North Central: A Community Pioneer Leads Major Theater Project

Revitalizing a building takes more than just millions of dollars and community support—it takes time.

In Linda Richardson’s case, one revitalization took 15 years.

As president of the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corp., Richardson has been working to gather the necessary resources to restore the historic Uptown Theatre since 1995, and it seems like all her hard work is finally paying off.

“I’m really delighted because when we first started working we had lots of resistance from elected officials and private finance entities,” Richardson said. The skepticism was partly due to previous failed restoration efforts and the belief that people are not attracted to the North Central area.

“Since then, we have convinced them, and also the community has always been supportive,” she said. “I always knew it could be something we could accomplish.”

The next step is the design phase, which will take three to four weeks, Richardson said. By mid-July, a team of architects, engineers and program specialists will have completed construction.

Richardson, who is originally from 17th and Norris streets, discovered her love for the arts in high school when she decided she wanted to study dance and acting. She attended the Philadelphia Dance Academy, which has since merged with the University of the Arts. She also joined Theater 14, an integrated company, and happened to perform the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

“We could hear people rioting in North Central Philadelphia,” she said. “We went out and talked to people about art and culture and they were so angry. I found I could convince them not to be.”

At that time, Richardson no longer found art for art’s sake to be relevant—though she said she has since changed her mind. She took this conviction and became an anti-war activist, working for the Coalition for Peace and Justice during the Vietnam War.

“I found I could talk to people from higher incomes about people from lower incomes’ concerns,” she said. “I became a fundraiser for the movement, the movement for peace and justice.”

After Richardson gained the opportunity to manage a feasibility study on the Uptown for the governor’s Commission of African American Affairs, she was sure that renovating the theater was not a far-fetched idea. “I saw the Uptown vacant and deteriorating,” she said, “but I was convinced it could be a viable project.”

The theater was not the only aspect of the neighborhood in need of attention, Richardson said. Vacant storefronts and overall divestment were common. “When I first started, some of the areas had been so demolished and devastated, it would be hard to think anyone would want to stay, particularly after the riots in the 1960s.”

Since then, Richardson said she believes the area has changed for the better. But what has not changed is its perception of being crime ridden and a generally unfavorable place to live or visit. She remembered a time when many people, mostly students, would not walk past Diamond Street.

“It was unusual to see anyone but African Americans in the street,” she said. “One day someone called me and said there were white students walking at Cecil B. Moore. It was really strange. Now I think that barrier is being broken.”

One of the biggest challenges facing Richardson and the UEDC is the economic downturn.  “The sense is that a project like the Uptown, which is considered an art and cultural project, may not be as vital as basic services like childcare, housing, food and dealing with the homeless,” she said. “But we believe that art is food for the soul.”

As a traditionally social services organization, Richardson said the organization has tried to link the arts-related project to the betterment of the community as a whole. “Our donor base has eroded, people think the neighborhood is not a viable one, and it’s difficult to secure resources,” she said.

The corporation has made a lot of progress, but continuing to provide the building with financial support will be a long-term effort. The 50,000 square-foot theater with seating for 2,040 will eventually contain a sound studio, catering facilities, business offices and the Art and Education Youth Program headquarters.

“We want to look at how we can use the land surrounding it to add housing so that there’s a mix of affordable, low-income and market rate housing,” she said, adding that the UEDC has cut back on housing services until the housing market recovers.

Vice Chair of the UEDC board of directors Andrea Brown worked with Richardson at the African American United Fund and also in various community projects. She has been on the board for eight years and said she thinks this attempt will be successful because of the deep commitment of everyone involved.

“It’s the dedication and perseverance of leadership. This is a group of people who have set this goal and are willing to work at whatever level to achieve it,” Brown said.

According to her colleague, Richardson was pulling for the theater even when funds were low or nonexistent. “Without Linda there would be no project,” Brown said. “ I admire her greatly. The success of this project is owed to her.”

So what would Richardson’s vision be for the Uptown in 10 years?

“I’d like to be able to have the Uptown be like it was it was, or how we felt it was, that anyone can come and view entertainment,” she said. “We want to be able to have the vibrancy that young people feel the Uptown is just as important to them as it is for the people who went to the Uptown in the ‘60s.”

Though it took some time to get to this point, it looks like the work of Richardson and the UEDC board of directors is finally coming to fruition. “It’s been a team effort,” Richardson said. “We’ve made a couple of milestones, which makes it doubly satisfying. The naysayers have now become our boosters.”

Even after performing years of social service and securing millions of dollars for city projects, Richardson’s proudest accomplishment has nothing to with work.

“I’m most proud to be a mother of five and a grandmother of seven,” she said.

To see the groundbreaking ceremony for the Uptown Theatre, click here.

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