On the corner of Frankford Avenue and Berks Street is a lot located in the path of the economic revival that has turned this Fishtown community into a trendy destination.
But three decades ago, recalled Sandy Salzman, the retired director of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC), it was a much different story.
“People don’t remember what it use to be like,” said Salzman. “There was a lot of vacant land. All of it filled with trash.”
For over 150 years, this 10,000-square-foot lot has borne silent witness to the changes that have made and unmade Fishtown.
It was in December 1867 that 182 members left the burgeoning First Presbyterian Church in Kensington, which is still located on Girard Avenue, to seed a new church, the Bethesda Presbyterian Church. The goal was to reach the growing number of mill workers living in the area.
After several months of meeting at a local hall, the congregation of the new church purchased the lot at Frankford Avenue and Vienna (now Berks) Street and built a new church made of brownstone and able to seat 1,200 people.
It was one of the first public mentions of life on the corner of Frankford Avenue and Berks Street.
By 1889 Bethesda had grown to 543 members and for the next 40 years, the neighborhood did well and so too did the church on the corner.
And then the good economic times ended. Most researchers date the start of city’s manufacturing decline to the 1950s.
But as early as 1910, the Bethesda Presbyterian Church leadership noticed its membership wasn’t growing. They weren’t attracting the European immigrants and their families who had made Fishtown their home and helped the church flourish.
The newcomers who replaced them — Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and Asians — didn’t come from a Presbyterian background. Around the 1950s the church found itself down to 131 members and, like many of the residents, they too decided to leave.
“In 1955, a new building was built in the Northeast on Red Lion Road as the families of the church moved into the new booming area of the city,” according to the church’s history on its website.
They weren’t alone.
Almost all of the area’s Presbyterian churches had either disbanded or relocated by World War II.
The church building caught on fire in the 1970s, recalled Salzman adding, “I don’t know if it was arson but there was a lot of arson fires in the 70s.” The property became home to a used-car dealer who, as landlord, did little to keep up the property. Instead he racked up L&I violations and while anxious to sell, no one was interested in buying.
The lot now sat in a community where real estate had lost its value. Instead, Kensington faced a plague of abandoned rowhouses, empty factories, and vacant lots. Lots of trash-strewn lots.
NKCDC was founded in 1985 to focus on the community’s pressing housing needs. For the next decade, the group rehabilitated vacant homes, worked at preventing foreclosure and provided utility support. Salzman became executive director in 1988.
“We did a survey in ‘95 and found that at that time, there were 1,100 parcels of vacant land in the area from Lehigh Avenue and the Market-Frankford El to the [Delaware] River. A lot of vacant land — and 90 percent of it, probably, was filled with trash,” Salzman said.
the midst of it was the forlorn 10,000 square foot lot at Frankford Avenue and Berks Streets that had once housed a splendid brownstone church and a growing congregation. It had become just another overgrown, dirty, and unwanted lot.
When Salzman asked residents to tell her what they wanted for the community, ridding the neighborhood of all its dirty lots by transforming them into clean, green oases topped the list. NKCDC was pushed to add other quality-of-life issues to its agenda.
Research showed that the residents were onto something.
Burned out hulks or empty lots with trash actually take a physical and emotional toll on residents. According to one 2018 study, “Neighborhood physical conditions, including vacant or dilapidated spaces, trash, and lack of quality infrastructure such as sidewalks and parks, are associated with depression.”
Their demand launched NKCDC into vacant land management and a partnership with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), to work with vacant land in an effort to revitalize the community.
One of the first projects Salzman undertook in 1997 was cleaning the Frankford Avenue and Berks Street lot, transforming it into the Garden Center where residents could mingle, purchase nursery supplies and plants, as well as learn about horticulture from PHS.
In 2010, the program was shuttered.
“You have to remember there was no…