Kensington graveyard rises from the past as developer seeks to build

Old garages set to be demolished, located at 1834-48 Frankford Avenue on Friday, May 27th, 2016.

Ken Milano is a Kensington guy. He's lived there all his life, as his parents did, and their parents.

Milano is fascinated by the old, gritty neighborhood's history, those who lived there - and died there, too.

That's why, when he heard the grizzled brick garages in the 1800 block of Frankford Avenue were going to be demolished, he got that queasy feeling deep in his Kensington-loving gut.

Where others saw old garages, Milano saw the 19th century.

"There's stuff to be learned there," he said.

It seems that developer Ori Feibush wants to build about 41 residential units on the site - ground once occupied by the Mutual Burial Ground of Kensington, forgotten by virtually everyone except Milano. It was actively used from the early 1820s to the end of the 1860s.

Milano submitted a well-documented application to the Philadelphia Historical Commission to place the ground of the building site on the historic register. And on May 13, the commission notified Feibush the site was under review. A June 15 hearing is scheduled before the historic designation committee.

The remains of as many as 10,000 of the plain people of Kensington may still be beneath the ground along Frankford Avenue, according to Milano's application.

No records have been found that indicate any bodies were removed and reinterred; 1914 Board of Health records indicate 200 bodies "more or less" were being removed from the southern portion of the cemetery, according to an addendum to the application.

There are probably no rock stars of history buried there. Rather, the cemetery appears to have been used largely by German working-class families, the people who created Kensington.

Feibush said he had no idea.

Neighborhood residents, local preservationists, and historians say the ground holds important information about what makes Philadelphia uniquely Philadelphia. Descendants want the remains of their ancestors to stay at peace.

The non-church-affiliated Mutual Burial Ground is a prime example of the kind of associational organization that created Philadelphia, said Aaron Wunsch, an assistant professor in the University of Pennsylvania's historic preservation program. In Kensington, the mutual cemetery emerged in the 1820s as a direct result of the influx of laborers to the river wards. It is, he said, emblematic of "working-class life along the waterfronts and wards in 19th-century Philadelphia."

At the least, Milano said, an archaeological examination should be conducted before any construction. He does not oppose subsequent development of the site.

Feibush, who has had other development conflicts in the neighborhood, contends he respects the ground - he wants to build his buildings and to "protect what's there." Placing the site on the local historic register, he says, would add uncertainty, cost, and time to the project.

The brewing dispute highlights issues relevant to sites all over an old city that promotes itself as historic and that is in the grips of a major building boom.

The city historical commission recently has been characterized by the state Historical and Museum Commission as inadequately staffed and funded. And, the state commission noted, Philadelphia has no survey of historic properties citywide. Nor has the city ever sought to map historic cemeteries.

Jonathan Farnham, director of the historical commission, said his agency was "exploring ways in which it can obtain the resources to conduct a citywide survey of historic resources generally, not only cemeteries or archaeological sites."

If the city had such a resource, preservationists and developers say, it possibly could have forestalled some of what is now brewing in Kensington.

Feibush said he checked maps before acquiring the property and found no indication of a cemetery beneath the garage building.

Yet Milano included no fewer than nine clearly marked city maps that show the extent of the Mutual Burial Ground.

Built in the 1920s, the garages sit squarely above the cemetery's eastern boundary. (The original cemetery ran along Frankford Avenue roughly from Berks Street north to East Norris Street and west to Trenton Avenue; it shrank considerably over time, according to the historical maps.)

In an interview last week, Feibush said he was "taking great expense to make certain we get this right." He has hired an archaeologist to monitor demolition, which could begin June 10.

Farnham said Feibush's demolition permit was valid because it was issued before notification of possible historic certification.

And Feibush told Milano he intended to demolish the garages.

Feibush is confident there is nothing beneath the garages, which sit on an eight-inch concrete slab and have no basement. Ground-penetrating radar has shown nothing is there, he said.

Archaeologists contend that such radar work is inconclusive in the best of circumstances, and that its accuracy would be further undermined by the presence of the concrete slab.

"The only way to know what's there is to ground-truth it," said archaeologist Jed Levin, chief historian at Independence National Historical Park. In other words, dig. Milano believes historic designation is the only way to ensure protection of the ground, but Feibush said the designation application was improper. He told Milano the historian was acting in "bad faith" and should have simply picked up the phone to air concerns.

The historical commission, Feibush said, "is not the right forum to preserve something."

Milano, who is self-employed, said he had received threatening emails and phone calls from Feibush seeking withdrawal of the application.

"Ken's afraid of being sued for doing what the city wants us to do," said another resident, who requested anonymity for fear of a suit.

"Who wants to be sued?" Milano asked.

Asked about threats of legal action, Feibush declined to comment.

"I'm not interested in disparaging anyone in the press here," he said. "I don't know that that's productive."

Besides, Feibush said, "I've shown time and time again I'm willing to work with the community."

Milano and Kensington residents are mulling whether to withdraw the application and accept Feibush's offer of archaeological monitoring during demolition.

"We're up against a powerful developer who's made legal threats," said Andrew Fearon, a local preservationist. "We're in this to get the best possible outcome. . . . If we can all agree, maybe we have a chance."

Feibush said he was offering to meet with the community.

"We're looking forward to meeting with the community," he said. "I do believe that application will be withdrawn."

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