Dorin Collins grew up in North Philadelphia. She spent summers with her friends, munching on cheesesteaks and sipping cherry coke at a shop on North Broad Street, playing hopscotch, jumping rope and attending tennis lessons offered on the courts near Pearson and McGonigle halls.
She’d volunteer at the “self-help center” her mother established on 15th Street near Diamond. It offered programs like arts and crafts classes and tutoring for the community. When it was colder, and school was back in session, her family would go to a Rothschild factory on Broad Street near Lehigh Avenue to pick up pieces of fabric to make school projects.
Collins left the neighborhood for nearly 20 years to work in the military and for airlines tracking and maintaining aircraft. When she returned to Philadelphia in the late 1990s to care for her sick father, a fraternity house had replaced the shop on Broad Street near Norris where Collins ate her first cheesesteak. Her mother’s self-help center was closed and the factory was gone.
Everything was so different from her childhood, when she lived at 12th and Huntingdon streets with her mother, father and three siblings.
“Just that whole feel of a bustling, productive community is gone,” Collins said. “Watching buildings fall down and houses fall down just from the wind blowing. That’s pretty rough. I didn’t understand it. I still don’t.”
Collins’ story is one of many like it for people who grew up in North Philadelphia. The area’s history has been influenced by Temple’s presence.
In Part II of our series on community relations, The Temple News hopes to tell the story of the neighborhoods surrounding Main Campus by detailing its history through community leaders, business owners and residents.
K E Y M O M E N T S I N
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The three vacant lots next to Will Mundy’s house on Page Street near 16th used to be a dumping site for items like clothes, used condoms, car transmissions and tires. It was populated with possums, raccoons and overgrown with weeds.
His wife, Geraldine, suggested he do something about it.
He cleaned the lot, but it remained overgrown with weeds until 2008, when he established the Page Street Garden Residential Association. Today, the lots make up a community fruit and vegetable garden where watermelons, cantaloupes, honeydew, tomatoes, green peppers and corn are harvested. During the summer, Mundy sets up canopies where people can enjoy refreshments and play dominoes, checkers or chess.
Mundy, the head of the garden association and the block captain of the 1600 block of Page Street, said the garden is a safe haven for nearby residents during summers. The 72-year-old manages to run it, despite his fixed income.
“The wear and tear on me as a person is offset by the joy that this brings to my residents who I’m the block captain for,” Mundy said. “My duties as a block captain extend more to just making sure the street is clean.”
Mundy said most of the non-student residents on his block are elderly people. He knows families who feed their children soft pretzels or potato chips for breakfast, and he can’t meet the demand for fresh produce on his block.
If Mundy had his way, the garden would look much different than it does now. He wants to build a dome over it so he can produce crops year-round. He wishes for posters of African-American leaders like Cecil B. Moore and Martin Luther King Jr. along the fence inside — “a walk through history in a garden.”
This summer, three students who will graduate from Benjamin Franklin High School on Broad Street near Spring Garden will participate in a five-week program in the garden. They’ll learn basic gardening and alternative career paths to those they were considering, Mundy said.
Nearby residents and Temple students volunteer, but Mundy said he still needs more people to help. He also has to run the garden without the ability to ask nearby residents for money because they’re either students “trying to work their way through college” or people living on fixed incomes.
“I would love for Temple to sponsor it, or I would love for Temple to put us on their list of organizations, community urban organizations that can help us out with this, bringing this into reality,” Mundy said. “But I’m not going to sit around and twirl my fingers and say, ‘Woe is me,’ or ‘Woe is us. This is impossible, I’m working with people who are 70 or 80 years old.’”
“I want to leave a legacy that others would want to keep it going,” he added. “If just one or two people could do this, or one or two senior citizens can do this, can you imagine what could be achieved if more people did it throughout the city? A lot of people have gardens in their backyard, but they don’t take on the responsibility of a garden that produces crop year-round. That’s what we want to do.”
