Holleran: Rethink North Philly renovations

North Philadelphia needs more than wealth to restore it to its former glory.

Grace Holleran

Grace HolleranContrary to widely held student beliefs, North Philadelphia was once a place of economic and cultural flourish.

I learned this firsthand in 2012, when I toured what would eventually become my first off-campus apartment. The landlord, a squirmy middle-aged fellow, gestured a clammy hand at 2252 N. Carlisle St., announcing that this rowhouse was once the home of a “Miss Pearl.”

Miss Pearl, he explained, hosted after-parties for stars like James Brown and the   Supremes, both frequent performers at the now-abandoned Uptown Theater on Broad and Dauphin streets.

Naturally, my future roommates and I scoffed at his vague story – but we signed the lease anyway. And, when we found a yellowing menu for a party featuring “Miss Pearl’s gumbo” in our basement, we began to take our stammering landlord a bit more seriously.

The most valid source we could find to confirm the Miss Pearl story was Wikipedia, which claims that “many of the [Uptown’s] performers would eat at Miss Pearl’s house, which was located right behind the venue on Carlisle Street.”

This was enough for us.

The significance of Miss Pearl was not necessarily bragging rights or a cool party story. Throughout our two years at 2252 N. Carlisle, we felt like we were living somewhere important, a place where things had happened.

Recently, it seems the owners of North Philadelphia properties want things to happen there again.

In the past few months, several renovation projects for the northern stretch of “The Avenue of the Arts” were announced. The Uptown Theater is one of these projects. Although its plan has not yet been finalized, the action being taken elsewhere in North Philadelphia isn’t exactly reassuring me.

The Divine Lorraine Hotel, although it is several blocks south of Main Campus at Fairmount Avenue, is still a part of North Philly.

It’s seen as a blight to some and a work of art to others. The building has stood since 1894, but in 2006, it was completely gutted. Now, the Divine Lorraine serves as a venue for graffiti artists around the city.

Eric Blumenfeld, the current owner of the Divine Lorraine, wants to change this. In June, scaffolding appeared by the entrance of the hotel, and the graffiti began to disappear.

He has voiced several plans to several Philadelphia publications, but according to his most recent testimonial to the Inquirer, he’d like to see the space converted to luxury condominiums – and 21,000 square feet of retail space.

If Blumenfeld’s plan for the Divine Lorraine is any indication of the direction Philadelphia wants to take, I am skeptical as to how much “restoring” North Broad is actually going to do for the community.

Driving poverty out of an area does not solve the issue of poverty. Bringing in a surge of people who enjoy their expensive condos, but despise the run-down parts of Philadelphia will do nothing but make the owner of the Lorraine richer and the tensions in Philadelphia grow stronger.

Father Divine, a previous owner of the hotel, prided it on being one of the first racially integrated hotels in the city. Making luxury condos that are unaffordable for the poor will lead in a very specific – and probably mostly white – group of clientele.

Why not instead make the Divine Lorraine a public housing project or something that can benefit the whole community, like a public library or museum?

North Philadelphia needs more financial support, but it is not lacking in a rich culture. Vacated buildings like the Uptown and the Divine Lorraine should be used to foster this culture – not eliminate it.

Grace Holleran can be reached at holleran@temple.edu and on twitter  @coupsdegrace

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