Category Archives: Cultural Heritage Preservation

Billie Holiday Documentary Opens December 4

Billie Holiday is an international icon. She also holds a special place in my heart. During a particularly rough patch, I started every day listening to “Good Morning Heartache.”

You can imagine my dismay when I moved to Philadelphia and noticed she didn’t have a plaque on the Walk of Fame. So I did what I do.

Months later, I was all smiles when Lady Day’s plaque was installed on Avenue of the Arts.

I recently watched the powerful new documentary Billie via an exclusive screening by the 92nd Street Y.

Billie breathes life into nearly 50-year-old audiotapes of the interviews journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl conducted with Holiday’s contemporaries including Count Basie, Carmen McRae, Tony Bennett, singer Sylvia Syms and drummer Jo Jones. Archival materials and first person accounts shed light on systemic racism, racial segregation and the undertold story of her commitment to racial justice. The civil rights pioneer performed “Strange Fruit” at the end of every performance for 20 years despite FBI and police harassment. Bassist Charles Mingus said, “She was fighting equality before Martin Luther King. … That might be why the cops were against her too, not just junk.”

The special screening was followed by a Q&A with director James Erskine and executive producer Michele Smith, manager of the Billie Holiday Estate.

Billie will be released in theaters and on virtual cinema December 4. For updates, go here.

Keep Gloria Casarez Mural on 12th Street

Thirty years ago, now-Columbia Law School professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.” Midwood Investment & Development’s demolition of 204 South 12th Street will erase LBGTQ history and Black history from public memory. The fight to save the Gloria Casarez mural intersects with the fight to save one of the few extant buildings associated with the Underground Railroad.

Casarez was a civil rights leader and LGBTQ activist, and the first director of Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs. Her mural adorns one of the interconnected buildings owned by Midwood. The building to the right of the mural is the former residence and place of business of Henry Minton, a leading Black abolitionist and elite caterer whose guests included John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Frederick Douglass, the Father of the Underground Railroad.

Midwood plans to demolish the property and build apartments for the “demographic moving to Philly” (read: white people). In an op-ed published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Erme Maula, a lifelong activist for justice and equality, wrote:

The Gloria Casarez mural at 204 S. 12th St. is scheduled for imminent demolition by Midwood Development and Investment. Midwood plans to knock down the former 12th Street Gym and build a 31-story building in its place.

Anyone who knew Gloria and her impact on Philadelphia knows that the loss of the mural is a massive loss for our city. The mural was erected in 2015 to honor Gloria Casarez, a local Latina activist who died of breast cancer in 2014. Gloria dedicated her life to civil and economic rights. She brought communities together to find common ground and common vision. As a student, she organized other students to push for affordable housing and an end to homelessness. As the city’s first director of LGBT affairs, Gloria led Philadelphia to adopt the broadest protections for LGBT people in the nation.

On Monday, October 19, 2020, there will be a “Keep Gloria on 12th” vigil in front of the mural from 5pm to 6:30pm, followed by a Town Hall via Zoom at 7pm. The town hall meeting will provide a space to “plan further actions to stop the erasure of our lives, our achievements, and our history that Gloria fought to preserve.” The vigil and town hall are open to the public. To register, go here.

Driving While Black

From the moment the first enslaved Africans were brought to British colonial America in 1619, Black mobility has been policed. Frederick Douglass had to carry a pass as he traveled across the country to recruit Black troops for the Civil War.

While white Americans were told to get their kicks on Route 66, African Americans had to put the pedal to the metal lest the sun go down on them in one of the sundown towns along the storied highway.

A two-hour documentary, “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America,” aired on PBS on October 13, 2020.

Gretchen Sorin, director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program of the State University of New York, spent 20 years researching Black mobility. The documentary is based on her book, “Driving While Black: African-American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights.” Sorin, director Ric Burns, producer and editor Emir Lewis, and Spencer Crew, acting director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, recently participated in a forum at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

A travel guide, The Negro Motorist Green Book helped Black travelers navigate racialized public spaces. For information about the Green Book in Philadelphia, go here.

Gospel Music Heritage Month 2020

Since 2008, September has been designated Gospel Music Heritage Month. Rooted in the African American oral tradition, gospel music helped us get over.

On Wednesday, September 30, 2020, 2:00pm – 3:30pm ET, the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University will celebrate the Reverend Joseph Williams, Jr., an original member of the gospel quartet Sons of the Birds who will be inducted into the Black Music Hall of Fame later this year.

Rev. Williams was also a member of the legendary Dixie Hummingbirds from 1983 to 1987.

Rev. Williams and Dr. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of historic Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church will lead a virtual master class in the history and legacy of gospel music through word and song. To join the conversation, use this link: https://temple.zoom.us/j/91499000220.

The program is free and open but registration is encouraged.

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.

Historic Preservation and Racial Justice

All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson was recently interviewed by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The federal agency “promotes the preservation, enhancement, and sustainable use of our nation’s diverse historic resources, and advises the President and the Congress on national historic preservation policy.” The following is an excerpt from the interview.

What led you to your field?
I am a lifelong social justice activist. But I am an “accidental” preservationist. My interest in historic preservation was piqued by the historical marker that notes Billie Holiday “often lived here” when she was in Philadelphia. I went beyond the marker and learned that “here” was the Douglass Hotel. I wanted to know why Lady Day stayed in a modest hotel when a luxury hotel, the Bellevue-Stratford (now the Bellevue Philadelphia), is located just a few blocks away. The Douglass Hotel was first listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book in 1938. The Green Book was a travel guide that helped African Americans navigate Jim Crow laws in the South and racial segregation in the North.

