Six years after a construction project uncovered a Colonial-era potter’s field for Black Philadelphians and destroyed a much-used playground, residents say their community is a victim of broken promises.
“I want to cry every time I drive around my neighborhood and see the children playing on asphalt,” said Lynda White, a longtime Germantown resident who has been pushing for a replacement for the playground.
The demolition of a midcentury high-rise housing project and the Wissahickon Playground in 2015 made way for modern housing for low- and very low-income Philadelphians. Before the tower came down, the community sought two concessions: the historic burial ground the structure was built on would be preserved and honored, and the playground would be replaced.
Today, Queen Lane Apartments offers 55 affordable homes. But the burial ground is fenced and inaccessible. A new playground, meanwhile, remains in the planning stages in a neighborhood where children have few welcoming outdoor places.
Yvonne Haskins, a real estate attorney who was active in the effort to preserve the potter’s field, explained that there aren’t any well-maintained play spaces within blocks.
“The central issue, what’s the more prominent issue, is there’s not one recreation space in this entire area,” she said.
The potter’s field itself is a raised plateau of almost an acre of well-maintained lawn along Queen Lane surrounded by a horseshoe of Philadelphia Housing Authority townhouses. A fence and locked gates keep out visitors, because that’s what the community wanted, said Kelvin Jeremiah, the agency’s president and chief executive. All uses the PHA suggested raised fierce concerns about a lack of respect for the grounds, he said.
“I got calls late into the night reminding me this was a sacred site,” Jeremiah said, recalling the battles. “They did not want people playing on it. They did not want us to even put a bench on it so people could sit and reflect.”
The agreement with PHA and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development states no buildings can be constructed on the field, though it does allow for a plaque or historic marker, and does not specifically state the space should be inaccessible.
PHA’s interpretation wasn’t what the community sought, Haskins said.
“It should be a place that had the kind of regard for having been a burial ground,” she said. “It could add to quality of life if families were encouraged to gather, just have it as a green space where people could come and enjoy."
Sarah Endriss, a landscape architecture professor at Philadelphia University and a Germantown resident, said her students even participated in a project to design possible uses for the potter’s field, including a farmers market or an area for the elderly.
During a 2012 public meeting, Michael Johns, then PHA’s general manager for community development, said, “We are going to open this site and we are going to honor the ancestors who were here.”
A number of the people who fought to keep the PHA from building on the potter’s field don’t think a playground would be an appropriate use for the site, but they agree with families living in the PHA townhouses who say a play space is needed.
Shakira Williams, a home health aide and mother to three sons, an 11-year-old and twin 6-year-olds, worries about sending her children numerous blocks from home without an adult so they can play outdoors. “Being that it’s so far it means I have to take them.”
On Penn Street, which a portion of the housing complex fronts, the need for play space is obvious. Children shooting hoops in the street put games on hold to make way for cars.
A lawsuit challenging the city’s right to sell the playground led to a 2015 agreement that the housing agency would commit $500,000 to replace it. City Councilmember Cindy Bass had a site in mind five years ago, but the community nixed it. White identified six potential locations last summer, but the city didn’t own the lots, White said, and Bass said in a Wednesday interview there were concerns there about contaminants.
“There just is not an existing plot of land that meets all the requirements of everyone weighing in on the process,” Bass said.
In a response to The Inquirer’s questions, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation reported a design is complete for the playground on a city-owned, 4,200-square-foot corner lot at Penn and Morris Streets made from combining three properties, about a block away from the old site. Acquiring one of those parcels took time, a Parks and Rec spokesperson said, and the pandemic has delayed construction to spring 2021. The PHA will reimburse the city for the playground, officials said.
But whatever the city puts on that lot — at a busy intersection and on a shabby block — is not going to satisfy the community, White said.
“I can tell you right now the community is going to flip,” White said. “It’s not a big lot and that whole area is a big drug area too.”
Bass said she thought other lots should be looked at for playgrounds in addition to the corner lot planned for development, and said she was exploring two other sites.
“We’re not going to be able to get one large contiguous space,” she said. “If there’s a need for additional money we will cover it out of capital dollars.”
It also leaves unresolved what, if anything, to do with the potter’s field.
Founded in 1755 for indigent “strangers, negroes, and mulattos,” Germantown’s community of white craftsmen paid to create the separate potter’s field to ensure Black bodies would not be laid to rest next to white ones.
“They did not want to bury certain types of people in their cemetery,” said Alex Bartlett, archivist librarian and collections manager for the Germantown Historical Society. “What it also illustrates is that there were a number of enslaved people and free people living in Germantown.”
The cemetery was in use for its intended purpose until about 1916, Bartlett said, though kids later started playing baseball there, adapting headstones into bases. The playground arrived in 1920, according to a 2003 article from the Germantown Crier. The public housing tower rose in 1955, Bartlett said, in an era when preserving burial grounds wasn’t a priority.
When plans to demolish the tower emerged in 2011, members of the community called for archaeological digs on the site. Grave sites were long since destroyed by the tower’s construction, but workers found sufficient evidence that the land had been a burial ground for it to be protected.
“The legacy of a potter’s field is that these were people that were not wealthy, did not have the grand headstones,” Bartlett said. “They were marginalized in life and there’s a movement afoot to make sure they are not marginalized in death.”
Meanwhile, neighborhood kids are scaling the fence and playing there, just the way those young baseball players did a century ago.
Williams said she has little choice but to allow her boys to join in.