Demolitions are taking place all over Philadelphia as neighborhoods undergo change, new development, and gentrification.
Now, recent demolitions on Christian Street, the famed Black Doctors’ Row that was once home to a prosperous Black upper-middle class in South Philadelphia in the early 20th century, have led City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson to propose a one-year moratorium, temporarily halting demolitions on Christian, between Broad and 20th Streets.
A discussion of the proposed ordinance, Bill 210473, is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at a meeting of the City Council Rules Committee, of which Johnson is the chair.
If the bill is referred favorably to the full City Council, it would become a first step toward establishing a formal historic district for a Black neighborhood, where demolitions have increased at a rapid pace, activists said.
For example, between February and March, a developer demolished a property at 1513 Christian, next door to 1515 Christian, the former home of Julian Abele, the city’s most important Black architect.
Neighbors worried the demolition could damage the house, which is already designated individually as a historic property.
Abele, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, worked for Horace Trumbauer’s architectural firm and had a role in designing both the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Free Library.
Historic preservationists and neighborhood leaders want to establish the Christian Street corridor as a historic Black district, in what is also referred to as the Graduate Hospital area.
Longtime residents began reaching out to him worried about the demolition of Black historical landmarks, Johnson said Monday.
“Christian Street has been a historically vibrant, professional community,” he said. “There was the Ebenezer Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the First African Baptist Church, and the Christian Street YMCA. That corridor has always been a very vibrant area and we want to make sure we maintain the cultural fabric.”
Patrick Grossi, advocacy director for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said the one-year moratorium would be “a pause and a window of opportunity to consider this area for a formal historic district.”
The Preservation Alliance is collaborating with the South of South Neighborhood Association (SOSNA) to apply for historic designation to the Philadelphia Historic Commission.
“The increased pace of demolitions along streets like Christian Streets” is a concern, Grossi said. In addition to being a middle-class enclave, the houses on Christian Street “are intact and more ornate than the average Philadelphia rowhouse.”
Inga Saffron, the Inquirer’s architectural critic and columnist wrote last month: “If the commission approves the designation, Christian Street would become the first space in Philadelphia to receive that honor specifically for its Black history.”
Richard Gliniak, a member of SOSNA’s zoning committee and a Democratic committeeman and a former Sanitation Division Streets Department mechanical engineer, said he will testify Tuesday.
Gliniak said after a developer demolished a house at 1712 Christian, the partition wall separated from the home next door at 1714 Christian. The city declared 1714 “imminently dangerous,” and a family of four were evacuated.
There is no protection for neighbors when demolitions occur or if crews dig out the basements of vacant lots, undermining the foundation of adjacent homes, said VeniseWhitaker, founder of the River Wards Coalition and an advocate for safe construction.
Gliniak agreed: “The city will tell the homeowners to go to their homeowner’s insurance companies, but if you dig under the earth of a house and damage the foundation, insurance companies don’t pay.”
While the demolition moratorium would extend from Broad to 20th on Christian, the proposed historic Black district would start at 13th Street through 20th, after public historian Faye M. Anderson pointed out that Bessie Smith, a jazz-age blues singer, once lived at 1319 Christian.
Johnson said he hopes other areas of the city will also apply to become historic Black districts.
“We hope this can be a model for other areas that have African American landmarks that can be preserved to maintain the cultural history of African Americans in the city of Philadelphia. We hope this can be a framework as we move forward.”