Tag Archives: Philadelphia Housing Authority

Historic Preservation and Social Justice

Two years ago I launched All That Philly Jazz, a public history project that is telling the story of Philadelphia’s rich jazz legacy. In documenting the places where jazz history unfolded, I also want to contextualize the impact of jazz musicians and the jazz culture.

Fact is, the jazz culture was about “intersectionality” before the term was coined . As Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron notes in her column, “Ridge Avenue’s last standing jazz club,” gay performers such as the “Sepia Gloria Swanson” were an integral part of the scene.

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In a piece for PlanPhilly, I wrote about why historic preservation matters:

1409 Lombard Street helps tell the story of artistic greats like Lady Day, Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Nina Simone and McCoy Tyner. It also tells the story of disruption and defiance. In remarks to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said jazz is “triumphant music.” If walls could talk, they would tell how the jazz culture broke down social barriers. The first racially integrated nightspot in Center City was a jazz club, the Downbeat. For the first time, blacks and whites mixed on an equal basis. Jazz musicians created a cultural identity that was “a steppingstone” to the Civil Rights Movement.

At its core, historic preservation is about storytelling. The question then becomes: Who decides what gets saved and whose story gets told? The built environment reflects racial inequalities. Given African Americans’ socioeconomic status, few of the buildings associated with black history meet preservation standards regarding architectural significance. Although unadorned, they are places that tell a more complete American story. The stories of faith, resistance, and triumph are relevant to today’s social justice activists.

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Malcolm X and Historic Preservation

Before his awakening, Malcolm X was known as “Detroit Red,” a fixture on the jazz scene in Harlem. In 1948 while incarcerated in the Norfolk State Colony in Massachusetts, Malcolm joined the Nation of Islam. In 1954, Elijah Muhammad sent him to Philadelphia to expand Temple No. 12.

Until recently, there was confusion about where Malcolm X resided during his time in Philadelphia. Eyewitness and videotaped firsthand accounts have confirmed his address in Sharswood. So All That Philly Jazz is sponsoring the nomination of 2503 W. Oxford Street for listing in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

In a Q&A with Hidden City Philadelphia’s Mike Bixler, All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson talks about Malcolm X, jazz and historic preservation:

Michael Bixler: The FBI files from 1954 have Malcolm X at living at 1522 N. 26th Street, but you have discovered otherwise. How did you confirm that 2503 Oxford Street was his correct address?

Faye Anderson: On January 16, the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus held a screening of civil rights documentaries at the Pearl Theater. One of the films screened was “Seeds of Awakening: The Early Nation of Islam in Philadelphia,” which included first-hand accounts of Malcolm X’s time in the city. In the film Brother Richard Hassan recalled:

We would sit up all night. When Malcolm was here, we’d sit up all night talking. We had a Unity House, a Fruit House, on 2503 Oxford Street. A big house. That’s where Malcolm would stay and all the brothers would come.

The documentary was produced by the New Africa Center, part of the Scribe Video Center’s Muslim Voices of Philadelphia community history project. I have since spoken with Abdul Rahim Muhammad, executive director of the New Africa Center, who confirmed the address with Brother Hassan. While Hassan no longer lives in the Philadelphia area, I have his phone number so I will be able to get an affidavit from him if necessary. I also have contact information for Malcolm’s former press secretary and photographer.

MB: What are the next steps to getting an historical marker placed?

FA: Architectural historian Oscar Beisert and I are preparing the form to nominate 2503 W. Oxford Street for historic designation by the Philadelphia Historical Commission and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. We will submit the nomination on or about February 21, 2016, the 51st anniversary of the assassination of El-Hajj Malik Shabazz [Malcolm X].

MB: Why is it important to you to have an historical marker placed there?

FA: The historical marker is important because 2503 W. Oxford Street is a place where history happened. Malcolm X lived there for about six months in 1954. To be clear, the house does not meet architectural standards for historic properties. Instead, the building has significance in the cultural characteristics of Philadelphia and is associated with a person significant in the past. The building also exemplifies the political, social and cultural heritage of the African American community. What happened at 2503 W. Oxford Street laid the foundation for what is now one of the largest populations of African-American Muslims in the country.

The historical marker will tell a more complete story about the Sharswood neighborhood. Sharswood is about more than concentrated poverty and race riots. It’s a community that provided safe havens from the indignities of segregation. Jazz giants roamed Ridge Avenue and iconic leaders like Malcolm X and Charles W. Bowser resided there.

