Arts & Entertainment

Uncovering North Broad’s history

Hidden City Philadelphia recently offered a tour of North Philly’s historical site.

As raindrops dribbled off the slick brownstone exterior of Freedom Theatre, Gail Leslie, one of the theater’s guides, quickly waved the tour group inside and out of the rain.

“It’s a very comfortable spot,” said Leslie, whose father, Robert Leslie, founded the performing arts program at the Freedom Theatre in 1968.

Freedom Theatre, on 1346 N. Broad St., was the first stop on Hidden City’s North Central Philly Lost & Found walking tour, led by Judith Robinson. The tour, designed to highlight the hidden history of North Philadelphia, also included historical sites that many Temple students see daily, like the James Craven House on Broad Street near Jefferson, Temple’s Conwell Hall and the Church of the Advocate on Diamond Street near 18th.

“Can you just imagine in those days, when this was the promenade of Broad Street?” Robinson asked, passing around old photographs of the ritzy clubs that lined the major throughway in the early 20th century.

Robinson, a longtime North Philadelphia resident and member of Hidden City, wanted her community to be recognized. After 30 years in real estate, Robinson retired and started training to be a docent, a gallery tour guide.

Founded in 2005 under the name Peregrine Arts and changed to Hidden City in 2010, the organization hosts tours and events to showcase the lesser-known stories of Philadelphia. Each tour focuses on a specific neighborhood, street or other theme in order to recognize forgotten places throughout the city. Besides North Central Philly Lost & Found, recent tours include Mostly Manayunk, Exploring the Philly Jazz Legacy and Forgotten Chestnut Street.

“We really want to show that we care about our neighborhood,” she said.

Robinson hopes the tour group left with a new understanding of North Philadelphia’s roots. North Central Philly is home to historical sites like Sullivan Progress Plaza, the first African-American-owned shopping center in the country and the Charles Ellis House, which is still owned by the followers of Father Divine, the owner of Broad Street’s iconic Divine Lorraine Hotel.

“Father Divine didn’t believe in heaven, his idea was to have heaven on earth,” said Peter Woodall, outreach director of Hidden City. “What better way than with a mansion?”

It is those small, forgotten details within Philadelphia’s history that excite Hidden City’s members, tour guides and guests.

“I hope that [attendees] appreciate that this was a beautiful, historic community,” Robinson said.

Many of the tour’s attendees live in other neighborhoods in Philadelphia, but Vicki Demarest has lived in the area for more than two decades.

“As somebody who lives here, it’s great to see some of the background of Broad Street,” Demarest said. “It’s changed a lot over the past hundred years, and even over the past 20, 25 years. It’s been kind of a revelation.”

Robinson believes that the neighborhood will continue to change for the better.

“Although it’s seen better days, we’re looking toward a bright future,” she said. “This includes the institution that is an anchor of our community, Temple University, and all the homeowners who have weathered the storm through all the changes over the past 60 years.”

Erin Moran can be reached at erin.moran@temple.edu.

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