Jan. 25, 2024
The intersection of Broad Street, Germantown Avenue, and Erie Avenue arguably forms the heart of North Philadelphia.
It's a bustling locus of transit, shopping, and food that caters to the Black working-class and lower-income communities that surround it. During the day, pedestrians, cars, and transit users — the Broad Street subway rumbles beneath the intersection — create a lively street scene.
It's here where the Philadelphia Historical Commission is experimenting with a new preservation strategy, far from the wealthier neighborhoods, such as Society Hill or Rittenhouse Square, that are most associated with their regulations and influence.
The initiative, titled "Treasure Philly!," seeks to deeply engage communities to help them to record local traditions and the places that make them. Often, those stories and experiences exist in a folk memory that's absent from mainstream media and academic history.
"We are looking at ways outside the traditional avenues we use at the Historical Commission and in the field of preservation to celebrate, protect, and preserve these histories we're working with the community to identify," says Shannon Garrison, a preservation planner at the commission. "Then we'll think through what the options are for protecting them."
Strengthening existing relationships
This ambitious project is starting at the Broad, Germantown, and Erie intersection because a city-initiated public engagement campaign is already underway in the area around infrastructure improvements to streets and public space. Other city agencies had already established relationships with community groups and neighbors in the area, and commission staff felt that would give them an easier starting point for their Treasure Philly! pilot.
"One of the things that's really important to this project [is] community engagement," says Martha Cross, AICP, an acting deputy director in the Department of Planning and Development. "That requires a lot of relationship building, so in doing this pilot we looked for a place where a lot of community organizing had already happened and relationships with the city had already been built."
The effort began with a gathering of 50 residents at Zion Baptist Church on Broad Street in late August. They were led by a consultant, Rosalyn McPherson of the ROZ Group, in a wide-ranging discussion about their memories of the neighborhood, its underappreciated history, and the stories that their families passed down.
The meeting lasted two hours, and the audience was intergenerational. Historic community icons were highlighted, such as James Fraser, the music director at Zion Baptist, who created what is believed to be the first all-Black orchestra to play at the Academy of Music in 1978. And State Representative Ruth Harper, who operated a charm school above her legislative offices on Erie Avenue.
"[The crowd] bounced stories and memories off of each other about the area, and we sat and listened and took notes, and then followed up with those people individually," says Garrison. "Then we did research based on the conversations at that event and started to identify specific things that we wanted to dig deeper into."
A new way to manage change
Further research is expected to take the rest of the year, with the staff following up with attendees of the August meeting as well as neighborhood advocates and business owners with deep roots in the area. The staffers are asking residents to walk their blocks with them or, if there is a particular place in the neighborhood that is especially meaningful to them, to set up a meeting there.
Then the staff will document their stories and make a list of the stand-out locations in the neighborhood. The exercise is partly a traditional building survey to find unprotected historic treasures, but the commission staffers also hope it will result in a deeper understanding, and documentation, of hyperlocal traditions and stories. How, Garrison asks, do you preserve a favorite recipe or a beloved local restaurant?
Part of the result of Treasure Philly! will be that a handful of iconic local buildings will be added to Philadelphia's register of historic places, protected from demolition and subject to commission regulation. But Garrison and Cross are still figuring out the final stages of the project and how it could change the way the city handles its own evolution — beyond the bounds of traditional preservation policy.
"We're testing a methodology here to replicate sustainably across the city," says Cross. "If we could understand the context of history, and the narratives of the people who live there, how might we manage change differently?"