Northern Liberties Cemetery: Neighbors Demand Better Process

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After a passer-by photographs coffin-shaped footprints at a construction site in Northern Liberties and developers confirm that 19th-century graves have been discovered, neighbors just want answers.

“There are a lot of issues raised that could potentially be of concern,” said Claire Adler, president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association. “I am not going to say that it is necessarily a problem in itself, that the excavations are in progress. The problem is, we don’t know if it’s a problem.

A Facebook user’s post on Monday, July 12, was the first Adler had learned of the excavation, although his organization was tasked with approving the developer’s plans for the 5th and Spring Garden site.

What now bills itself as a mall anchored by a Dollar General in a rapidly developing area on the edge of Northern Liberties is on its way to becoming a 13-story mixed-use development.

Developer RREI, led by father and son duo Neal and Victor Rodin, plans over 380 residential properties and over 60,000 square feet of retail space for the Corner, which is across from Silk City Diner and Yards Brewing. An Amazon grocery store has reportedly signed up to be a tenant.

In the 19th century, however, the site was home to the Methodist Episcopal Church of Fifth Street. The area excavated for construction is part of a cemetery known to have belonged to this church. It is believed that the human remains discovered are only a handful from the 1930s.

After discovering the possible existence of the exhumed cemetery from the mid-1800s, RREI contracted an archaeological company, the developers said in a statement. The Philadelphia-based firm AKRF, which has a division specializing in cultural resources, then took the lead in cleaning the graves.

“As part of the guidance we have received, our next steps will be to contact the descending church and work with it to reach an appropriate conclusion,” the RREI statement said.

Cemeteries have been either unearthed or affected by development in Philadelphia nearly 90 times, said Doug Mooney, president of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum.

The Forum maintains a map of known and unearthed burial sites around the city. The cemetery of the colonial-era First Baptist Church was discovered during construction in the Old Town in 2017, for example. About a year later, a historic black cemetery was discovered during construction in University City. The newly discovered 5th and Spring Garden site will be added to the database.

Mooney said unmarked graves fall under the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Orphan Court, according to state law. The Orphan Court deals with legal cases involving parties who cannot handle a case themselves, such as incapacitated persons, minors and the dead.

Engagement with the orphan court is crucial to ensure proper treatment, the Mooney Philadelphia Archaeological Forum said.

RREI said he plans to initiate the Orphan Court, but first waits for archaeological society AKRF to track down the descendant of the Fifth Street Methodist Episcopal Church, to ensure they are part of the process

The city ordinance does not require developers to seek court advice in all situations, but a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration said it was encouraged “where appropriate.” The spokesperson said the RREI did not violate the city ordinance in its handling of the remains.

“I’m a little surprised that we haven’t yet found a clearer process for this,” said Adler, president of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association.

Provided via Facebook

Ann Lastuvka is Director of Operations at the Northern Liberties Business Improvement District. She said she was surprised when she first learned of the graves on Facebook.

“I was really surprised,” she said. “We have a ton of development going on in this area and this is just one case that has come up.” Lastuvka added that knowing that the graves are linked to a buried church cemetery makes it a special circumstance.

Lastuvka offered a mixed take on RREI’s approach to discovery. On the one hand, the promoter’s choice to contract with an early recognized archaeological firm and to carefully extract the graves is a welcome approach. She praised what she called “the social responsibility of this developer”.

Still, she was not thrilled that she and other neighbors and community leaders learned of the graves via social media.

“We didn’t know of any of these cases at all,” Lastuvka said.

“I think during the community development review process, if they’d said, ‘This is what we’re doing’… it kind of gives you a better feeling that they’re doing their due diligence all around,” she continued, “and don’t just build without really investing in the neighborhood. “

Adler’s organization is the one that led the civic design review, in February 2020. It said the neighborhood association had since contacted the developer’s lawyer and was awaiting a response.

Ultimately, Adler said, the neighbors want transparency about the process from someone, whether it’s the city or the developer. “I think the point is people wanted to know from the start. I don’t want to have to find this out as a leader of this organization from a Facebook comment.

Going forward, neighbors and leaders of the Northern Liberties organization have said they want to make sure bodies are treated with respect.

Mooney said it was of the utmost importance. “At the end of the day, these are the remnants of fellow Philadelphia people,” he said. “They are our ancestors. They certainly mean a lot to members of congregations and the communities to which they belonged.


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