A R E L A T I O N S H I P O N T H E M E N D
A statue of the angel Gabriel blowing his trumpet used to sit on top of the Church of the Advocate on Diamond Street near 18th, looking over North Philadelphia.
About 20 years ago, the statue became worn and needed to be taken down. But the Rev. Renee McKenzie still thinks about its image every time she closes her eyes and imagines the church’s mission: connecting with the North Philadelphia community.
As the church’s senior pastor, McKenzie presides over a weekly service in the church’s sanctuary. The statue, streaked with erosion and water damage, is now in the back of the sanctuary, directly in McKenzie’s line of vision as she preaches.
It is weathered on the outside, but McKenzie said what it symbolizes is still just as important to her.
McKenzie became the senior pastor at Church of the Advocate in 2011. About six years earlier, she received her Ph.D. in religion from Temple.
She said she didn’t know a lot about the community while she was attending Temple, and she was shocked by the “vitality of North Philadelphia for the African-American culture” when she started working at the church. She added that the activism sparked by North Philadelphia historical figures like Cecil B. Moore and the Rev. Leon Sullivan is embedded in the community. It inspires her to offer social services like a soup kitchen and computer lab for community residents.
Working with people from the church showed McKenzie, a former physical therapist, that being a pastor is her life’s calling.
“What it demands of me is that I love people and that I love and respect the person who is sitting across from me,” McKenzie said. “I have to fight for their right to have the best in life. I have to fight for their right to have social justice.”
At Berean Presbyterian Church on Broad and Diamond streets, the Rev. Michael Evans said the church’s mission is summed up in a prayer recited every Sunday at service, part of which reads, “We pray the power of the Holy Spirit will help us as a congregation to … provide hope and minister to needs of our community.”
In addition to hosting free community dine-ins and giving out clothing, the church also allows organizations like the Girl Scouts and recovery groups Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous to meet in its space, Evans said. He added that love is offered to every person who enters Berean, despite any differences.
“The door is open to all,” he said.
‘S E R V E R S O F T H E P E O P L E’
At 1617 Barber Shop & Beauty Salon on Cecil B. Moore Avenue near 16th Street, a tattered one dollar bill is taped to a piece of computer paper behind shop manager Darryl Salley’s desk.
Above the bill, a handwritten message reads, “Some people will kill for this. Some people would even rob their loved ones for this. The destroyer of this dollar has a different opinion.” On a corkboard next to the paper, another dollar bill hangs on the wall — this one with “no disrespect” written across it with a black marker.
1617’s owner, Talib Abdul Mujid, 50, said the bills symbolize that money is a reward, but not the shop’s only focus.
Abdul Mujid has owned the shop for nearly eight years and lectures twice a month in geography and urban studies professor Walter Gholson’s Black Males in the City class. His theme is “the art of survival,” and he talks about how Black males in inner cities can experience violence and drugs at early ages.
“We are career barbers, we are servers of the people,” Abdul Mujid said. “If it comes to the money, we’ll rip the money up. You can always get more money. You can’t repair relationships sometimes when you rip them up.”
Willie Williams worked two jobs while he went to college. One of them was at the beer distributor at Montgomery Avenue and Gratz Street. He saved enough money to rent the building in 1966 and bought it in 1967.
Before he passed away last month, Williams owned and operated Montgomery Beer Distributor and “helped raise a lot of the community by being a strong Black male in the area,” his oldest grandson, Otis Williams, said.
1300 Residence Hall’s basement is a storage space with exposed vents, a concrete floor, discarded boxsprings and cleaning products stacked against the walls.
But tucked in its back corner, the door of Greg Bonaparte’s office is covered with photos of smiling church congregations, volunteer events and award ceremonies. Inside, photos of his son and wife are pinned to a corkboard hanging above his desk, so he can look at them as he works. The office is, in a way, Bonaparte’s personal storage space for the memories he’s created as a lifelong North Philadelphia resident.
