Battle rages over new PHA housing near historic burial ground

Barry Le Land and Lisa Hopkins stand outside Queen Lane Apartments, which the PHA wants to demolish.
Barry Le Land and Lisa Hopkins stand outside Queen Lane Apartments, which the PHA wants to demolish. (VALERIE RUSS / DAILY NEWS STAFF)
Posted: October 05, 2012

BARRY Le LAND knows a man who talks of kicking a skull around when he was a boy after the Queen Lane Apartments high-rise was built in 1955.

"A couple of fellows said they were playing kickball and thought they were kicking a rock, but then they saw it was a skull," Le Land said."I have seen bones over there. But we didn't know it was a potter's field."

Residents said the bones started to appear after the Philadelphia Housing Authority finished building the high-rise in 1955, at Queen Lane and Pulaski Avenue, the site of an all-but-forgotten burial ground for African-Americans.

Now, the authority wants to tear down the high-rise and build 55 townhouses on the perimeter of the block - a plan that has stirred emotions in Germantown and rekindled awareness of the historic potter's field.

"We do not want PHA to continue to desecrate those grounds," said Lisa Hopkins, president of the Northwest Neighbors of Germantown. "If somebody's great-grandmother was buried there, they wouldn't want a building put on her back."

Le Land said he saw bones in the area when he was an 11-year-old paperboy throwing a ball around with other boys while waiting for copies of the Evening Bulletin to be delivered to a shack at Queen and Pulaski.

The Germantown potter's field was created in 1755, and burials continued until 1915. It is a historic site, said Walter Gallas, of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

PHA plans to demolish the 16-story, 119-unit building - vacant now for nearly a year - and replace it with the townhouses. The last 111 tenants were relocated last Thanksgiving eve.

Michael Johns, the authority's acting deputy director for operations, said PHA intends to honor the burial ground.

"We made the immediate determination to honor the ancestors and not build anything over the existing potter's field," Johns said Wednesday.

If a federally required historical review allows the project to proceed, Johns said PHA plans to build the townhouses along the perimeter of the burial ground.

He said open space and a memorial will be left to acknowledge the burial ground.

But Hopkins and members of other civic groups said they believe that PHA has underestimated the size of the burial ground.

And some residents urged PHA not to build any low-income rental housing at the site. They want PHA to instead provide low-income home-ownership units.

City Councilwoman Cindy Bass said that PHA's plans are not final and that the agency is awaiting results of a survey to determine the true size of the burial ground.

She also said she's working to find new recreational space to replace the Wissahickon Playground, which is adjacent to the high-rise but is now fenced off after City Council agreed to sell it to PHA for $1.

Neighbors have complained that shutting down the playground left children playing in the streets and that crime has increased since PHA moved tenants from the high-rise and into other homes in the community.

But Corliss Gray, president of the Queen Lane Tenant Council, who lives in a low-rise PHA house across from the tower, said both black and white middle-class residents simply don't want public housing near them.

"They're talking about, 'It's sacred ground,' but they just come up with one excuse after the other," said Gray, 81.

"I know if I had been so poor that I had to be buried there [in a potter's field] and I had a spirit going around, I'd rather see poor people with a decent place to live than have some kind of memorial for me. I'm dead and gone; I don't need nothing to remind me of my life. I'd rather see someone else have a better life."


Contact Valerie Russ at russv@phillynews.com or 215-854-5987. Follow her on Twitter @ValerieRussDN.

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