - Direct Message - 12.12.17

True to its word, restoration of the “Spirit of Harlem” mural is in progress.

Footaction - Restoration in Progress

Advocacy works!

Leonard Bernstein@100

This year marks the centennial birthday of several jazz luminaries, including Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne and Thelonious Monk. Philharmonic Laureate Conductor Leonard Bernstein was born on August 25, 1918 but the celebrations are already underway. The worldwide festivities will continue until August 25, 2019.

Bernstein had a longstanding appreciation of jazz, blues and spirituals. His 1939 Harvard University bachelor’s thesis was entitled, “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music.”

From LeonardBernstein.com:

From his earliest years, jazz was an integral part of Bernstein’s life, and it made a crucial impact on his own music.

As a teenager in the 1930s, he put together a jazz band, was famous for his jazz piano playing at parties, and directed a swing band at summer camp. Some of the jazz-inflected music he composed in the mid-1930s at Harvard, and later at Curtis [Institute], provided source material for future works. Perhaps most significantly, his undergraduate thesis was no less than an assertion that jazz is the universal basis of American composition. In New York soon after college, he got to know jazz intimately, by day transcribing for publication the improvisations of legendary players like Coleman Hawkins, and playing piano in jazz clubs at night.

About 15 years ago, I first saw this video of Bernstein conducting Louis Armstrong performing “St. Louis Blues” with the composer, W.C. Handy, in the audience. The images are forever etched in my mind.

On December 2, I will attend the Louis Bernstein Marathon at the CUNY Graduate Center, an eight-hour concert featuring performances of Bernstein’s most popular work. For me, the event is a mash-up of two of my passions: good music and historic preservation. The CUNY Graduate Center is located in the repurposed B. Altman & Co.

B. Altman

For Louis Bernstein at 100 calendar of events, go here.

Going to Chicago for PastForward

I’m going to Chicago for PastForward 2017. I am a two-time recipient of a diversity scholarship to attend the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual conference. But as I wrote for the Preservation Leadership Forum blog, I am an accidental preservationist:

I love old buildings. I love even more the stories that old buildings hold—they are places where history happened. To borrow a phrase from blues singer Little Milton, “if walls could talk” they would tell stories of faith, determination and triumph. For me, historic preservation is about staking African Americans’ claim to the American story.

One of my first stops will be State and Washington streets to check out the 10-story mural of Muddy Waters.

Muddy Waters Mural

I’ll also check out the former home of the blues icon. Sadly, the 125-year-old building is under threat of demolition.

Muddy Waters Home

Discussions on reUrbanism, preservation and health, and technology will be live streamed. You can sign up as a virtual attendee for free. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #PastForward17.

I’m going to Chicago, y’all.

While in the Windy City, I will use the CTA to get around. NEA Jazz Master and Philly naive Jimmy Heath composed “CTA.” Miles Davis said it was named after Heath’s then-girlfriend Connie Theresa Ann.

Thelonious Monk@100

This year is the centennial of the birth of Thelonious Monk. Monk’s 100th birthday is being celebrated across the country.

Thelonious Monk

For Philadelphia, one day is not enough. Starting at midnight on October 10, WRTI will play his most recognized composition to start off every new broadcast day for a whole year. The station will not have to hit repeat since there are more than 1000 versions of “’Round Midnight.” Fittingly, Monk was a classically trained pianist.

One of my most memorable experiences was attending Monk’s funeral in 1982. The homegoing service was held at Saint Peter’s Church in New York City. Musicians played version-after-version of “’Round Midnight.” It was a loving tribute to the man who composed the most recorded jazz standard in history.

National Museum of African American History and Culture Turns One

September 24 marked the first anniversary of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, more affectionately known as my home away from home.

NMAAHC First Anniversary

From Day One, NMAAHC has had the people’s stamp of approval. In its first year, the museum has welcomed more than two million visitors. Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the museum, said:

We are so grateful to America for making this first year unprecedentedly successful. This first anniversary gives us at the Smithsonian the opportunity to thank everyone for this incredible gift and for making it possible to continue our mission to help America grapple with history by seeing their past through an African American lens – and ultimately help Americans find healing and reconciliation.

NMAAHC has received the stamp of approval of the U.S. Postal Service which issued the “Celebrating African American History and Culture” Forever stamp.

NMAAHC Forever Stamp

The numbers show that the National Museum of African American History and Culture is a gift to the American people:

  • Almost 2.5 million visitors walked through the 400,000-square-foot building.
  • Of those visitors, 922 were ambassadors.
  • About 10,000 of all 2.5 million people who passed through were between the ages of 4 and 7 years old.
  • About 3,000 objects were on display while NMAAHC’s permanent collection is more than 13 times that size, at almost 40,000 objects.

For more info, check out “NMAAHC’s First Year by the Numbers.”

John Coltrane Mural Dedication

Advocacy works! In 2014, Pennrose Company demolished the “Tribute to John Coltrane” mural that was located at 33rd and Diamond Streets, a short walk from Coltrane’s former residence in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood.

Tribute to John Coltrane Mural

It took a little prodding, but Pennrose stepped up and made a significant contribution to Mural Arts Philadelphia for a new Coltrane mural.

John Coltrane Mural

The “Why We Love Coltrane” mural , located at 29th and Diamond Streets, will be dedicated at a public event on Sunday, September 24, 2017, from 1pm to 3pm. All That Philly Jazz is a co-host of the free event.

29th and Diamond

For background information, listen to WRTI’s interview with Mural Arts Executive Director Jane Golden and visual artist Ernel Martinez, “A New Mural Rising to Honor John Coltrane.”

Paint Day: John Coltrane Mural

Philadelphia is the City of Murals. The murals celebrate events, as well as residents who have made a difference. Few are more celebrated than John Coltrane who moved to Philadelphia in 1943. Coltrane resided in an apartment in Yorktown before buying a house in Strawberry Mansion in 1952. The house is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark.

Coltrane kicked his heroin habit and composed “Giant Steps” in that house.

In 2002, the Strawberry Mansion community, in collaboration with the Mural Arts Program, honored their former neighbor. The Pennrose Company demolished the Tribute to John Coltrane mural in 2014.

Tribute to John Coltrane Collage

To be sure, murals come and go. However, there is too much love for Trane to let the demolition go unnoticed. It has taken a while but a new mural celebrating the life and legacy of the jazz innovator will soon be dedicated. The community is invited to add a brushstroke at a public paint day on Saturday, August 19 from 1-3 p.m., at Fairmount Park’s Hatfield House, located at 33rd Street and Girard Avenue.

So get up for the down brushstroke. Everybody get up and join the Mural Arts Philadelphia, Fairmount Park Conservancy, Strawberry Mansion Neighborhood Action Committee and All That Philly Jazz.

For more info, visit Mural Arts Philadelphia.