PHA revises development plans to honor historic Germantown burial ground

More than 50 Germantown residents and Philadelphia Housing Authority representatives met in the Mt. Moriah Baptist Church basement Thursday night to discuss what the area near West Queen Lane and Pulaski Avenue will look like when a high-rise apartment building and playground are demolished.

The issue has been particularly heated for the past month since neighbors and activists joined together in an effort to preserve a historic “Potter’s Field” burial ground upon which the Queen Lane Apartments and Wissahickon Playground were built.

In a surprise announcement, PHA agreed to change its development plans to help protect the land which was purchased in 1755 as a burial ground for “all strangers, Negroes, and Mulattoes [who] die in any part of Germantown forever.”

PHA General Manager of Community Development and Design Michael Johns said that one message resonated at previous community meetings on the issue: A Germantown woman said it was a disgrace when the land was built upon in 1955, and that doing it again doesn’t make it right.

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“We thought we were doing the right thing. We thought we had a great plan. We thought we were honoring our ancestors by creating affordable housing,” he explained.

Now, PHA will open the original Potter’s Field space, which starts at the foot of the building and extends northward partway into the current playground, to the public. Despite the change in design – which mirrors a proposal from the Germantown Historical Society – there will still be room for all 55 rental units proposed.

Shock, then elation

Supporters of the historic preservation were shocked, then elated as the break-out groups formed around the room shifted from discussing a green space in the center of the development to how to best preserve and honor the burial ground.

“This is what we’ve been fighting for, to be part of what goes on in our community,” said Thomas Morgan, the Democratic committeeperson for the 12th Ward, 11th division.

Lisa Hopkins, community liaison for the Northwest Neighbors of Germantown group, has been rallying for the protection of the site. She hugged PHA representatives upon hearing the news.

Northwest Neighbors was joined by the Germantown Historical Society, Avenging the Ancestors Coalition of Philadelphia (ATAC), National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, Canaan Baptist Church, Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church and, among others, Mt. Moriah in the effort.

“We live in a democracy,” Hopkins said. “They thought we were one small organization, but once we had other groups to support us, they had to listen.”

Peter DiCarlo, the Germantown Historical Society board member who presented alternative renderings to PHA that would isolate Potter’s Field, said the memorial is special. Normally, materials remain to be protected; in this case, it’s just a landscape.

“It is kind of a new way of thinking about historic properties,” he said, explaining that the feeling of “hallowed ground” can still be there. “Restoring historical places or even just valuing beautiful space is a way to restore their meaning.”

Moving forward with design concepts

Ideas for the new memorial ranged from a park setting with walkways, to a wall with a fountain, or a recreation center or playground set back on the site.

Flossie Rosteyer, who lives within a few blocks of the playground, said she would like to see a peaceful place for reflection with a statue or plaque. She said it’s more important that her hope for a permanent fixture comes to fruition.

“Something dedicated and engraved there so it can’t be removed and we can honor our ancestors,” she said.

Or’Telin Zahairagunn, 37, grew up in Germantown and brought his children, Taylor and Noble, because he wanted them to have a say in the process.

“I think that it’s important that the youth recognize and know the importance of things like this because it can be easily forgotten,” he said. “I played on that playground as a kid and I never knew.”

PHA will hold another meeting at Mt. Moriah on Jan. 19 to further discuss the project and present ideas for the memorial.

Correction:  In a previous version of this article Noble Zahairagunn’s first name was incorrect.

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