At Bok Technical, a beer garden and a promise of more to come

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A view of Le Bok Fin, a beer garden atop the soon to be repurposed Bok Technical High School that has attracted crowds and controversy, in equal measure. ( Mike Newall / Staff )

Quake was back at Bok.

Daniel "Quake" Gibbons, a proud member of the Class of '93 and an immovable force on the offensive line of the Bok Technical High football team, had read on Facebook about an alumni gathering at a new restaurant atop his alma mater's roof.

Gibbons wasn't going to miss it. He was looking forward to busting it up with his old Wildcats teammates, catching up with the cheerleaders, and maybe even running into some of his old auto-body shop teachers.

The posting said to bring Bok gear if you had it, so Gibbons, who is 41 and works as a security guard in West Philadelphia, proudly broke out his royal blue 1992 division championship jacket. The one with "Quake" sewn above the crest.

He carried the jacket with him under his arm as he walked through the school door Sunday afternoon, the first time in more than 15 years. And he carried his memories, too, as he walked, alone, among the clusters of young people heading up to the roof.

That's where the new owners of the hulking art deco building in South Philly, shuttered since 2013, have opened Le Bok Fin, a beer garden that has attracted crowds and controversy in equal measure.

Quake wasn't thinking about any of that. He was remembering old times.

"All I need is a book bag," he thought with a laugh, walking past the boys' gym, where most mornings he would peek in to shout hello to the school's legendary football coach, Tom DeFelice.

"What up, Coach D?"

"What's up, kid?," the exchange would go.

He filed past the hallways leading to the auto body shop, where Mr. Jones taught the finer details of welding thick metals - "You know you're doing it right when it starts to fry like an egg," he'd say - and onto the elevator once manned by a no-nonsense woman who ferried students up and down the towering WPA-era structure's eight floors.

As a student, Quake had never been to the roof. A brave few used to sneak up to the dusty top floors to peer through the dirty, locked doors to the roof. Now, a security guard pointed Gibbons through the open doors, toward the $6 hot dog stands and the craft beer bars and the crowds admiring a skyline that seemed close enough to touch.

"Wow," Quake said in bewilderment.

The view is beautiful - and jarring. The only time I was at Bok before Sunday was in March, chasing a tip about thousands of schoolbooks lying abandoned in the halls - a heartbreaking snapshot of a failed and forgotten institution.

Now, twentysomethings were walking the halls, buzzed on rosé, snapping selfies.

Don't get me wrong: Anything other than those sagging piles of books in the hallways marks an improvement.

But rarely has there been a more obvious symbol of gentrification - and the fraught conversations that come with it - than the repurposing of Bok Technical High School.

It starts with the name itself - a nod to one of the city's most celebrated restaurants and the trade school's own culinary program.

Perhaps an upscale, French-style beer garden may have not been the best way to reintroduce Bok to a city riven by poverty and inequality - and still reeling from the closings of so many schools.

That was made obvious in the outpouring of anger that swirled across Philadelphia social media last week deriding the beer garden - and its weekend yoga - as tone deaf.

The detractors' point is one that should be obvious to any developer. A truly transformed city is one that engages more and more people, not just some.

The fact that we're at a juncture where we're repurposing our symbols of urban decline into something new is a great thing. It's just that we need to repurpose them into the right things.

And that's a notion that Lindsey Scannapieco, the 29-year-old developer who bought the iconic building at Ninth and Mifflin Streets, says will guide her as she remakes the building into what she calls a creative hub for artisans, manufacturers, and nonprofits - and a home to services and spaces that the entire neighborhood could benefit from. In other words, no condos.

"We want this to be a space for everyone," she told me Tuesday.

On Sunday, Quake walked the length of the roof but saw none of his schoolmates. A manager explained it: the date for the alumni gathering had been moved to next Sunday. Quake asked the manager about what lay ahead for the building.

He was glad, he said, that his old school would still be a place where people could learn and create - not just ripped up for more condos.

Quake would frown upon that.

Then, he enjoyed a Yards Pale Ale from the bar - his first, which he thought was pretty good - and admired the view. He would be back next week, he said, to laugh and talk with old classmates about times gone by, and things that are no more.


mnewall@phillynews.com215-854-2759@MikeNewall