"If you had a 5,000 square foot building and large green space, what would you want to see in it that would benefit the neighborhood?"
I spent a lot of time asking that question as I met with neighbors, clergy, nonprofit directors, shop owners, and educators living and working in the Fishtown/Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia in 2011 when Beacon was at the brink of closing or reinventing itself.
Those involved in the discernment process - myself, Broad Street Ministry staff, and the Presbytery of Philadelphia - began with this question of how to best steward the 13,000 square foot property of Beacon Presbyterian Church in the midst of an incredibly dense urban neighborhood. I listened, tallied answers, and (with some other brace folks) crafted program offerings that convened gifts and skills to meet the needs identified by our neighbors.
Over the years, that las looked like approachable, family-friendly, LGBTQ+ affirming worship services, after-school programming and family events that use storytelling and art as vehicles for community growth, meals, urban gardening, service learning education, and more. These programs led us to grow into a faith community of 25 members and a wider, secular programmatic community of well over 100 families.
Now as we look to creating a sustainable future for a community-focused presence on our block via creative and innovative space-sharing, we are looking back at Beacon's interesting history and dreaming of a new future.
Beacon - then and now
Beacon's building has evolved over 147 years, starting as a small one-story church, expanding to include more stories and an immense, domed sanctuary, only to shrink again to a one-story building in the 1950s after Hurricane Hazel left the dome damaged beyond repair. Now, instead of a 1,000-seat sanctuary, an expansive front yard, including trees, flowers, and raised garden beds stretches from Beacon's front door to Cumberland Street.
The current sanctuary, which looks more like a banquet hall, has an industrial feel to it with angled twelve-pane windows and high ceilings. We've tried to work with that aesthetic rather than against it, taking up red carpet, putting pews on wheels, hanging a light installation of 200 industrial light bulbs from the ceiling, and adding colorful abstract banners painted by community members to make the worship space multi-functional and welcoming.
At the turn of the 20th century, Beacon Presbyterian Church was known as a true community hub, providing both early education for children and higher education for adults, spaces for music performances, and assistance to a nearby health clinic. As the neighborhood demographics shifted to be predominantly Catholic instead of Protestant, Beacon Presbyterian, like many Mainline Protestant churches, struggled to pivot with those changes, and ultimately closed.
Posing a powerful question
In 2015, the community of Beacon, neighbors and residents of the Fishtown/Kensington neighborhood chose to become a Presbyterian congregation once again, this time with a commitment to serving as a community hub like it had a century prior. In 2017, we worked with the Community Design Collaborative and our neighbors to renew the conversation of what is possible in this space.
What if we dreamed bigger than what one small congregation could provide programmatically and thought creatively about a mission-aligned partner who might want to provide services to the residents of 19125?
The community conversation was energetic and enthusiastic, and led us to three clear priorities: development of the green space into a more usable community space; children's education; children's healthcare. Those are the things out neighbors articulated as deep desires and needs in the neighborhood, and from our beginning, we have committed our programming, efforts, and budget to meeting the needs of our neighbors.
So, what now? The opinions are in and tallied, the beautifully-executed feasibility study is printed and bound, and the adventure continues as we search for the right partners to bring one or more of those dreams to life. We're searching for a community-minded developer; an organization committed to community green spaces, children's education, or children's healthcare; and capacity-building funds and capital funds. We hope to meet them soon and collaborate on this adventure taking place on Cumberland Street.
This column is part of an ongoing series sharing the progress of our Sacred Places/Civic Spaces Design Challenge. The final designs will be presented at a public reveal on December 4, 2018. Save the date!