Preservation Blind Spot Apparent on Philly's Black 'Doctor's Row'

Christian Street, known at the beginning of the 20th century as the Black "Doctor's Row" should have been on the Historic Register years ago, according to this article.

December 30, 2020, 6:00 AM PST

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

Doctor's Row

This stretch of Christian Street in the Graduate Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia was known as the Black "Doctor's Row" at the beginning of the 20th century. | Google Streetview

Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Inga Saffron shares news of a development proposal on a block known as "Doctor's Row" in Philadelphia—a stretch of townhomes on Christian Street home to numerous Black professionals at the beginning of the 20th century.

Saffron describes the importance of the street and the surrounding neighborhood at the beginning of the 20th century:

…in 1916, the surrounding neighborhood, now known as Graduate Hospital, was the epicenter of Black cultural life in Philadelphia, and Christian Street was its main thoroughfare, according to Evergreens, a neighborhood history by Andrew Dalzell. Interspersed among the fine houses were some of the city’s most important Black churches and Black-run civic institutions. The great concert singer Marian Anderson, who had grown up nearby, bought a house in the neighborhood in 1924. It was her husband, Orpheus Hodge Fisher, another Black Philadelphia architect, who introduced Abele to the French pianist who would become his wife.

According to Saffron, the fact that the street block wasn't added to the Historic Register years ago shows that the city’s Historical Commission doesn't care much for the importance of Black identity in the city's history (it's a familiar story in cities all over the country). The lack of protections in the neighborhood are coming to head now that Graduate Hospital is the most gentrified neighborhood in the city—a distinction Saffron detailed in an article from 2018. Now Stamm Development Group is proposing a luxury condo development to be built at 1513 Christian Street, previously the site of a boarding house and one of the few places left in the neighborhood offering relatively cheap rents.

"Stamm was able to get a zoning permit for the taller, luxury building by paying into a fund intended to increase the city’s stock of affordable housing. Permission for the additional floor will cost the company all of $34,000, according to city planning officials." Saffron calls the development's use of the city's Height Bonus program the punchline of the story.

"[T]ogether with the 10-year property tax abatement (which was just extended to the end of 2021), such incentives are skewing the financial model for development in Philadelphia. With its huge inventory of sturdy 19th- and 20th-century townhouses, the city once excelled at renovations and adaptive reuses of older buildings. Now, zoning and tax incentives increasingly reward teardowns," writes Saffron.

A lot more detail on the history of Christian Street and Graduate Hospital, along with the proposed development and the land use regulations of the city are included in the source article.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020 in Philadelphia Inquirer

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