Potter’s Field work done, but Germantown must wait for answers

Germantown residents will have to wait a bit longer for the full results of a recent survey of a pre-Revolutionary Era burial ground beneath the concrete of a public-housing high-rise site.

Queen Lane Apartments, a Philadelphia Housing Authority-owned building, and an on-site playground are slated to be demolished to make way for new development.

Mary Tinsman with Cultural Heritage Research Services, Inc. told neighbors during a PHA-led community meeting Thursday night that all of the field work to examine the “Potter’s Field” has been completed.

The findings are now being analyzed and will soon be sent to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees all PHA projects. From there, the findings will be turned over to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for review.

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“It will be a series of cross-sections at different elevations and then [Enviroscan’s William Steinhart] can look at those and find building foundations or holes that were in the ground or object that are in the ground,” Tinsman said inside Mt. Moriah Baptist Church on Pulaski Avenue. “Right now, the only thing that I can say he has definitely found over there is a couple of the building foundations from some of the houses that were there.”

The back story

Enviroscan, a Lancaster-based geophysics company hired by CHRS, searched the site last month using a technology known as ground-penetrating radar.

Another public meeting will be scheduled when the results are ready to be shared with the community.

PHA’s plan to demolish the nearly 60-year old apartment building hinges, in part, on Enviroscan’s results. It will provide, among other things, the boundaries of the “Potter’s Field,” an African American burial ground which, according to the Philadelphia Preservation Alliance, was created in 1755 for “all strangers, Negroes, and Mulattoes as die in any part of Germantown forever.”

Before PHA can move forward with building 55-rental units at the location, the local housing authority must get approval from HUD. As part of that approval process, an environmental review of the site, known as a Section 106 Agreement, must be executed.

The burial ground is part of the review. Historical surveys of both the high-rise building itself and the Wissahickon Playground, submitted about a week ago, are also part of that process.

PHA General Manager of Community Development and Design Michael Johns could not provide a specific timeline for when that process might be completed. To the dismay of at least couple residents, however, he did share that keeping the high-rise in place, is a “potential” option if an agreement can’t be worked out.

“If everything went wrong and there was nothing we do could to salvage our plans, that is an option,” said Johns. “That would clearly be the last thing that anybody would want to do.”

Johns noted that there has not yet been any indication that such a situation will arise.

Reaction to worst-case scenarios

Even hearing that possibility, didn’t sit well with Catharine Adams, who lives just three blocks from Queen Lane Apartments.

“That’s sort of scary to everyone here,” said Adams. “We don’t like the height, the style of the building. It’s very limiting. It doesn’t include community.”

Johns said it’s not clear at this point when either demolition or construction would potentially start. Demolition was originally scheduled to start in March, he said.

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