Apparently, No One at PHA Has Seen Poltergeist

City agency wants to build atop historic Germantown grave sites.

At 301 West Queen Lane, which intersects with Pulaski Avenue, a “Burial place for all … Negroes … and Mulattoes as they Die in any part of Germantown forever” was created. Matthias Zimmerman purchased the land in 1755 specifically for such use. Although there were many burials between 1755 and 1766 (and for 161 years until 1916), the first known documented burial, from the March 24, 1766 records of the Upper Burial Ground of Germantown, was that of Christian Warmer’s “dead negroe … child.” Powerful cultural stuff. Powerful American history. You’d think that such a local site—arguably the oldest black public cemetery in America—is a public memorial for black, white, brown, yellow and red residents and international tourists alike. You’d think that Philadelphia officials would respect it as the century-and-a-half-old hallowed ground where free and enslaved black men, women and children were buried. But you’d think wrong. Instead of honoring these historic ancestors, those city bureaucrats—specifically, representatives of the Philadelphia Housing Authority—are perturbing them.

In 1955, PHA disrespectfully built the 16-story, 119-unit Queen Lane Apartments on top of these grave sites. Over the decades, this public housing project increasingly decayed until it was shut down in 2011. And to make matters worse, there was and apparently still is some question regarding whether or not PHA actually owned the land in order to build upon it.

This area, the “Lower Burial Ground,” was incorporated as the Hood Cemetery Company in 1867. In 1915, the Germantown Poor Board, citing “desolation … trash, broken glass, garbage … chickens, ducks, stray dogs and cats … ” publicly announced that by the next year there would be no more burials there. But a 1916 newspaper report says no official record of ownership could be found. In that very same year, because of the aforementioned decrepit condition, the Philadelphia Board of Health declared it a public nuisance. Four years later, the Quakers polled the neighbors who requested a playground at the site, consistent with what the Germantown Poor Board had proposed in 1915. The area began being used around 1920 by the children from the Wissahickon Boys Club.

Fast-forward to 2010 when the real estate on which the abandoned playground was located—real estate appraised at $176,000—was, ahem, creatively sold in a unanimous City Council vote to PHA in a quitclaim deed for a mere $1. You know what a quitclaim deed is? It’s a legal document that purportedly passes title but makes no representation as to the validity of such title. Did the city sell what it didn’t own? And if it did own what it sold, why a quitclaim deed and not a “warranty deed” asserting that the seller actually has a title that is free and clear? So why wasn’t all that done? And why isn’t anybody investigating?

Speaking of investigating, why didn’t PHA research the history of that hallowed ground? During construction, neighbors “witness(ed) scattered bones, bodies found in … basements, and headstones that were disrespectfully shattered.” In fact, it wasn’t until a righteously indignant community meeting in 2012—yes, 2012—that PHA finally announced its decision to abandon its initial plans to build directly on top of the cemetery, claiming that “We always intended to honor the Potter’s Field by both ceremony and some kind of monument … ” Ah-choo! Sorry, but I’m allergic to bullshit.

Last Wednesday, despite widespread community opposition (I was there as a concerned activist and volunteer lawyer), PHA sought a variance at a Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing to redraw lot lines and replace the vacant Queen Lane Apartments with five buildings. This would consist of two new parcels of land. One parcel would be a square on top of the burial ground and the other a U-shaped lot housing the residential units around those burial grounds. Opponents, headed by the uncompromising firebrand Lisa Hopkins of the Northwest Neighbors of Germantown and the prominent real estate attorney Yvonne Haskins, who lives in the community, responded that no variance should even be considered until the results of a historical review and ground survey regarding the exact size and specific contents of the site are completed.

PHA wanted the variance even though it conceded that it does not know the exact size or the specific contents. Unbelievable! The opponents also argue that the entire site should be preserved as a serene memorial park. By the way, while PHA claims not to know what’s beneath ground at this Potter’s Field, the Germantown Historical Society says it’s “very likely” that the land still contains buried remains and PHA’s own ground-penetrating radar survey in July indicated the presence of “numerous singular anomalies that are similar in size to both an adult interment and a child’s interment.” Accordingly, the survey’s authors recommended an archaeological dig. But PHA hasn’t done it yet.

While PHA contends that it believes that the burial ground is sufficiently less than two acres, which means its plans would not impose on the historic site, attorney Haskins testified during the hearing that historical records show the burial ground is at the very least, or even larger than, a two-acre square. And the executive director of Historic Germantown points out that “The information that we’ve discovered is that the Potter’s Field is a much larger area than … (PHA is) proposing.”

Haskins and Hopkins additionally raised the issues of PHA’s failure to have adequately informed the neighbors, to resolve the problem of dense housing arrangements, to develop a comprehensive plan that factors in the needs of the residents, to contemplate the increased crime that has plagued similar housing projects, to replace the children’s playground, to assume strict liability for demolition damage, and to consider the irreversible adverse impact that construction will have on the historic burial ground.

The ZBA, headed by long-time dedicated members including Lynette Brown-Sow and Samuel Staten Jr., did the right thing in ruling. They and the other reasonable members unanimously told PHA to come back in two weeks when it can finally answer all the questions posed by the opponents.

In 1920, two large headstones, namely those marked W.H. 1840 and S.H. 1848, were uncovered by workmen. About five years earlier, a third had been seen there, that one marked John Brown 1874 (not the Harper’s Ferry John Brown, but quite interesting if for no other reason than the name). Harry Roney, a Germantown businessman raised in Pulaskitown, stated in 1915, that as a kid, he and other youths had organized the old Queen Lane Athletic Club baseball team in his back yard at 303 Queen Lane, directly adjacent to Potter’s Field. They had pulled apart a fence that separated his house from the cemetery, and transformed it into a makeshift baseball field using some of the remaining headstones as bases—with John Brown’s as home plate. This desecration continued until an African-American police officer named William Riley found out about it. Maybe Officer Riley has some law-enforcement descendants. If so, tell them to go to PHA’s headquarters and permanently end this desecration.