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A New Twist on Salvation

A design project seeks to save threatened religious spaces by reimagining their use as community hubs—for neighbors new and old

A design project seeks to save threatened religious spaces by reimagining their use as community hubs—for neighbors new and old

The Annex saved Michael Major.

In the mid-70s, when Major was a young teenager, his neighborhood in North Philadelphia was plagued by underperforming schools. Neither of his parents had graduated from high school, but they wanted their son to have better opportunities. The Annex, which was owned and operated by the Zion Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, was an oasis when options for advancement for young adults felt few and far between.

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The Annex taught young Major how to play chess in its summer day camp. It taught him how to be a cub scout, and then a boy scout. When he entered high school, it offered career counseling, SAT preparation classes, and took him on tours to college campuses.

“Many of the things that were offered at the time in the building, as a kid for me, provided and opened doors,” says Major. Now, at 57 years old, he is board president for Called To Serve, a community development corporation based in Tioga; an Associate Minister at Zion Baptist; and a senior technology business analyst for Susquehanna International Group.

Sacred Places, Civic Spaces makes the argument that these buildings are worth preserving, not just for their beauty and architectural significance, but for what they symbolize: A thriving community of neighbors.

But since 2015, The Annex and its programs have been shut down. Like many churches in Philadelphia, funding and resources dried up and Zion Baptist was no longer able to sustain its youth programming in order for the church to stay afloat. Now, the once-beloved community center is abandoned, its interiors neglected and vandalized.  

It’s the same story across Philadelphia, where churches—and the community hubs they provided—are losing members, closing their doors and often being demolished to make way for condos or other private development. Now two non-profits, the Community Design Collaborative and the Partners for Sacred Places, have come together to reimagine how those religious spaces could be revived as neighborhood resources for another generation.

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The idea stemmed from a study last October by the Pew Charitable Trusts that found that 839 historic sacred places in Philly—83 percent—remained in religious use. Of the remaining properties, 5 percent were vacant and 10 percent had been repurposed as housing, offices, schools, and child care facilities.

This is largely a factor of demographics and economics: Religious congregations have grown smaller with more aging members and fewer young people. Avenues for funding have also dried up on the federal, state, and local levels, and many of these historic properties have long-standing maintenance issues that have been deferred—or even neglected—in the hope of better times. And to top it all off: legal protections that may protect architecturally significant buildings are often weak or not applied. In 2016, when the Pew study came out, 79 percent of historic sacred places in Philadelphia had no form of historical designation. “Churches are far and away the most vulnerable historic properties in the city,” notes Patrick Grossi, the Advocacy Director for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

Since 2009, 28 historic sacred places have been demolished, and it seems like another church is falling every day. Despite public outcry, developers tore down the 130-year-old Christian Street Baptist Church in early July. The Christ Memorial Reformed Episcopal Church, 131-year-old church and seminary on 43rd and Chestnut, is currently being torn down. Many more are on the chopping block.

“In a perfect world, 20 or 30 years from now, a Mike Major who is maybe 14 or 15 years old can look back and say ‘Wow, I am where I am now because of the people and the programs that happened in 2018,’” says Zion Baptist’s Major.

These demolitions speak to the core of our city’s struggles with neighborhood growth: As communities change, their centers often shift or disappear. The church buildings are usually the biggest, most ornate structures in the neighborhood, and the last vestiges of culture and history—but without the congregation to support them, they have little purpose. Sacred Places, Civic Spaces makes the argument that these buildings are worth preserving, not just for their beauty and architectural significance, but for what they symbolize: A thriving community of neighbors.

“Often what happens is when a congregation really is beyond the point where they can figure out what to do to save their building they think about resale,” says Heidi Segall Levy, the Director of Design Services for the Community Design Collaborative. “The best possible outcome would be that congregations that start to experience this have a model in place for partnership and ownership opportunities and also funding available to help them stay in place.”

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That’s the idea behind Sacred Places, Civic Spaces and the two organizations that launched it. Through its Infill Philadelphia project, the CDC has provided pro bono design services to rethink the city’s play spaces, green stormwater infrastructures, the reuse of industrial sites, food access, commercial corridor revitalization, and affordable housing. The Partners for Sacred Places has a long history of community organizing with Philadelphia’s religious congregations to combat the tide of church closures and demolitions.

Funded by the William Penn Foundation, the groups started by putting out a broad call to more than 300 congregations and non-profit groups around the city, from which they received 10 formal applications. After site visits and interviews, the applications were presented to a 40 person ad-hoc committee consisting of experts from industries across the city. 

Ultimately, three congregations were chosen: Wharton-Wesley United Methodist Church in West Philadelphia; The Philadelphia Masjid, also in West Philly; and Zion Baptist in North Philly.

According to Segall Levy, by the time that the project is over, each church is estimated to receive between $60,000 to $100,000 worth of free consulting work. Design teams from firms across the city have spent the last several months working with the church leadership, congregants and community members to understand the needs of the neighborhood, and the possible use of the space. They will present their final designs to an “expert jury” at a public reveal on December 4. Each team will get feedback and finalize their designs, which will be delivered to the congregations in January or February of 2019.

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Aazim Muhammad, the president of the Sister Clara Muhammad Community Development Corporation, hopes that The Philadelphia Masjid will help pave the way forward. A community organizer of over 40 years, Muhammad has witnessed the steady disappearance of the city’s places of worship. On any given day when he walks up 52nd Street, he passes three different churches with “For Sale” signs pegged out front. “That really speaks to the decline in community life, period,” he says.

Located blocks away from the city’s youth correctional facility, the area around the Masjid has a high population of at-risk youth between the ages of 18 and 20 who have dropped out of high school and don’t have a clear career path. The design project for the Masjid—titled “Building Blocks”—is being conceived with the help of the Philadelphia branch of design firm HOK and would convert a 43,000 square-foot former school building into a community center which, among other things, will house vocational training programs in plumbing, electrical, and roofing.

On any given day when Muhammad walks up 52nd Street, he passes three different churches with “For Sale” signs pegged out front. “That really speaks to the decline in community life, period,” he says.

Muhammad points to Philly’s changing skyline, which will undergo billions of dollars worth of development over the next several years—a substantial portion of that occurring in University City. To Muhammad, that is an opportunity for the youth who neighbor the Masjid. “We feel an obligation having all of this space to help provide a second chance for all of our young people who are really at-risk and need to get back on track,” he says.

For Michael Major and Zion Baptist, the goal is bringing back The Annex. With it, the church hopes to provide a new community hub that will revitalize the neighborhood. The congregation was paired with local design organization Studio 6mm, and after polling the local community, the Church is designing the center to bring much-needed services to local residents and businesses.

While nothing is finalized, Major said that they are tossing around ideas like collaborating with Temple University to bring science and technology programming and working with local artists to build a kiln for pottery. They are also considering making The Annex a dropoff for a “virtual supermarket”—allowing local residents to make grocery orders online which would then be dropped off at the center—to combat the surrounding “food desert.”

“Similar needs exist today where you’ve got parents that want better for their children, and so they need help to make that happen,” says Major. “In a perfect world, 20 or 30 years from now, a Mike Major who is maybe 14 or 15 years old can look back and say ‘Wow, I am where I am now because of the people and the programs that happened in 2018.’”

Photo: Chris Kendig

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