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.
Corner of 9th/Wharton/Passyunk. Pitiful. Look how many out-of-towners see this lot at any given moment!
What in the fuck? This area is a major Tourista Zone! Why has this lot been empty for over 20 years? Why was it ever allowed to get empty in the first place? What an embarrassment. Hopefully, this shitty motherfucker can get filled in soon. Don't get your hopes up -- there's a mural.
This patch of land is one of the most shameful because its only ever had one piece of construction on it -- a church and its rectory. It all started in 1860, when this area was still pretty empty. The First Presbyterian Church's Sabbath School was getting too overcrowded and it was a pain in the ass for their teacher, Mrs. Mary Cornell. On her death bed, she requested a brand new building for their Sabbath School so the next teacher wouldn't have to deal with the shitty room they were using on McIlvain Street. The Trustees of the Church did her one better and decided to not only build a school, but a church as well. In 1861, they purchased some never-used land at the corner of 9th, Wharton, and Passyunk, across the street from the Lafayette Cemetery (now Capitolo Playground) and set out to make it the locus of Presbyterianism for mid-19th Century Southwark.
The new church opened on May 1st, 1864, but without a name. It wasn't until October 17th of that year that the church was officially organized by the Fourth Presbytery as the Wharton Street Presbyterian Church.
The church as is appeared in 1895. Image from the book The Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.
The Wharton Street Prebyterian Church flourished for the next 4 decades, until demographic changes in the area (Catholics) caused church attendance to dwindle down to almost nothing. In 1906, The Wharton Street Presbyterians joined with the South Broad Street Presbyterians and moved their operation over to their building. The 9th and Wharton church was sold for $28,000 to three Slovakian immigrants from Northeastern Hungary.
Slovaks from South Philly were screwed when it came to churches. The only ones that served them were all in North Philly. Back then, this meant that every Sunday morning they would have to trudge their asses through a shitload of badly-stone-paved, horseshit-laden, horsepiss-soaked, trash-covered streets for like 20 or 30 blocks just to attend Mass. After a year-long renovation, which included a new spire, the former Wharton Street Presbyterian Church was re-christened as the St. John Nepomucene Chuch on June 9th, 1907. This church would be able to serve the many South Phillly Slovaks (known as "South Siders") in the area and was much nicer than any of the shitty North Philly churches.
St. John Nepomucene kicked ass all over the place for the next 8 decades. Nonetheless, demographic changes in the city again caused church attendance to decay. By 1980, most of the old Slovak churches were closed and one, St. Agnes, was combined with St. John's to become St. Agnes and St. John Nepomucene Church. Even after all that, the church didn't last much longer. By the mid-80s, it was abandoned.
Enter Joseph Gatta Jr. This South Philly native, fresh from selling his share of the family candy and tobacco business to his brother, was ready to get into the real estate game. He bought the old church for $250,000 in 1988 and was ready to re-program the site into something more fitting the immediate neighborhood, which was now home to the Pat's and Geno's Tourist Magnet. He sold half of his interest in the property to a developer that was going to raze the old church and install a padsite 24-hour White Castle with a surface lot and a drive-thru. As expected, NIMBYs raised holy hell.
While NIMBYs are a pain in the ass, they might have been right about this one. The new White Castle would bring a shitload of traffic to the neighborhood and its format as a padsite with surface parking and a drivethru wasn't very fitting for the neighborhood. On top of that, the 24-hour nature of the place would have been an even huger pain in the ass for neighbors that already have to deal with Pat's and Geno's bullshit every night. NIMBY-packed Zoning Board of Adjustments meetings were held on November 4th and November 14th, 1989. It wasn't only neighbors who complained-- the Preservation Alliance was pissed off that the 135-year-old building was set to go down.
Despite their complaints, the Zoning Board of Adjustment approved the White Castle plan in January of 1990 and the church came down shortly after that. For reasons unknown, the White Castle never happened and the empty lot was born. It was used as a Mini-Golf for a little while but that was gone by 1996, when the sister of the owner of Pat's Steaks purchased the lot. Ever since, the lot has been an overgrown pile of garbage in a perfectly nice area.
To make the likelihood of development on this lot even less, a mural depicting South Philly native musicians was installed on the north side of the lot in 2005. Jerry Blavat, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Eddie Fisher, Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker and Al Martino are represented and all but one were there for the October 8th, 2005 dedication.
Image from the Mural Arts Program.
This means that if this shitty lot is ever developed, a shitload of music NIMBYs will come out of the woodwork, lying down in front of bulldozers and shit, to stop it. Of course, not everyone loves this mural. Here's a great letter to the Inquirer trashing the shit out of it. The lot had a community garden on it for awhile but now it's gone.
Today, the lot looks like shit. It's covered in trash most of the time and neighbors are often forced to clean it up. The hundreds of people a day who come to Pat's and Geno's get a nice full view of this shitty shameful lot. For some of them, this is all they see of Philadelphia! What a bad impression to make. The lot is not for sale or lease, so even if a developer with a billion dollars came along, he couldn't do shit to make this lot happen.
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