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Ridge on the Rise

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.

Blue Note

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.

Pearl Theater Collage

Some of the jazz giants who roamed Ridge likely stayed at the LaSalle Hotel, which was close to 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?

Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Icon

This year marks the 115th anniversary of the birth of Mary Lou Williams. Since 1995, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has paid tribute to the legendary pianist and composer with the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival.

Williams is the subject of a new documentary, Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band. The film premiered on public television on April 1.

Missed it? If you’re in the Philly area, you’re in luck. There will be a screening of the documentary on Tuesday, July 14, at the International House. Hosted by the Scribe Video Center, the screening and conversation with director Carol Bash is co-sponsored by the Leeway Foundation, Philadelphia Jazz Project, Ars Nova Workshop and Reelblack.

Sadly, luck is running out on the Women of Jazz mural, which depicts jazz icons including Williams, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. This civic asset is on the chopping block.

Women of Jazz Mural

On June 1, I provided public comment before the Philadelphia City Council Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and the Homeless, which is chaired by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. I brought to Blackwell’s attention the Philadelphia Housing Authority plans to demolish the mural. I made it clear the goal of increasing the availability of affordable housing and preserving the City’s jazz heritage is not mutually exclusive.

COUNCILWOMAN BLACKWELL: Thank you very much. So you’re saying they’re slated to tear down the mural?
MS. ANDERSON: Yes. The Women of Jazz mural at 3200 [block] of Arlington. It will be torn down sometime this year. The date to be determined.
COUNCILWOMAN BLACKWELL: All right. I’m happy to work on that.

The complete transcript is available here. Clap along if you’re happy.

Why Murals Matter

June is Black Music Month. First observed in 1979 at the White House, I’m kicking off the celebration at City Hall where I will offer public comments at a hearing on the Philadelphia Housing Trust Fund. Some background.

Last year, the Pennrose Company demolished the John Coltrane mural in Strawberry Mansion. Pennrose has been feeding at the public trough of government subsidies for decades. But in an instant, the company erased a tribute to an American cultural icon.

John Coltrane Collage

While the nation celebrates the centennial of the birth of Billie Holiday and  Mary Lou Williams, the Philadelphia Housing Authority plans to demolish this cultural asset.

Women of Jazz Mural

Now, you might be wondering what is the connection between murals and the affordable housing crisis? Kelvin Jeremiah, President and CEO of PHA, said it best in his remarks before the City Council Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and The Homeless on April 27:

It is my view that the affordable housing crisis that confronts this great city is also an issue of deep-seated structural poverty. … Solving the poverty problem will go a long way to solve the affordable housing crisis.

Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the nation. A whopping 40 percent of school-aged children live in poverty. There is a correlation between education and poverty. If the educational achievement of poor children is increased, fewer will end up on PHA’s 10-year waiting list for public housing.

A growing body of evidence shows that students with access to arts education perform better on standardized tests. In addition to improved student achievement, arts education contributes to the development of cognitive and social skills, nurtures a motivation to learn, increases student attendance and fosters a positive school environment. At-risk students cite their participation in the arts as a reason for staying in school.

Students involved in arts instruction report less boredom in school. Ask students why they dropped out of school, they will say they were bored.

The School District of Philadelphia has drastically cut arts and music programs; 25 percent of schools offer no music instruction. In the absence of arts education, murals may be poor students’ only exposure to the arts.

At the opening of the new Whitney Museum, First Lady Michelle Obama said the arts “could inspire a young person to rise above the circumstances of their life and reach for something better.”

Community-based public art inspires young people to reach for their star.

Reach for Your Star

To be clear, it’s not about preserving brick-and-mortar. Instead, it’s about the transformative power of the arts to engage, motivate and keep students in schools.

It’s also not about money. Through digital and mobile technology, a mural can be recreated at a fraction of its original cost. Indeed, the cost of preserving this great city’s cultural heritage would be far less than, say, Pennrose’s hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions.

Women in Jazz: Pearl Bailey

As Women in Jazz Month winds down, I want to salute Pearl Bailey who began her singing and dancing career at the Pearl Theater in Philadelphia. She lived in this house which is located just a few blocks from North Philly’s famed “Golden Strip.”

Pearl Bailey House

In 1946, Bailey made her Broadway debut in St. Louis Woman, a musical written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer.