April 3- 9, 2003
Slum Of All Fears
As the specter of the NTI wrecking ball haunts North Philadelphia, two preservation projects are shedding light on its historic architecture: an exhibition of black-and-white photographs of the neighborhood on view at the University of Pennsylvania and an architectural survey of the Francisville neighborhood, just north of Fairmount Avenue.
It was not your average art opening on the evening of Thu., March 27. Roughly 100 people showed up to hear a lecture on North Philadelphia's historic buildings. Those who came got an earful -- not simply about architecture but about the politics of preservation.
Catherine Lavoie, a senior historian with the Historic American Buildings Survey, issued a thinly veiled attack on Mayor Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI). Lavoie said the North Philadelphia neighborhood detailed in the exhibit has hope for rehabilitation due to its proximity to the already revitalized Spring Garden section of the city, and because of its historic architecture. "Large-scale demolition would destroy the possibility of regeneration," she said. "I would like to think we have learned from urban renewal," the 1960s-era programs that leveled historic neighborhoods in the name of "slum clearance."
Warren Huff, who directed the Francisville architectural survey as part of the Community Heritage Preservation Project, says we have. According to Huff, the North Philadelphia neighborhood was chosen because "it was where we would anticipate NTI activity. Certainly if there was going to be demolition then the recording of architectural and cultural resources was going to be that much more critical."
The preservation project, which recently won an award from the American Planning Association, was conducted by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, the government office that oversees NTI planning. Huff says that it was important to undertake this project before NTI got into full swing because the "only models we had of renewal at such a scale is what we had seen in the '50s and the '60s and we were all conscious of how much historic fabric was lost." Huff says he is heartened that "today's historic preservation ideas about what's worth saving are a bit broader."
For NTI critics like Lavoie, it's not over till the wrecking ball swings.