Rebirth of a cemetery Fair Hill had fallen victim to "the badlands."

Posted: October 12, 2009

These days, you might do a double take walking through Fair Hill Burial Ground, in the heart of what used to be known as "the badlands" of North Philly.

This is a cemetery?

This is "the badlands"?

Yes, ironically, this is a cemetery that's been brought back from the dead, transformed over the last decade with nonprofit help and more than $1 million into a vibrant, beautiful green space for the living.

And yes, in the 1980s and '90s, this historic Quaker burial ground - a resting place of famous abolitionists and suffragettes - was a pocket of degradation in a larger hell known as "the badlands." Though proud residents chafed at the designation, their neighborhood back then was considered the worst drug market in the city.

FOR THE RECORD - CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED OCTOBER 14, 2009, FOLLOWS: In a list of prominent people buried in Fair Hill Burial Ground published Monday, the relationship of Fox Chase Cancer Center and Jeanes Hospital was misstated. The predecessor of Fox Chase was started on land offered to it by Jeanes.

But "the badlands" aren't so bad anymore.

"It's a blessing now, compared to what it was," says Peaches Ramos, who has five children and seven grandchildren and has lived in the area for all of her 49 years.

Gerry Fisher, executive director of the Historic Fair Hill Burial Ground Corp., a nonprofit the region's Quakers formed in 1993 to restore the cemetery, calls Ramos "a one-woman force." A community activist who works as assistant manager of a beauty supply store, Ramos was your basic pitbull in the fight to get rid of the filth and drugs.

With a baseball bat at her side, she confronted dealers outside the cemetery, bordered by Indiana and Germantown Avenues, Cambria and Ninth Streets. She went door to door, urging fearful neighbors to join the cause, which was strongly backed by the Police Department's "Operation Sunrise" and the district attorney.

"It was so bad," Ramos says, "the kids weren't even scared of bullets. They wouldn't even duck. They were used to the shooting."

Today, the buyers and sellers of drugs with names like "genocide" are mostly gone, though dealers occasionally congregate under the Harriet Tubman mural on Germantown Avenue. The cemetery isn't graffiti-free, but it's close. Bottles still get lobbed over the cemetery fence, but the broken glass likely will become an art project for neighborhood kids.

Today, the cemetery is fenced and clean, the brick and granite cartways and modest marble grave markers are visible once more. A place many folks thought was a pet cemetery has been born again.

Hundreds of children now visit the Fair Hill Burial Ground each year.

They grow organic vegetables, herbs, and flowers in 12 raised beds and wait excitedly for the newly planted orchard to bear pears and hazelnuts, figs and pie cherries. Everything is a life lesson, starting with patience in the garden.

"The kids are calmer out here. They feel freer. Their imagination comes out," says Jessica Herwick, coordinator of the gardening program, which caters to 5- to 12-year-olds.

There's soccer and football for boys 12 to 17, with emphasis on teamwork, played within view of the small stones displaying only name, age, and dates of birth and death.

There's a nature-study program, focusing on the red-tail hawks and squirrels that live in the 4.5-acre cemetery. The web of life, even here, is ever complex.

And, in a delightful development, school children now come on field trips to learn about the abolitionists, suffragists, and other reformers, fighters in their own times, who are buried right here. Among the better known are Quaker Lucretia Mott, outspoken supporter of equal rights for all; Mary Ann McClintock, an early women's rights advocate; and non-Quaker Robert Purvis, a wealthy African American businessman from Philadelphia known as "the president of the Underground Railroad."

Mott's grave lies under a young river birch tree planted by volunteers, the fourth stone in a humble row of six. This is what drew Margaret Hope Bacon to Fair Hill in the 1980s.

Bacon, a Mott biographer, wanted to see where she was buried. "So I went out and found this dilapidated place. It wasn't as bad as it got later, but it was in pretty bad condition," she says. "That upset me."

Bacon and her husband, Allen, rallied fellow Quakers and in 1993 they formed the nonprofit corporation to reclaim the burial ground that had been sold, along with a Quaker meetinghouse on Cambria Street, to Baptists in 1983.

Mary Anne Hunter, a landscape architect, remembers visiting the burial ground not long after the Quakers bought it back for $100,000. "My husband and I went after meeting one day," she recalls, "and we came upon people not too far from where Lucretia Mott was buried. They were sitting on milk crates, repackaging drugs."

Dealers sat wherever they liked in those days, often on the sidewalks around the burial ground on ratty seats ripped from cars. They owned the place, setting up shop like artists at a crafts fair, terrorizing residents and catering to a far-flung appetite for heroin and crack that could never be satisfied.

Zombies roamed the burial ground, which has about 3,500 graves. There were dogfights, gamblers, and prostitutes in there, an army of the living dead bent on turning a sacred space into a surreal landscape.

Young men were gunned down over nothing. Even the cemetery's wrought-iron fence - and two priceless gates - were stolen.

Once the Quakers and neighbors joined forces, it took three years just to unearth the pathways and wrestle the 8-foot-high weed trees, knotted brambles, and overgrown grass to the ground. Volunteers also hauled out abandoned cars, refrigerators, animal carcasses, and several tons of trash.

To date, more than $1 million in grants and donations has been spent on restoration of the cemetery, which has an annual budget of $95,000 and about 100 volunteers, a mix of Quakers, Blue Cross employees, and neighbors.

Recently, 40 units of low-income housing went up along one side of the burial ground; 150 senior units are under construction near another.

Inside the cemetery, plans call for new benches; walkway repair; more trees, gardening and nature programs; and training for teenage guides. Herwick is seeking donated roses to create a memorial garden and wood for raised beds.

Meanwhile, University of Pennsylvania graduate students are studying Fair Hill and the neighborhood, which in more prosperous times had a Nabisco factory, lace mill, and hay market. "The city is an incredibly rich, historic place, almost a historic document," says Randall F. Mason, historic-preservation department chair at Penn. "If you take the time to read it, you'll find tons of remarkable stories."

One such story is being written now. Just don't call it "The Badlands."

Contact staff writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

Fall Work Day

Fair Hill Burial Ground will hold its fall work day from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday to clean up and weed the grounds. Tours will be offered.

The cemetery is in the 2900 block of Germantown Avenue in North Philadelphia. Entrance is on Cambria Street.

From noon to 1 p.m., there will be a ceremony to rededicate a marker for John Moran, a neighborhood resident who worked in a lace factory and was buried in Fair Hill in an unmarked grave in 1953. Moran's grandson James Biddle Moran will speak at the ceremony.

Laid out in 1843, the cemetery is on land originally granted by William Penn to George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), in 1703. It is no longer active; the last burials were in the 1950s.

The burial ground is open from 2 to 5 p.m. on Sundays till Nov. 1. From June to October, hours are 2 to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Visitors may come at other times by appointment, for a special event, or a work day.

Tours can be arranged for descendants, school groups, and others interested in Quaker history, abolition and the Underground Railroad, and women's history. Information: 610-639-7859 or http://fairhillburial.org/.

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