Modest and unassuming Quaker memorials at the Fairhill Burial Ground reach no taller than a shinbone and stand in great contrast to the looming trees growing throughout the cemetery.
“Quakers believe in the inherent equality of all people and that no one person is over another,” said Brandi Levine, executive director of Historic Fairhill Inc. “And so, the graves are of equal height.”
Historic Fairhill is the nonprofit organization which operates the burial grounds as an education center and historic site. The plot of land was commissioned by the founder of Quakerism, George Fox, back in 1691 and is listed with the National Register of Historic Places.
“Fairhill Burial Ground is now close to five acres, but it’s part of a larger – well, basically the Fairhill neighborhood,” the director said.
The site is situated on the 2900 block of Germantown Avenue between Lehigh and Allegheny avenues.
“George Fox’s wishes for the land are being interpreted for today’s world in the 21st century, because we use it as a garden, an education center, and it is a place where children in the Fairhill community can come and play in a safe, green space,” Levine said.
The Fairhill district also has ties to the women’s and antislavery movements in America.
“This is a 300-year-old Quaker burial ground in North Philly and it’s the burial place of some great abolitionists and reformers,” said Jean Warrington, the program director at Historic Fairhill.
Among those buried there are Lucretia Mott, considered the grandmother of the women’s movement, as well as the famed black abolitionists Robert and Harriet Purvis, who played an instrumental role in the Underground Railroad.
Despite such an important connection to both America’s and Philadelphia’s early history, Fairhill fell by the wayside and signs of blight and neglect began to encroach.
“Twenty years ago, it was overgrown, it was the biggest crack-cocaine open air market in the city,” Warrington said. “You couldn’t see the graves [because] the weeds had grown up.”
“The cemetery across the street was a dump site,” said Maria Santiago, a longtime resident of the community. “People would go in and do anything everything in there.”
After the decline of the city’s industrial sector, North Philadelphia faced an onslaught of economic decline. The Fairhill district was hit especially hard. As the surrounding factories closed down or transferred business overseas, the neighborhood suffered staggering unemployment and residents were forced to confront a slew of unprecedented issues.
“When I was growing up, it was wonderful, quiet,” said Santiago, who’s lived across from the burial grounds since she was 9 years old. “But then the ’80s came in, and here comes the war zone.”
She said her family watched in horror as their community morphed from a safe and peaceful environment into a crime-infused battleground.
“Drugs, break-ins – it was awful,” Santiago said.
Santiago recalled her most terrifying moment came after returning home one day to find a squad of police cars posted along the cemetery.
“As I got closer to my home, I asked my father, ‘What happened?’” Santiago said. “He said, ‘Oh my goodness, they found two dead bodies in there.’”
Danilo “Donnie” Cottman, Santiago’s grandson, said he’s witnessed the neighborhood’s violence firsthand.
“Where I live, this community, it’s called the Badlands,” he said.
“I’ve seen shootings. I’ve seen a lady with her fingers getting blown off in a car. I’ve had a gun shoot at me while I was walking to the store,” Cottman said.
Despite the circumstances, Donnie said he has avoided falling victim to some of the misfortunes which plague the neighborhood because of his involvement with the Historic Fairhill Organization.
“One of my best friends that used to really be a part of the program, he’s out there selling drugs and he’s only about 13 years old,” Cottman said. “I’ve seen a lot, I’ve had experiences, but instead of being on the corners, I’m out doing something productive.”
Cottman, who is also 13 years old, said he’s been involved with the organization’s youth program for eight years.
“We do farmers’ markets, we do cleanup sessions around the neighborhood, and we basically help out the community in all the different types of ways that we can,” Cottman said.
Members of Historic Fairhill decided to work directly with the residents within community to help restore the neighborhood to its former glory.
“And so we said, ‘What can we do to carry on the work of the people who are buried there?’ And we thought, ‘Well, let’s ask the neighbors. What do they need?’” Warrington said.
Together, they decided that public safety and programs for the neighborhood children should be the top concerns. Both the organization and the community made joint efforts to clean up the burial ground and keep drugs out of the neighborhood.
“Working with the neighbors, we cleaned this up, and now we have beautiful big gardens, an orchard and six satellite gardens,” she continued. “And these are places that are positive and safe places for the children to play outside.”
Santiago said she’s seen great improvements in the neighborhood she grew up in.
“[My mother’s generation and mine,] we decided to clean it up because for so many years we were afraid,” Santiago said. “It’s peaceful now, and [the neighborhood] is something you don’t have to worry about your children seeing.”
– Text and video by Charles Brown and Rhonda Elnaggar