No human remains found at Potter's Field site, final PHA decision pending
March 20, 2013By Amy Z. Quinn of Plan Philly
What we had found were a series of foundations relating to the houses that used to stand here, as well as what appears to be the remains of shaft features, some stone-lined, some brick-lined.
—Kenneth J. Basalik, principal investigative archaeologist
No human remains were found during an archaeological dig at the site of the Philadelphia Housing Authority's Queen Lane Apartments, where an 18th-century Potter's Field burial ground also once existed.
Hand-sifting of dirt and other material pulled from more than a dozen holes dug around the now-empty public housing tower in Germantown revealed mostly bricks, a large knot of tree roots, some old wires, pieces of beer bottle-type glass and other debris, project officials said Wednesday during a tour of the property at West Queen Lane and Pulaski Avenue.
"Historic maps indicate we're inside a three-story brick building," said Dr. Kenneth J. Basalik, principal investigative archaeologist, standing around a rectangular hole partly filled with the kind of distinctive red bricks once used in rowhouses around the city.
When the buildings were demolished before the apartment tower went up in the 1950s, debris was often backfilled into the basements and leveled off, he said. In one spot, on the Priscilla Street side, a granite slab about the size of a front step was found beneath more than three feet of soil, rock and asphalt.
Also revealed by the digging were the remains of several stone walls, basements and other features of the houses that once stood on part of what is now PHA's property.
Those houses, shown on historic maps of the area facing Pulaski Avenue and Penn and Priscilla streets, stood around the Potter's Field, a burial ground for African-Americans, the poor and "strangers" in Germantown.
No barriers to PHS project found
Nothing revealed on the tour indicated findings that would seem to present an obvious or immediate barrier to PHA's plans to demolish the 16-story high rise and replace it with a $35 million, 55-unit, lower-density development.
"What we had found were a series of foundations relating to the houses that used to stand here, as well as what appears to be the remains of shaft features, some stone-lined, some brick-lined," Basalik said. Those shafts could have been for wells, privies or cisterns, he said.
A final report on the "ground truthing" — digging at sites indicated by ground-penetrating radar as having buried irregularities — will be complete and submitted by to the National Park Service's State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which will make a final decision on redeveloping the site.
How to proceed
While most in the neighborhood have been united in a desire to see the tower, and its accompanying legacy of poverty and crime, torn down, there has been disagreement about how best to acknowledge those buried at the Potter's Field and what PHA should rebuild at the site.
The housing agency, citing more than a year of delays so far and a 140,000-person waiting list for public-housing assistance, has said it could be forced to rehabilitate and re-occupy the tower.
PHA's plans have already been altered once, to relocate the planned new buildings around the historic footprint of the burial ground. That space would be preserved, with a marker commemorating the burial ground.
"Our goal from the very beginning, once we changed our plan, was that we would not build on the known boundaries of the Potter's Field, and we're still committed to leaving that area open," said Michael Johns, the PHA's general manager of community development and design.
A local PHA purchase
Nearby, PHA has also purchased the Queen's Row apartment complex, with a $3 million plan to rehabilitate and rent that 29-unit building, which will include five market-rate units (PDF).
Johns said PHA tenants who had previously lived at Queen Lane would be eligible to apply for housing there if they want to return to the neighborhood, but would not be given preference.
Also on the tour Wednesday were officials from PHA and HUD, along with Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass, representatives of Northwest Neighbors of Germantown and members of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum.
Barry Leland, of Northwest Neighbors, said he still had concerns about re-building at the site.
"The grounds were established forever," he said of the Potter's Field.