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Source: Philadelphia Tribune
Date: November 4, 2003
Byline: Linn Washington Jr.

Op-Ed: Black architects face a wall of exclusion

Gus Baxter had that look on his face one evening in January 2003 … that look of frustration resulting from reaction to hearing something incredibly insulting and extraordinarily stupid.

Baxter, a former Philadelphia School Board member, attended a presentation where National Park Service officials unveiled their plans to improve the depiction of Blacks at the new multimillion-dollar Liberty Bell Pavilion.

During this presentation, held at the Afro-American Museum in Center City, all but one of the Park Service presenters was white. Further, all of the architects hired by the Park Service to prepare the planned depictions unveiled at the presentation were white.

After this presentation, Baxter, who headed Philadelphia's Architect's Workshop for over a dozen years, asked the lead architect hired by the Park Service if any Black architects and designers were working on this project.

This white architect from New York City curtly answered, "No." Compounding this insulting exclusion, this architect blithely told Baxter that there was a simple (read: stupid) reason for the lack of minority presence in the crucial planning process – this architect didn't know any qualified minorities to hire.

"He gave me some nonsense about not knowing about any minorities. I told him I would give him a list of qualified local Black architects, designers and engineers," Baxter said during an interview last week. "This guy asked me for my phone number, so I gave it to him but I never heard from him," Baxter said, noting he was "angry" at both the exclusion and the excuse given for this apartheid.

"They gave the same stock answer that they always give … they don't know any qualified minorities. That's the way that it's been throughout time," said Baxter, who battled the exclusion of Blacks from opportunities for providing professional-services contracts throughout his school board tenure from 1971-1983. "I've heard this ‘we can't find any' stuff throughout my career."

The exclusion of Black architects from the Liberty Bell project is not unique.

Apartheid exclusion of Black architects is evident on numerous public and private sector projects throughout Philadelphia, said sources, mentioning projects like Penn's Landing, the expansion of the Convention Center, the construction of a new skyscraper office building at 17th Street and JFK Boulevard and continuing renovations at the old Navy Yard.

"Afro-American architects are not getting a fair share of business opportunities. So many are starving," said Gus Baxter. "There is a wall of exclusion."

The exclusion of Black architects from the construction project to erect over 100 new homes along Cecil B. Moore Boulevard in the heart of North Philadelphia underlay a politically charged controversy this spring.

"North Philadelphia is 99 percent Black, and the architects and developers on most of the projects in North Philly are 99 percent white," one source said.

"How is this happening if the ‘brothers and sisters' are running the city," continued this source, referencing an offhanded remark made by Mayor John Street that prompted cries from Street's political enemies that he was being racially divisive.

The prospect of the exclusion of Black architects and other Black-owned construction-related businesses from the planned multimillion-dollar renovations at the world-famous Philadelphia Art Museum and Free Library building on the Parkway prompted City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown to fire off letters a few months ago.

"We need to do better and require that major institutions do better with having diversity on these projects," Councilwoman Brown said during an interview last week.

"The Art Museum was designed by a Black man," Councilwoman Brown noted.

"I think it is prudent then to have diversity on that project. I don't think it is optional to have diversity on projects at institutions that are receiving city funds."

A Pennsylvania state historic marker stands in front of the Art Museum commemorating Julian Francis Abele, the designer of that building and the first Black graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Architecture.

However, attitudes expressed about Abele in some circles are instructive for understanding the attitudes driving the contemporary exclusion of Black businesses and professionals from contracting opportunities across Philadelphia.

Some refuse to accept the fact that Abele, an accomplished pianist fluent in French, designed the Art Museum and Free Library buildings.

These naysayers contend no clear evidence exists documenting Abele's contributions, despite conceding that the architectural firm hired to design these buildings specifically dispatched Abele to travel throughout Europe studying famous structures and conceding that Abele's drawings of these European structures formed the basis for the construction of the Art Museum and Free Library.

Refusal to recognize Abele's role is part of the intellectual line underlying today's refusal to acknowledge that qualified Black architects exist … thus providing an emotional shelter for justifying the unjustifiable exclusion of minority businesses and professionals.

The failure to equitably include minority businesses and professionals is an issue in today's mayoral election.

Many feel the Street administration has not been aggressive enough in battling to break down what Gus Baxter termed the "wall of exclusion."

Many feel Republican mayoral candidate Sam Katz failed to use his position as head of the Greater Philadelphia First to get the two dozen-plus corporate CEO's comprising that organization's membership to open contracting opportunities to qualified minority businesses and professionals.

Katz, during a March 2003 Tribune interview, acknowledged, "I didn't do what I just said I would try to do as mayor … I did not link minority-owned businesses with majority owned businesses."

This historic exclusion of capable minorities from moneymaking opportunities also casts questions on the reported focus of the highly publicized federal probe: Street administration contracting practices.

Many wonder why the feds are so intent on investigating alleged wrongdoing in City Hall during Street's tenure while ignoring the continuing centuries-old, wrongful exclusion of non-whites in Philadelphia's public/private sector contracting practices?

Linn Washington Jr. is an award-winning writer who teaches journalism at Temple University.

 

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