#GreenBookPHL Collage

How does what you do relate to historic preservation?
There are few extant buildings associated with Philadelphia’s jazz legacy. In cities across the country, jazz musicians created a cultural identity that was a stepping stone to the Civil Rights Movement. All That Philly Jazz is a crowdsourced project that is documenting untold or under-told stories. At its core, historic preservation is about storytelling. The question then becomes: Whose story gets told? The buildings that are vessels for African American history and culture typically lack architectural significance. While unadorned, the buildings are places where history happened. They connect the past to the present.

Why do you think historic preservation matters?
For me, historic preservation is not solely about brick-and-mortar. I love old buildings. I also love the stories old buildings hold. To borrow a phrase from blues singer Little Milton, if walls could talk, they would tell stories of faith, resistance, and triumph. Historic preservation is about the power of public memory. It’s about staking African Americans’ claim to the American story. A nation preserves the things that matter and black history matters. It is, after all, American history.

What courses do you recommend for students interested in this field?
Historic preservation does not exist in a vacuum. The built environment reflects social inequities. I recommend students take courses that will help them understand systemic racism and how historic preservation perpetuates social inequities. In an essay published earlier this year in The New Yorker, staff writer Casey Cep observed: “To diversify historic preservation, you need to address not just what is preserved but who is preserving it—because, as it turns out, what counts as history has a lot to do with who is doing the counting.”

Places associated with African Americans have been lost to disinvestment, urban planning, gentrification and implicit bias. For instance, the Philadelphia Historical Commission rejected the nomination of the Henry Minton House for listing on the local register despite a unanimous vote by the Committee on Historic Designation. The Commission said the nomination met the criteria for designation but the property is not “recognizable” (read: lacked integrity). Meanwhile, properties in Society Hill with altered or new facades have been added to the local register.

Do you have a favorite preservation project? What about it made it special?
Robert Purvis was a co-founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the Library Company of Colored People and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. By his own estimate, he helped 9,000 self-emancipated black Americans escape to the North.

The last home in which the abolitionist lived is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The property has had the same owner since 1977. As the Spring Garden neighborhood gentrified, the owner wanted to cash in and sell the property to developers who planned to demolish it. The property is protected, so he pursued demolition by neglect. Over the years, the owner racked up tens of thousands of dollars in housing code violations and fines. In January 2018, the Spring Garden Community Development Corporation petitioned the Common Pleas Court for conservatorship in order to stabilize the property. The petition was granted later that year. A historic landmark that was on the brink of collapse was saved by community intervention.

Can you tell us what you are working on right now?
The John Coltrane House, one of only 67 National Historic Landmarks in Philadelphia, is deteriorating before our eyes. In collaboration with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, Avenging The Ancestors Coalition and Jazz Bridge, I nominated the historic landmark for inclusion on 2020 Preservation At Risk. The nomination was successful. As hoped, the listing garnered media attention. Before the coronavirus lockdown, several people contacted me and expressed interest in buying the property. The conversations are on pause. I am confident that whether under current “ownership” (the owner of record is deceased), new ownership or conservatorship, the rowhouse where Coltrane composed “Giant Steps” and experienced a spiritual awakening will be restored to its former glory.

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Must-See TV: ‘The Sit-In’

For one week in February 1968, Harry Belafonte hosted “The Tonight Show,” then the highest-rated late night television show. Belafonte’s guests included Robert F. Kennedy, Bill Cosby, Lena Horne, Nipsey Russell, Paul Newman, Wilt Chamberlain, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Sidney Poitier and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A documentary about that magical week of interviews and performances, “The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show,” was scheduled to be screened at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. But along came the coronavirus. Variety reports:

It was 1968, war was raging and racial tensions in America were at a boiling point, dividing the nation. In February, Harry Belafonte stepped in for Johnny Carson to host “The Tonight Show.” It was a monumental moment in which an African American would be the frontman of the most dominant program in late night — and perhaps all of TV — for an entire week. Guests included Lena Horne, Paul Newman, Aretha Franklin, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

The doc was scheduled to screen in April at the Tribeca Film Festival, not far from where “The Tonight Show” was filmed in the ’60s, with an after-film discussion that was to have included Belafonte’s daughter, Gina. “We were so excited,” says Richen. “It’s a New York story, and I’m a New Yorker.”

But as with many eagerly anticipated independent films this year, the movie’s launchpad disappeared when the festival was canceled due to the coronavirus, making it a work about the events of yesterday informing today — trumped by the health crisis of the moment.

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Jazz Foundation Musicians’ Emergency Fund Concert

With stay-at-home orders in place, gig workers are among the hardest hit. With few exceptions, musicians are part of the gig economy. With the live music industry on lockdown, musicians can’t work. And if they can’t work, they don’t get paid.

On Thursday, May 14, 8pm to 10pm ET, the Jazz Foundation of America will present #TheNewGig Live!, a digital fundraiser benefiting jazz, blues and roots musicians who have lost gigs due to the coronavirus.

JFA_NewGig_invitation_1080x1080px

JFA has established a COVID-19 Musicians’ Emergency Fund to help musicians and their families survive the Coronavirus Lockdown. To make a donation, visit jazzfoundation.org/covid19.