A weekly series of foul-mouthed investigations into empty lots, dead-ass proposals and other design phenomena in Philadelphia. Find more stories like this at Philaphilia.blogspot.com.
414-416 South 6th Street
James Forten gets no goddamn respect. He was an African-American figure about 1000 times more important than the same old handful of black leaders trotted out every February. This badass was a Revolutionary War hero, one of the earliest abolitionists, started one of the earliest (if not the first) racially diverse workplaces in America, and is arguably directly responsible for the entire black population of Philadelphia (and Pennsylvania). Did I mention that he lived seven months of his life in a dungeon in the lower decks of a British ship? Or that he once walked from Brooklyn to Philadelphia? Or that he was one of the richest self-made men in America? So what does James Forten get for all his great works, his suffering, his contribution to American life? AN EMPTY FUCKING LOT!!!!
Ok, so the site of James Forten's house has an historical marker on it, but other than that, there's no sign that James Forten ever existed in this city. The site of his famous sail loft is now part of I-95 and this, the site of the school named for him, is now a shitty surface lot. The site of this surface lot didn't have anything worth noting on it until 1822, when the then four-year-old Philadelphia School District decided it was a bit unfair to offer free public education to only white children, and built a school at what is now 6th and Minster (now Addison) Streets to make up for it (also, Forten pushed them on it). This early schoolhouse was known as the Lombard Street School but was colloquially known as the "Bird School" because its principal, James M. Bird, was THAT good. Despite having two names, most maps from the mid 19th Century just call it "The Colored School" or "Colored Public School". Other African-American schools had existed for years before, started by Quakers or wealthy blacks of the period, but this one was the first known public version in the city. James Forten himself attended one of those older schools, which is now also the site of a surface parking lot. I told you he gets no damn respect.
"Col. Public School". They don't mean "Colonel". The site of the empty lot is that dotted-lined area. Image from the Free Library of Philadelphia via philageohistory.org
The site of the surface lot spent most of its early decades as the front lawn of the Lombard Street/Bird School. In the 1830s, the school district was already trying to shut the school down for low enrollment. The enrollment problem was the result of James Bird transferring to another post. He was SUCH a good principal that parents pulled their kids out once he was gone. James Forten, who was pretty old at this point and wealthy as fuck, pushed the district to keep the school open and get Bird back in there.
When Forten died in 1842, it was a big fucking deal. A huge funeral procession was held with 4,000 attendees. The event made worldwide news due to the crowd being precisely half black and half white despite massive amounts of racial violence occurring in the city at the time. Folks from across the world traveled to Philly to attend and was touted as the city's biggest funeral since Stephen Girard's. Before Forten's body was even cold, the Lombard Street School that he had saved was renamed in his honor.
By 1869, when the school was completely rebuilt and an addition placed on facing 6th Street on the current surface lot, things had gone to shit. The neighborhood, which was traditionally a stronghold for the city's African-American population of all classes, had become a dilapidated shithole that was now populated by poor blacks, poor Russian Jews, and poor Italians. The James Forten School had a shitty administration and was considered one of the worst in the whole district. One report described it thus:
"...pupils were irregular in attendance, difficult to control, slow to learn, and the institution acquired an unenviable reputation. The management was so thoroly (sic) bad, the school became so demoralized that even the uncritical parents of this neighborhood refused to send children. Altho (sic) it was in the center of a dense population with inadequate school accommodations the attendance declined..."
It was still a black school but by this point blacks had spread to all parts of the city, many of which had their own black public schools that were considered much nicer. The black children that did not have a neighborhood school to go to were placed into the James Forten School by default, causing them to have to travel long distances across the city to attend. In January 1890, the School District said "Enough of this shit" and shut the school down for re-tooling.
Noting the demographic shift of the neighborhood, which was still considered one of the worst in the city, a new experimental educational model was tried out when the school was to be re-opened on September 8th, 1892. To get students, teachers and staff had to explore the interstitial alleys of trinities where the immigrant classes lived. Though the surviving forms of these streets are cute today, back then they were pretty much open-air sewers with multiple families per trinity lining either side. Despite being convinced that the new immigrants were sticking to the "habits of their older civilizations", which included "irresponsibility in the matter of education for their children", they were able to recruit enough pupils to open the extensively renovated school back up.
The Forten School post-renovation, 1897. Image from the book The Public Schools of Philadelphia, Historical, Biographical, Statistical via the Philadelphia Architects and Buildings Project.
At the newly re-opened Forten School was considered quite the advanced educational institution. It had such unheard-of luxuries as a cafeteria, a gymnasium, and kindergarten. Being a "Manual Training" school, students were taught skills that would be marketable for acquiring stable employment as adults. Probably one of the earliest examples of fully integrated schooling anywhere, the enrollment was divided pretty evenly between black, Russian, and Italian students. High-falutin folks nowadays disparage this model of schooling, calling it "racist" and/or "discriminatory" because they were teaching the kids useful shit that would improve their lives instead of Quantum chromodynamics, but those critics need to take the time period and situation into account and shut their fucking pieholes.
The newly-successful James Forten Elementary Manual Training School lived on and stayed successful even though the building, which was built to hold 150 students, was teaching 650 by 1913. Though its unclear when the school was closed (probably during the school construction boom of the 1920s), the building stayed standing until it and the Phipps Institute for Consumptives nearby were unceremoniously demolished around 1965. Back then, the influence of the quickly-gentrifying Society Hill spurred developers to make room for new housing anywhere there was an abandoned building. By that point, the James Forten School's importance was more or less forgotten and there was no internet to tell them about it.
The long empty lot along Addision Street created by the demolition of the school didn't end up getting built upon until the late 1990s, when those ugly upper-middle-class super-rowhouses with front-wise garages were built on the site. The corner of 6th and Addison was brick-walled in around that time with a surface lot that serves the residents of the ugly 1970s apartments at the corner of 6th and Lombard.
However, a building is now set to be built on this site. The lot was purchased by new owners in 2010 and two new big-ass homes were proposed for the property in 2012. After some delay, the plan has changed to a small apartment building.
Of course, NIMBYs from the Mother Bethel Church across the street are complaining about it and even went as far as holding a vigil in response. Reverend Tyler, who leads the congregation, thinks that the design is too modern for the "historic nature" of the neighborhood. Unfortunately, Reverend Tyler obviously doesn't know a goddamn lick of history about this neighborhood. In order for this new construction to be historically accurate to this location, it would have to be a 400 square foot brick hovel with now electrical wiring and no plumbing, populated by three familiesat once: one of Russian Jews, one of poor African-Americans, and one of Italian immigrants. I got your "historic nature" right here, Rev.
Reverend Tyler also doesn't seem to know that nearly all the surrounding houses in this locations are 20th-Century architectural offenses that are just as out of place. His own goddamn church is architecturally out of place, being that its a late-19th Century sequel of the original church. Good to see another surface lot meet its end. Hopefully the idiotic NIMBYs from across the street won't ruin it with their total lack of understanding of history and their idiotic notions of what should go where on a piece of private property. James Forten would slap them all with his cock if he knew what was going on.
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