Temple grad to film documentary about Potter’s Field issue in Germantown

Chinonye Chukwu was a whirlwind of energy as she walked around waving her hands while talking about the subject of her new film at a Northwest Neighbors of Germantown meeting on Tuesday night.

The Nigerian-born, Alaskan-raised filmmaker is starting a documentary about the history of the Potter’s Field located at the site where the Queen Lane Apartments high-rise demolition will make way for a new Philadelphia Housing Authority development.

The debate around Potter’s Field, which the Preservation Alliance describes as a burial ground since 1755 dedicated to “all strangers, Negroes, and Mulattoes as die in any part of Germantown forever,” has been brewing since December.

As the community waits for results from the recent ground-penetrating radar study of the site — meant to determine if there were existing graves beneath the concrete — the budding filmmaker hopes to capture the story.

Not her first film

Chukwu, who received her Master of Fine Arts degree from Temple University, was awarded the 2009 Princess Grace Award. That prize is awarded by a foundation in honor of the actress Grace Kelly, who grew up in East Falls.

The $25,000 prize helped Chukwu produce a fictional feature called “Chidinma and Buchi,” which was shot in Nigeria. Most recently, Chukwu finished a full-length film called “Alaskaland” which is set to premiere at film festivals in the fall.

The filmmaker said she was inspired by Germantown and the Potter’s Field situation because of what she saw in Chicago.

“I’ve always been really passionate — you can say ‘neighborhood development,’ ‘gentrification,’ whatever spin you want to put on it,” she told the crowd. “Change is happening.”

Windy City gentrification sparked interest

In Chicago, the Cabrini-Green housing complex, which was known for gang violence and home to 15,000 low-income residents, was recently demolished.

The last buildings were taken down in March 2011, but since the decision to dismantle was reached, Chicago’s North Side has been heavily developed due to its proximity to, and view of, the city skyline.

“It’s on the gold coast, so it’s like prime property,” Chukwu said. “But now … it’s like Cabrini-Green never existed.”

The same thing might happen in Germantown, said the filmmaker who fears that potential loss of history.

“What will happen in 10 years?” she asked. “It will be like [the Queen Lane high-rise] never existed if we don’t document it.”

Remembrances from the past, footage from the present

The filmmaker said she plans on interviewing current and former Germantown residents with ties to the old Queen Lane apartment complex. In fact, she has already conducted a few.

She also plans to film the high-rise demolition, community events and hopes to speak with PHA officials about their role in the project.

“I want us to get to know each other,” said Chukwu, who noted she will try to screen the one- to two-hour film on buildings in the neighborhood.

Positive reaction

Donald Lanad, a 68-year resident of Germantown whose grandfather founded the nearby Mt. Moriah Church, loved the idea. He noted that even the Potter’s Field was lost to history when PHA erected the high-rise in 1950.

“So many things of black history are lost, and they’re not documented,” he suggested. “I think that’s wrong.”

Explaining why he volunteered to be one of the first interviewees, Lanad said, “I just want to be a part of it.”

Chukwu said she’ll offer complimentary copies of her previous films after Thursday night’s PHA meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. at Mt. Moriah.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.