Bonaparte works as a general mechanic in 1300, but his involvement with the university extends beyond his day job. He has helped plan university projects like the construction of White Hall as a member of Temple’s Partnership Planning Community and Campus West Committee.
Despite his involvement in the university’s growth, the neighborhood still doesn’t look familiar to him.
“It went up so fast it will make your head spin,” Bonaparte said. “North Philadelphia was supposed to be a little raggedy-down area, from what people were saying.”
According to “Philadelphia’s Changing Neighborhoods,” a report about gentrification released by the Pew Charitable Trusts in May 2016, three census tracts which Main Campus is a part were predominantly Black in 2000, but not in 2014. The report also states that the median sale price for residences west of Main Campus rose from $11,250 in 2000-01 to $140,000 in 2013-14 due to the development of off-campus housing for students — a 1,144 percent increase.
For local businesses, the influx of students living off Main Campus has impacted revenue. In Montgomery Beer Distributor’s 50-year history, significant numbers of students moving off campus west of Broad Street only began in the early 2000s, Otis said.
Some people lose up to 75 percent of their business when classes aren’t in session and national chain stores like Radio Shack haven’t lasted in the area, he added.
“You have to adjust how you market,” Otis said. “You have to adjust how you order things. When school is not in, certain quantities of beer, like kegs and different stuff, I won’t sell as many or I won’t buy as many. Most of the neighborhood people that stay here, their order patterns and the stuff that they want is a little bit different.”
“It’s just some obstacles you have to overcome for your business to last in this type of environment,” he added.
Religious and cultural centers are also impacted by North Philadelphia’s evolving landscape.
Dorin Collins, who grew up in North Philadelphia, still visits the neighborhood as a parishioner at Berean, and attends the church’s Bible study on Wednesdays and weekly Sunday service. Growing up, she went to a parish near 11th and Huntingdon streets, but started attending Berean when her mother was sick. Collins’ mother asked her to make sure the pastor spoke over her body after she passed.
She hasn’t left the church since, she said, and Temple’s growth has been shocking for her.
Collins said the influx of Temple students has pushed the North Philadelphia community farther away from Berean, making it more difficult for them to attend mass.
Rev. McKenzie, from the Church of the Advocate, is tasked with balancing North Philadelphia’s culture, providing for the community and acting as a liaison for Temple. She said she’s been able to accomplish it to an “extent” through partnerships with a few of Temple’s departments or schools, like research projects with the College of Public Health.
“I learned as I was anticipating coming here that there was this broken relationship between the university and the community, and I just wanted to see if we can just try to bridge that gap,” McKenzie said.
But she said institution-wide community relations efforts are lacking.
“I think that the Advocate is a trusted entity in the community, which Temple I don’t think is yet,” McKenzie added. “I think maybe it can be, but it’s not there yet. … It’s just a person-to-person touch because the university is this mammoth thing. It’s so decentralized. … Who do you talk to to enter into a relationship with the university?”
Sandra Haughton, the executive producing director at Freedom Theatre on Broad Street near Master, said the theater has done some partnerships with Temple programs, but none on a university level — similar to McKenzie’s experience at Church of the Advocate.
This year, Haughton will celebrate the theater’s 50th anniversary as an African-American institution. She hopes to begin offering programs that appeal to students moving into North Philadelphia — an effort to stay relevant.
“Gentrification is always difficult because communities change,” she added. “They’re living, breathing entities. If you were here 50 years ago, you’re not going to be the same as you are in this environment, this economic environment. If you want to be around for another 50 years, you have to adapt.”
Click to read PART III exploring outreach to the North Philadelphia community on behalf of Temple Administration.
Evan Easterling, Grace Shallow and Michaela Winberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @TheTempleNews.
Photos by Evan Easterling and Grace Shallow.
Videos by Rico Le, Abbie Lee and Linh Than.
Graphic by Donna Fanelle.
Produced and designed by Donna Fanelle, Evan Easterling and Grace Shallow.