Tag Archives: Cultural Heritage Preservation

#ThisPlaceMatters: Abolition Hall

May is Preservation Month, a time for folks to celebrate places that matter to them. Few places matter more to me than Underground Railroad sites. Abolition Hall in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, is under threat by a proposal to build 67 townhouses on the George Corson homestead.

Abolition Hall - #ThisPlaceMatters

Charles L. Blockson, Curator Emeritus of the Charles L. Blockson Afro American Collection at Temple University, is the author of several books on the Underground Railroad. Blockson wrote:

Abolition Hall was an important terminal on the Freedom Network known as the Underground Railroad, not only has local significance but also national significance. As chairperson of the National Park Service Advisory Committee, I referenced this site to highlight the importance of the Underground Railroad. … The site played a significant role in the National Park Service Underground Railroad Study, adopted by Congress to designate the Network to Freedom as a national historic treasure. Abolition Hall is a national, historical site that should be preserved.

To that end, I reached out to Michael Coard, a founding member of Avenging The Ancestors Coalition. ATAC won the battle to ensure the National Park Service told the full history of the first President’s House.

Tweet - April 27, 2018 - Abolition Hall - Last Moments of John Brown

An attorney/activist, Coard is host of WURD’s “Radio Courtroom.” On April 29, I was a guest on his show. I alerted his listeners to the alarm sounded by Sydelle Zove in a recent op-ed:

To allow the proposed townhouse project to proceed through the standard land development process absent appropriate due diligence by the developer with regard to the stabilization, restoration, reuse, and marketing of the historic structures is to turn our backs on the Americans who lived here, those who sought shelter here, and others who spoke boldly in opposition to the institution of slavery.

Zove is a convener of Friends of Abolition Hall. She said in an email:

Our struggle to protect the legacy of this well-documented Underground Railroad station pales in comparison to the travails of the men, women, and children who arrived in Plymouth Meeting seeking sanctuary. And when these fugitives from bondage were welcomed by George and Martha Corson, it was their hosts who were placed at risk – of fines and imprisonment. Today, the Friends of Abolition Hall is determined to fight the proposed 67-unit townhouse plan that will consume the fields where runaways hid among the tall cornstalks. That same plan will send the historic structures – Abolition Hall, Hovenden House, and Barn – to the auction block where they will be sold to the highest bidder. The developer asserts that by not demolishing these buildings, he is preserving them. That is an insult to all who lived here, hid here, and to those of us who argue that Abolition Hall deserves better.

Their struggle is now ATAC’s struggle. Kanye West’s ignorant comment that slavery was a “choice” underscores the importance of preserving in public memory the places that tell the story of America’s original sin.

The developer, K. Hovnanian Homes, will be back before the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors on May 24, 2018.

Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors Meeting - May 24, 2018

Freedom isn’t free. Friends of Abolition Hall needs help to continue their fight to save the historic buildings from the auction block. If the walls of Hovenden House, Abolition Hall, and the Barn could talk, they would tell stories of faith, resistance and triumph. Please make a tax-deductible donation in the name of the ancestors.

For more information, visit Friends of Abolition Hall.

Jane’s Walk: North Broad Street Then & Now

Since 2007, community historians across North America and around the world have taken to the streets to lead a Jane’s Walk, “a movement of free, citizen-led walking conversations inspired by Jane Jacobs.”

On Saturday, May 5, 2018, I will lead a Jane’s Walk, “North Broad Street Then & Now.” We will uncover North Broad Street’s forgotten past as an enclave of nouveau riche industrialists. North Broad was also an entertainment destination for African Americans. That was then.

Now after years of neglect and disinvestment, North Broad is experiencing a development boom. We will explore North Central Philadelphia’s jazz history and issues ripped from the headlines such as gentrification, civil rights and cultural heritage preservation.

The walking tour will begin at the Metropolitan Opera House that was commissioned by Oscar Hammerstein.

Metropolitan Opera House Collage

Points of interest along the way include:

  • Majestic Hotel/Beaux Arts Café
  • Flamingo Apartments
  • Loyal Order of Moose Lodge/Legendary Blue Horizon
  • Heritage House/Freedom Theater
  • Alfred E. Burk Mansion
  • Progress Plaza
  • Chesterfield Hotel/Ebony Lounge
  • Barber’s Hall
  • Linton’s Restaurant
  • Grand Opera House/Nixon Grand Theatre

The walk will end at Temple University Mitten Hall, where John Coltrane last performed in Philadelphia. That night, Coltrane played “My Favorite Things” which he first recorded in 1961. The show tune is from “The Sound of Music,” a Broadway musical with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, the grandson of the industrialist who commissioned the Metropolitan Opera House.

