The thing that makes Flying Kite's On the Ground
neighborhood engagement program special is that we move it to a new location every three months.
Over the last two weeks, our small but determined team learned that special quality can also produce some trying moments. Locking down space can be tricky, and in Frankford, we had a heckuva time. Space after space just wasn't right. By the end of last week, we needed some divine intervention.
Enter St. Mark's Church
, the nearly 200 year-old institution and more than 100 year-old building that has played a significant role in Frankford's development. The church will host Flying Kite's three-month stay in Frankford beginning this week, and our primary goal will be connecting the community and outsiders alike to a church built for 1,000 worshippers and now hanging on by a thread with 80.
"We are struggling to maintain relevancy by meeting the needs of the community, which we are blessed to be serving," says the gregarious and hard-working St. Mark's pastor Jon Clodfelter, who quickly adds, "there are glimmers of hope all around us."
That includes, most recently, five new adult members who were among six baptized on Sunday.
But make no mistake, this story isn't about religious conversion. It's about community.
Clodfelter is an expert on the church and Frankford -- he says "we" when referring to things that happened here in the 19th century even though he's only been in the neighborhood since celebrating his first service in February, 2002, before only 17 worshipers. A self-proclaimed zealot, he is a perfect fit for a church that is rooted in progressive practices, including as a forerunner on civil rights issues.
Someone has to be, especially at 4442 Frankford Ave.
"My belief is in order for us to be relevant in the 21st century, we've got to help people raised from the 1960s on, to find relevance in the ministry of the church," says Clodfelter.
That's something Clodfelter and his team are building, albeit slowly. The church serves 5,400 meals annually out of its space, a number that could easily triple. It partners with the Philadelphia Community Arts Network
, which tutors children in music and arts at the church. In addition, the church offers adult literacy programs that reach a wide swath of needy individuals, from recovering addicts to ex-prisoners. Nonprofit production company Garden of Eden Productions does theatrical work with young people in the community out of St. Mark's,
"We are the draw (in the neighborhood)," Clodfelter says.
As he walks around the cavernous, vertical Gothic church, which is also home to a hall with stage and balcony, multiple meeting and fellowship rooms and a basement with a crypt, Clodfelter unleashes a bevvy of historical gems that offer clues to Frankford's former place as a creative and civic hub:
-- 69 stone carvings built by Philadelphia's Whiteman Studios
-- stained glass windows designed by former Philadelphia Sketch Club president NIcholas D'Ascenza
-- at least 16 streets in Frankford have been named for former church members
-- some 188 members served in the U.S. military during wartime, 39 of whom perished in battle
This place was well worth waiting for.
Back in West Philly
Our lengthy search for space only exacerbated our heavy hearts as we packed up our things at 4017 Lancaster Ave. in Mantua. But we've still got a toe in West Philadelphia. In fact, you can check out 4017 on Lancaster Ave.
Second Friday as we join People's Emergency Center
in co-hosting NeXt on Lancaster Ave
. We'll be continuing our coverage of transformation there as well as we work to formalize our connections with On the Ground's legacy neighborhoods.
In Frankford, there is almost identical business stock to West Philly right around us -- thrift/antique/consignment shops, diabetic shoes, all-day breakfast and $5 haricuts all can be had within a block or so.
The similarities end there. Frankford's feel is much different. If Lancaster Ave. is a baseball game, a long drink of lemonade, or someone meandering across a wide street and down sidewalks that roll to University City, then Frankford is a football game, a shot of whiskey, a full-on sprint boxed in by the El above and crowded sidewalks near SEPTA stops.
It's a little more, um, intense in Frankford.
A Hard Fight
That's also indicative of the energy and frantic attempts to combat serious crime and drug problems
and restore respectability to this long and storied corridor and historic, proud community.
Clodfelter says his car has been broken into on more than one occasion. He describes the eyes of the drug addicts he encounters and the high school-age girls prostituting themselves in broad daylight, not far from the church parking lot. He talks of varying cycles of poverty and illness that hold newcomers and those with deep roots alike.
So despite his intimate knowledge of every nook and cranny of the church's incredibly beautiful and compelling historical structure, it is outside, encountering the masses and reaching out a hand, where Clodfelter insists he needs to be.
We'll be there, too. With the help of the hard-working folks at Frankford Community Development Corporation
, especially Michelle Feldman and Tracy O'Drain, we have already made connections with numerous businesses and stakeholders in this large, historic, close-knit yet divided community.
Between now and early 2013 we'll bring you their stories and invite you to see Frankford for yourself.
St. Mark's story is pretty simple:
"We're trying to find a way to struggle together in this world," Clodfelter says, "because it isn't easy."