City hears concerns about playground, cemetery

Everett Gillison, Nutter COS, holds a community meeting over planned renovations to the Weccacoe Playground, which sits atop the historic Bethel Burying Ground, Monday, May 5, 2014. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer )
Everett Gillison, Nutter COS, holds a community meeting over planned renovations to the Weccacoe Playground, which sits atop the historic Bethel Burying Ground, Monday, May 5, 2014. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer ) (Steven M. Falk)
Posted: May 08, 2014

QUEEN VILLAGE Packing the auditorium of the African American Museum of Philadelphia on Monday night, dozens of Queen Village parents, many with small children, told city officials not to take away their neighborhood playground.

Many also said they supported proper commemoration and memorialization of the Bethel Burying Ground, the historic cemetery located beneath a portion of Weccacoe Playground at Queen and Lawrence Streets.

No one has proposed removing the playground, and Everett Gillison, Mayor Nutter's chief of staff, told the standing-room-only crowd of about 200 that he wanted to hear as many views as possible, "to make sure we have the maximum amount of community participation."

One man, who said he lived across the street from the playground, said "it doesn't make sense" to spend money on holding meetings and protecting the cemetery when the city can't fund its schools.

Gillison responded that the site of the cemetery, acquired by Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church founder Richard Allen in 1810 and used until the mid-1860s, "is not something we can walk away from."

The site was placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places last year and is under the jurisdiction of the Philadelphia Historical Commission. No construction or disturbance can take place without its approval. No commission members attended the meeting.

A woman who said she lived on Sixth Street was concerned that the burial ground underlay much of the playground (about a quarter-acre of Weccacoe's three-quarters of an acre).

"It's a quality-of-life issue for residents," she said, citing the fate of property values should the playground be removed.

Desecration was a key issue for a number of those present, concerned primarily with protecting the cemetery where more than 5,000 African Americans are buried. "That is sacred ground," one man said. "I'm baffled and confused why we're having this conversation."

Several people also wondered who controlled the decision-making process and whether it might be appropriate to appoint an oversight committee.

Gillison said the only decisions made about the site - the playground's long-planned renovation has been modified and postponed - have been to remove a mulch pile over part of the cemetery and to determine the utility of an ancient water main that runs near the graves along Queen Street.

Water Department officials say they do not know if the main, which is active, connects to any homes. They will try to get more precise information by shutting it off; if no one complains, it probably will remain off.

A number of people associated with the Queen Village Neighbors Association cited the importance of a community building directly over the cemetery. They do not want the building removed. Gillison said that no plans have been made for the building.

"We have to have more information," he said. Additional public meetings are in the offing, he added.


ssalisbury@phillynews.com

215-854-5594

@SPSalisbury

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