Mitten Hall Collage

We will meet at the Metropolitan Opera House, located at 858 N. Broad Street (at Poplar Street). The free event will be held, rain or shine, on Saturday, May 5, from 10:00am to 11:30am. No reservations are required.

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.

Checker Café

The Checker Café opened in 1934. Located at 2125 Ridge Avenue, it was in the heart of the Ridge Avenue Entertainment District.

Ridge Avenue Cultural District

The Checker Café was a place to see and be seen. On May 23, 1935, Philadelphia Tribune columnist, “the Negro Councilman,” wrote:

When the show has nearly ended you will then see no other than our own sepia Gloria Swanson, who is direct from the Grand Terrace in Chicago and then you can tell the world that you have seen a real show.

As with many jazz venues, the Checker Café was about “intersectionality” before it became a thing. The “sepia Gloria Swanson” was a female impersonator.

Checker Cafe Ads

In the 1980s under new ownership, the nightspot was renamed the Checker Club.

2125 Ridge Avenue - Checker Club Sign

Trumpeter Cullen Knight is the recipient of the 2015 Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts “Living Legend” Award. Knight shared some memories with Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron who wrote:

It’s a bit ironic that the Checker is the only one of those Ridge Avenue joints to survive. It wasn’t the biggest or best known of the venues that lined the avenue during North Philadelphia’s jazz heyday in the mid-20th century. That distinction was probably held by the Pearl Theater on the next block, where Bailey and her sister Jura worked as ushers, and brother Bill tended the candy counter.

Trumpeter Cullen Knight, who grew up a block away, says the Checker was where musicians hung out before and after the shows, partly because the food and the house trio were equally reliable. Its motto was “Good Food. Good Cooks. Good Service.” Among those providing service was Pearl Bailey, who did a stint as a singing waitress and is now immortalized by a mural on the building’s south side. In the ’30s, a gay singer known as the “Sepia Gloria Swanson” was also a regular.

While some clubs, like Ridge Cotton Club and Blue Note, took their inspiration from famous Harlem venues, the Checker got its name from the black-and-white pattern painted on the ground floor. Its horseshoe-shaped bar had just enough space in its curve for a small band. Tables occupied the rest of the room.

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Jazz Appreciation Month 2017

Founded by the National Museum of American History in 2002, April is Jazz Appreciation Month.

JAM Collage

The Smithsonian kicks off its celebration with a loving tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, the “First Lady of Song.”

The First Lady of Song - Ella Fitzgerald at 100

To find new ways to celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month, visit Smithsonian Jazz.

Philly Celebrates Jazz

April is Jazz Appreciation Month. The destruction of the Royal Theater, and John Coltrane and Women of Jazz murals gives one reason to believe otherwise, but Philly celebrates jazz.

Philly-Celebrates-Jazz

Mayor Jim Kenney kicked off the celebration by presenting the Benny Golson Award to multi-instrumentalist and “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” bandleader Jon Batiste.

Philly Loves Jazz - Jon Baptiste

Kenney said:

I am honored to present the first Benny Golson Award to Jon Batiste, who exemplifies what can be accomplished in using your talents in educating our youth in the importance of the arts and culture. As I have said many times, arts education is not a luxury, it is a necessity and one of the most effective ways of helping our children grow and develop into not only more creative, but also open-minded and compassionate people.

The Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy organizes the month-long Philly Celebrates Jazz. Over 200 events are scheduled, including a photo exhibition, “Live Philly Jazz Vol. 2.

The WRTI Jazz Listening Sessions will be hosted by Jeff Duperon. The hour-long conversations will be held before a live audience in the Art Gallery @ City Hall. The listening sessions are free but space is limited. Seating is first come, first serve and you must register.

Over the course of Philadelphia’s jazz heyday, roughly 1940s to 1960s, there were jazz spots from the Aqua Lounge to Zanzibar Blue.

All That Philly Jazz - Aqua Lounge to Zanzibar Blue

The “Philly Celebrates Jazz Community Series” harkens back to the time when the joints were jumping in every neighborhood, including  “The Golden Strip,” Ridge Avenue and “The Strip.”

Philadelphia Celebrates Jazz Community Series

A complete calendar listing of Philly Celebrates Jazz events is available here.