Next time you find yourself on Lancaster Avenue in Powelton, take a moment and stop at the midpoint between 39th & Hamilton Streets. Directly north is a Victorian giant, a serpentine cluster of architecturally stunning buildings that dates back to 1895. Detailed brickwork and ornate cornices are accompanied by boarded bay windows and the nagging sense that revival just might do well here.
Under the ownership of People's Emergency Center, the building cluster's southeastern corner is home to Hawthorne Hall, a former performance theater and major stop during this year's Hidden City Festival. Its interior could use some work, but the organization is planning a full rehabilitation of the building in the near future.
"We are currently looking for potential tenants for that space who share our vision of Lancaster Avenue as a destination and a neighborhood asset," said Kira Strong, Vice President of Community & Economic Development at People's Emergency Center.
"Additionally, there are a number of developers planning apartments and condos for the second and third floors of buildings on the 3800 and 3900 blocks of Lancaster Avenue," added Strong.
While areas of Powelton might not look like much right now, its proximity to University City puts it in a good position for redevelopment, some of which can be credited to the organization's acquisition of a $750,000 grant for investment from Wells Fargo earlier this year.
While Hawthorne Hall patiently awaits its anchor tenant, a surge of youthful creativity is bursting forth just a few doors down.
On the western edge of the building cluster is the former home of Truelight Missionary Baptist Church, where its once-abandoned pews have been replaced with collaborative workspaces, a small performance area, and the seasoned influential voice of Annette John-Hall, Director of Mighty Writers West Philadelphia campus at 3861 Lancaster Avenue.
Founded in 2009 by former Philadelphia Weekly editor Tim Whitaker, Mighty Writers is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that offers SAT prep courses, homework help, mentorships, and writing workshops to Philadelphia students between the ages of 7-17. The volunteer-rich organization has been a tremendous benefactor of academic growth in the wake of massive budget cuts to Philadelphia schools in recent years.
"Every parent wants their kids to be prepared [for college], and since most schools in Philadelphia don't even have guidance counselors, we've got to be able to supplement that somehow," said John-Hall, a former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist with 33 years in journalism.
"I've been here for 20 years," added John-Hall. "That's a generation, basically. There is a whole generation of school children coming out of this system with an inferior education. Even if you are a straight-A student here, it might be difficult to compete in the college world because the education has been so inferior for ordinary kids at ordinary schools in Philadelphia. It's been going on for a couple generations now and it never changes."
"Parents in Philadelphia need Mighty Writers," said John-Hall. "If they ever had a chance to go down to Christian Street and see what was going on, they would always sign their kids up for this."
Only so much can be done with razor thin budgets and declining enrollment, and Mighty Writers embraces the opportunity to provide an academic support system for students outside of the classroom. This is the third Mighty Writers campus to open (the other two located at 1501 Christian Street and 1537 South Street), and People's Emergency Center is thrilled to have the organization on board.
"We have been such a fan of Mighty Writers, their model, and the superb work they do in South Philly," said Strong. "We thought they would be a phenomenal asset to have out here in West Philly, especially in light of the issues with our schools."
Added Strong, "We envision Hawthorne Hall and the Mighty Writers location as a catalyst for revitalization of Lancaster Avenue."
The future of Lancaster Avenue is looking a bit brighter each day, and should prove to be an interesting neighborhood to keep an eye on.
· New Push to Revitalize Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia [6ABC]
· Looking Beyond the Festival at Hawthorne Hall [HiddenCity]
· Mighty Writers West Opens [MightyWriters.org]