In the past decade, Philadelphia’s building boom has been accompanied by a string of demolitions touching almost every corner of the city, and resulting in the loss of everything from iconic churches to vernacular rowhomes. But even as a growing number of Philadelphians lament these losses, advocates for historic preservation have sometimes struggled to make a case for keeping Philadelphia’s built fabric intact. As Julie Donofrio, managing director of PennPraxis, wrote in a recent op-ed on PlanPhilly, the term “preservation” sometimes turns people off, even if the goals of the practice—celebrating and maintaining the assets that make neighborhoods what they are—are shared by many of those same people.
The City of Philadelphia has recently launched efforts to expand the field of people who have a stake in historic preservation, one prong of which is a Historic Preservation Task Force, appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney, which is expected to release a final set of recommendations in spring 2019. Last year, working in parallel with that process, PennPraxis helped convene a series of small-scale neighborhood conversations for residents to discuss a broad range of issues related to preserving and maintaining parts of the city that residents hold dear. The result, a Neighborhood Preservation Toolkit, was released by PennPraxis in February.
“The Toolkit encompasses the whole gamut of neighborhood preservation, all the way from taking care of an individual house, to improving the quality of new construction, supporting small businesses, promoting local engagement, and strengthening social fabric,” Donofrio says. “It’s challenging to translate these topics into a set of tools, but what we have tried to create is a guide that brings together the overarching, and underlying, theme of all of this: expanding neighborhood appreciation, and giving people the tools to channel their sense of pride into action.”
The project was funded by the William Penn Foundation and led by Donofrio and PennPraxis Research Associate Molly Lester. To organize the 21 neighborhood meetings, PennPraxis tapped graduates of the city’s Citizens Planning Institute, who each convened meetings of 8-12 residents with varying degrees of backgrounds and neighborhood expertise. Each of the neighborhood leaders were paid $500 to participate, which Donofrio says is becoming the new standard in community engagement: “You really have to pay people for their expertise and honor their time,” she says. Meetings were organized, scheduled, and led by the community representatives, with just a few guiding questions supplied by the PennPraxis team.
“These were very lo-fi meetings,” Donofrio says. “It was just us and a notebook. There was no presentation. There was no, ‘This is how it should be.’ We just said, let's talk. Tell us what matters to you in your neighborhood and why?”
Lorraine Gomez, a 2016 graduate of the Citizens Planning Institute and secretary of Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation (CDC), organized a meeting of her neighbors at a nearby Olive Garden. It was supposed to last for an hour, but they stayed for nearly three.
“It was awesome,” Gomez says. “The people there were from ages 94 down to 8, so we got different ideas from different generations about what they thought should be preserved, and what does it mean to them?”
The meeting was “very involved and passionate,” Gomez says. Since then, participants and their neighbors have become more aware of what’s valuable in the neighborhood.
The Toolkit itself is broken into five sections organized by outcomes, or perspectives, which include: caring for an older home, improving and maintaining design quality and character, strengthening and sustaining small businesses and commercial corridors, learning and sharing history, and creating change and influencing policy. Overall, the project is meant to expand conversations about neighborhood assets from the somewhat narrower disciplines of historic preservation to the broader notion of neighborhood preservation.
“There’s all sorts of contingents that talk about neighborhood preservation and a lot of preservationists want the field of preservation to encompass that,” Donofrio says. “How do we keep our neighborhoods stable? How do we keep people in their homes? How do we make sure that people are not only staying in their homes but being able to rehabilitate them so that the quality is maintained?”
The team is hoping the 108-page Toolkit will do more than sit on a shelf, and it was designed to do just that. Written in English by Donofrio and Lester, it was translated into Spanish and Chinese by bilingual University of Pennsylvania Stuat Weitzman School of Design graduate students. The Toolkit includes activities and action steps, so that the user can visualize how their goal, which may be any of the outlined “outcomes,” can be accomplished. The team plans to distribute the Toolkits to every public library in the city, and to CDCs and other neighborhood groups. It comes with an accompanying poster, something Donofrio hopes will catch the eye and get people thinking about the possibilities for preservation in their neighborhoods. The digital edition and translated versions are available on PennPraxis’ website and will be posted on phlpreservation.org, along with other preservation and Task Force resources.
During the meetings, Donofrio says that participants kept coming back to conversations about neighborhood values that weren’t necessarily related to “historic” architecture or buildings in general. Instead, they talked about the importance of meeting places like lunch counters, commercial corridors, stoop culture—centers of community. The project ultimately aimed to capture those values and tie them back to the practices of preservation as a way to foster a sense of agency for Philadelphians in changing neighborhoods.
“How do we get people across neighborhoods, no matter how different they look, to feel as if historic preservation tools can help maintain Philadelphia neighborhoods and be a benefit to all Philadelphians?” Donofrio says. “Of course, this all sounds very grand, but truly, a lot of people care so deeply about maintaining their neighborhood quality and keeping their neighborhoods stable, as well as the other topics we presented in the Toolkit. Preservation really can do all of that.”