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The blood ran down the alley like a crimson stream, its vivid color starkly contrasting the drab gray cement and faded brick walls next to the hair salon. Nearly everything seemed bright that afternoon, from the flashing dome lights on the police cars, to the yellow of the crime scene tape, to the red of the Fire Rescue vehicle.
I took it all in as I rode past the scene of a shooting last Thursday, rubbernecking to get a glimpse of the injured young man whom paramedics were preparing to hoist into their vehicle. I watched, and so did the denizens of Germantown Avenue. But as they looked on, they did so with folded arms and faces fixed in the frustrated expressions of people who’d seen this too many times.
The shooting took place on Germantown Avenue and Walnut Lane, the day before AxisPhilly, in partnership with NBC 10, the Public School Notebook and Plan Philly hosted, “What’s Next? A Forum on the Future of Germantown High School.” I saw it as I traversed the neighborhood, shoring up community participation and support for the first of several conversations around the future of Germantown High, one of 23 school buildings slated to close at the end of the current school year.
The consensus of the more than 100 leaders and community members who attended the forum was that the school should be converted into a K-to-12 education facility that would house the students of Fulton Elementary School, Roosevelt Middle School, and Germantown High School. But when I think of the forum, a lively conversation designed to field the community’s ideas on future uses for the school building, the ideas aren’t the first thing that come to mind. Neither are the insights of panelists like Attorney Bill Ewing, Councilwoman Cindy Bass, State Rep. Stephen Kinsey, Community Activist Betty Turner, Realtor Allan Domb or Pew Researcher Emily Dowdall.
When I think of the forum, the school, and what I saw of the Germantown community in recent days, I think of that wounded young man sitting on Germantown Avenue and waiting to be rescued. I think of that young man because he was much like Germantown High School — injured but alive. And seeing him helped me to realize why community leaders are still hesitant to talk about the future of a school that for the moment remains open.
“It’s like doing an autopsy on a body that’s not dead yet,” said the Rev. Leroi Simmons, of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church.
“We want to talk about the future of the kids,” said Jason Weems, of the Germantown Clergy Initiative.
Simmons, Weems, and others from Germantown Clergy Initiative and groups such as Germantown Alumni continue to fight to keep Germantown High School open. Those feelings are both real and understandable. For a school that former Councilwoman and current ward leader Donna Reed Miller told me graduated multiple generations of her family, including herself, there is an attachment to the school not only as a community institution, but also as a family tradition. Built in 1914, Germantown High would celebrate its 100th anniversary next year, a fact that Germantown Alumni President Vera Primus was quick to point out.
But with the Philadelphia School District facing a structural deficit of $300 million, and the pending closures projected to save the District $20 million per year, any discussion of the future of Germantown High and the other schools slated for closure must include discussion of money saving options.
Allan Domb, who serves as President of the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors, suggested at the forum that the highest and best use of the building going forward was as an educational facility. He believes that the smartest way to do so is to bring in a corporate partner such as Comcast to train students for existing jobs in its company. Domb’s idea, which ironically aligns with the wishes of community members who want to see the building remain a school, was met with a mix of ambivalence and mistrust
But it is an idea that may present an opportunity to move the conversation forward by bringing in corporate resources to address both the blight and unemployment that fuel the persistent poverty affecting parts of Germantown and many other communities across the city.
YahNe Ndgo, a Germantown artist and organizer who attended the forum, said that the building could be used for arts and culture education. “Give use of the space for a free or reduced rate to people in the community who have talents and allow them to teach them to the children … the key would be that the teachers would have to provide educational opportunities to the students in exchange for the space.”
Even as such innovative ideas were shared, one thing was clear, both in the run up to the forum and at the forum itself. The residents and leaders of Germantown understand what’s at stake for their neighborhood if the building is closed and remains vacant.
“There is a neighborhood, there is a community that has developed around Germantown High School over the years,” said Weems. “And if you look at Germantown and Chelten with the business corridor, this land and this area around here is very important. There are a lot of families that have grown up and that are still here generations later … With Germanton High School closing, with some other community centers closing – the YWCA, you have some other abandoned buildings in the immediate area – you’re really looking at some serious problems happening in the community because of the potential blight.
Asked what he thought should happen with the building, Weems was direct. “I want to see it stay in the hands of the community,” he said. “The immediate community.”
In this, the first community forum hosted in connection with the Schoolhouse Watch project, we saw a community that was much like the young man who I saw bleeding on Germantown Avenue. It is a community built up around a building that is injured, but still very much alive.
We look forward to talking more to leaders and community members in Germantown about their ideas around the future of the school, both in the online forum at Schoolhousewatch.org, and in person.
But the community must go beyond talking to us. Community members must talk to one another. AxisPhilly will help to facilitate more discussion.
It’s the only way to stop the bleeding.