Germantown’s 21st century struggles (and triumphs) on display in new exhibit at the Historical Society

How did a fence riddled with musket ball holes from the American Revolutionary War and an old wooden rake come to symbolize Germantown’s 21st century struggles with blight, poverty and gun violence?

This summer, visitors to the Germantown Historical Society will see a curious display of hand-picked objects from residents of the neighborhood alongside the permanent collection. In the mix are two pieces that my sister Aine and I discovered in the basement storage rooms.

The Historical Society is experimenting with the concept of community curation. The museum and research center, dedicated to preserving and interpreting the history of the original German Township in Northwest Philadelphia, invited seven Germantowners to explore its vast collection of 20,000+ objects and select items from the archives for the public exhibition, Claiming Our Place: Inhabit Germantown.

A room in the basement of the Germantown Historical Society

A room in the basement of the Germantown Historical Society

Participants were asked “to instigate dialogue – to talk about beauty, to talk about power, to talk about ourselves or others ideas and issues important to us as a neighborhood, past, present and future.”

The creative endeavor was funded by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage under the auspices of the “No Idea is Too Ridiculous” program – which is definitely true in this case.

On our quest for exhibition objects, the Historical Society’s Barbara Hogue and Carolyn G. Faris led us through room after room, some with shelves lined with dolls and other artifacts, boxes of textiles, dresses and old undergarments (once worn by Germantowners, of course!) stacked high, and a full library of books, manuscripts, maps, and images.

I thought it would be difficult for my sister and I to settle (and agree) on an object, but as soon as we saw a section of fence from the historic Johnson House, dated c. 1770, we easily came to a consensus, pairing it with an old wooden rake (date unknown).

We were drawn to objects from Germantown’s past that connected with The W Rockland Street Project, our citizen-driven effort to revitalize one city block in Southwest Germantown.

Johnson House fence, dated c. 1770, with an old wooden rake (date unknown)

Johnson House fence, dated c. 1770, with an old wooden rake (date unknown)

Modern yard rakes and other simple gardening tools are not so different from the early tools you’ll find in museums. They symbolize the physical labor and hard work that goes into maintaining our public and private outdoor spaces. Simply cleaning up is one of the cheapest ways to improve the look and feel of a neighborhood, while building community at the same time. The many cleanups and greening activities that W Rockland Street participates in shows just how far sweat equity and back to basics organizing can take one community.

Staff at the Historical Society were excited to bring the never before exhibited Johnson House fence out of the archives.

In the fence, we see Germantown’s 21st century struggles – with blight, poverty and gun violence.

Its physical characteristics are not so different than the wooden fences we see everyday protecting the lots on our block and vacant land across the city. (Is it a sign that you’re from Philadelphia when ordinary fences make you think about NTI (Neighborhood Transformation Initiative) fencing?) 

Vacant lot at the corner of W Rockland and Greene Street

Vacant lot at the corner of W Rockland and Greene St in June 2013. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society installed this fence at our request in December 2012, though not officially part of the LandCare Program, which maintains select vacant lots across the city.

Sometimes I think about the lost neighborhood history and the houses and buildings that formerly stood in their place. Looking around at the many crumbling structures still standing, its hard to swallow the fact that there will be more lots in the future as declining buildings are demolished.

recent story in The Philadelphia Inquirer about Germantown’s neoclassical Town Hall building and other looming vacant landmarks warned “the damage can be lessened if the city gets serious about protecting them, by boarding them up securely and inspecting the properties regularly.” It’s hard to believe that will happen when it rarely happens at the residential level.

On W Rockland Street, there are 46 three-story, century old row homes with seven lots scattered in-between. Homes lost to fire and neglect once stood in these gaps. I no longer remember them. Fences now frame the open spaces. They become what you make them.

We worked alongside our neighbors to build a vibrant community garden in one of our block’s lots, but we struggle to reimagine the others. Maintaining the land and keeping the lots free of the chronic illegal dumping that plagued them just a few years ago is the most we can do right now.

At the same time, the Johnson House fence also bears the scars of war. The rifle ball holes in the fence are reputed to be from the Battle of Germantown, fought on October 4, 1777 in the American Revolutionary War. The musket balls lying on the museum floor actually fell out of this very fence.

Last summer, a lifelong resident of our block was murdered in another type of war, set in another century. On Friday, August 17, 2012, Bryan Jones, 48, was shot to death while sitting on the porch of his family’s W Rockland Street row home. Bryan was the 226th person murdered in Philadelphia that year. The case remains unsolved to this day.

Johnson House with bullet-riddled fence

Johnson House with bullet-riddled fence – Archival photo (date unknown)

Inhabit Germantown will be on view from June 27 to September 13, 2013, Tuesdays 9 am – 1 pm, Thursdays 1 pm – 5 pm, and Sunday hours by appointment. The exhibition features objects selected by seven Germantowners – Aine and Emaleigh Doley, Renny MolenaarYahne NdgoKristin Haskins SimmsStephanie Grauman Wolf, and David W. Young. The Germantown Historical Society is located at 5501 Germantown Avenue at Church Lane. Go visit! germantownhistory.org

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