By Cherri Gregg and Steve Patterson
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The Nutter administration is hosting a public meeting today amid rising tensions over proposed renovations to a Queen Village playground that sits atop a historic African American cemetery.
About a third of the land that contains the Weccacoe Playground and recreation center, near 4th and Catherine Streets, sits atop the remains of roughly 5,000 African Americans.
The land was once owned by Mother Bethel AME Church, which use it as a burying ground in the early to mid-19th century.
Today, the City of Philadelphia owns the land.
“The community is broadly renovating the building and doing so in a way that will not disturb what’s underneath,” says Jeff Hornstein, the president of the Queen Village Neighborhood Association.
“Children playing on a cemetery is not desecration – and that’s just as simple as the dispute is,” says Duncan Spencer, the vice president of Queen Village Neighbors Association.
Spencer is battling critics who say the kids shouldn’t be stomping on a historical grave site.
We need this playground space. We don’t need a fenced off area,” says Spencer.
The group has been working for more than two years to renovate the playground and accompanying building, and the plans were thought to be a go, thanks to cooperation with former owners Mother Bethel Church.
That is, until a loosely formed group known as “The Friends of Bethel Burying Ground” put a monkey wrench in the renovation plans, noting that the city of Philadelphia — not Mother Bethel — determines the future of the property.
So these “friends” have come forward– criticizing the “neighbors”– and saying nothing should sit atop the historic remains.
“You do not preserve something by walking on it,” says Terry Buckelew, the historian who rediscovered the original use of the land. “That’s not how you preserve something as fragile as 200 year old bones.”
Activist and Attorney Michael Coard says kids playing on a historic grave site is bad enough, but a rec center built directly on top of it, needs to be torn down.
“That area where the rec center is, they have urinals, they have bathrooms, and directly beneath that is the section where the burial ground is. That’s absolutely outrageous and what we’re trying to do is make sure people know what’s going on,” says Coard.
City officials will meet with the public at the African American Museum at 8th and Arch Streets in Center City at 6:30 p.m. on Monday.
All comments are welcome.