“On these steps”: The Demolition of the Hawthorne Community Center

[COMMUNITY CENTER IN THE ROUND]

Walled in by so many New Urbanist  trinities complete with finials, dentals, and historic paint schemes, the high modernist Hawthorne  Community Center at 13th and Fitzwater seems a strange–almost interplanetary visitor.  The remaining vestige of the failed modernist project known as the Hawthorne, later Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Towers, it is slated for demolition by Hunter Roberts Construction Company.  Like so many urban renewal efforts of the 1950 and early 1960s, the MLK Towers were freighted with great optimism but suffered from the flawed premise that spatial segregation of the poor and destitute was good for cities.  Geometrical and austere, high modernism became the chosen form of this social reengineering effort.  But because of the lingering pain of this movement’s failure, the style has not worn well.  It’s been argued on these pages that this adverse gut reaction to modernism is o.k.–an position considered anathema to preservationists who believe we can easily divorce the spirit, intent or flawed program of a building from a campaign to save it.  I’ve argued elsewhere that the process of deconstruction and salvage is sometimes as revealing as construction or preservation.  The demolition of the Hawthorne Community Center says more about the Philadelphia Housing Authority rightfully turning its back on an emblem of failure.  Yet it is important to mark this transition.

[JIM TAYOUN’S PLAQUE COMMEMORATING MLK’S VISIT]

The Hawthorne MLK Towers were constructed in the 1950s on the site of substandard housing just south of South Street in the traditionally African American 7th Ward.  On his northern turn, representing a departure from his primarily southern and rural focus, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on the steps of the Hawthorne Recreation Center on October 1st 1965.  Local publisher Jim Tayoun felt moved to rename the project after MLK and erect a plaque commemorating the event, “hoping the residents would realize the high criminal activity associated with the project would diminish.”  The plaque and renaming appears to have had mixed success.  The MLK Towers lumbered on until 1999 when they were finally–and mercifully–demolished.  In their stead came a project more in the spirit of Dr. King, the mixed-use HOPE VI development sponsored by the Department of  Housing and Urban Development and the Philadelphia Housing Authority.  The new development is required to have a proportion of rental units, below market value units, and market value units–creating a racially and socioeconomically diverse Hawthorne section. 

And the plaque?  “I’m supposed to remove it and give it to the Housing Authority,” a representative from Hunter Roberts told me last Friday.

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5 thoughts on ““On these steps”: The Demolition of the Hawthorne Community Center

  1. I’m so glad it’s gone. It was an austere inhuman reminder of the failed Moses-style urban planning that sought to solve social ills with segregated superblocks.

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