Germantown community unites with POWER Interfaith to address concerns and mobilize for transparency in the redevelopment of Germantown High School, emphasizing the need for proactive community involvement in the face of unchecked development.
The room was packed last Wednesday night at First United Methodist Church of Germantown (FUMCOG) for a POWER Interfaith meeting on what was happening with the development of Germantown High School and how neighbors could possibly impact what was going on.
POWER Interfaith is a grassroots organization that brings together multi-faith and multiracial congregations across Pennsylvania to organize on racial and economic justice issues. Their Northwest Philly core group has been organizing around the development of Germantown High School for years.
Representatives from Polite Temple Baptist Church, St. Vincent de Paul Church, Germantown Friends Meeting, Unitarian Universalist Church of Mt. Airy, FUMCOG, Mishkan Shalom, Janes Memorial, and other faith organizations were some of the people that filled the engaged room at the meeting. It also included nearby neighbors, Germantown High School alums, and other concerned community members.
“We recognized in the community conversations we were having, especially in our congregations, that Germantown High School kept coming up,” said Reverend Matthew Arlyck, POWER’s Northwest Philly organizer.
Many people in the room expressed frustration about the lack of transparency from Jack Azran, the owner of the Germantown High School buildings. Feelings of hopelessness also surfaced, as many folks brought up how Azran has the building by right, meaning they have the permits to start construction and do not need variance approval, nor are they obligated to communicate with the neighbors.
“There is still value in us organizing around this because this is not just about Germantown High School. There are other historic properties that are in the process of potentially being developed,” Arlyck continued.
“There’s tons of development going up around Germantown, and it’s pretty much unchecked. We’re in a place now where communities feel as if their neighborhood is changing, and they have no say over that and, so part of being there last night (last Wednesday) is how can we move the needle on Germantown High School, but (also) how can we start organizing in a way that’s proactive, where going forward no matter what the property is we’re on the offense and not on the defense.”
The night started with a prayer from FUMCOG pastors Alisa Lasater Wailoo and Gabe Lopez. It continued with introducing the ground rules and agenda. Then, it went into a brief history of the Germantown High School buildings by POWER organizer Denise Rose, a member of the Polite Temple Baptist Church in Germantown.
Germantown High School was opened in 1914. The School Board closed the high school and the adjacent Fulton Elementary in 2013. Both buildings were sold to developer Jack Azran and his firm in 2017. Construction has begun on the buildings this past year.
The bulk of the last part of the meeting was POWER organizers breaking folks up into different categories of what people were interested in talking about concerning Germantown High School.
Arlyck gave everyone a formula for developing a strategic question during a development meeting– starting with a concise and relatable statement and then a yes or no question. In group discussions, people talked about subjects such as affordable housing, the project’s specific timeline, parking arrangements, and various other significant concerns.
People from each group then shared their statements and questions. One example was where people moving into this future housing would send their children to school. Where would they shop? POWER organizers reminded everyone again about the meeting in November and how these questions belong to them to use.
POWER’s Northwest Philadelphia co-chair, Jayson Massey from Germantown Friends Meeting, felt optimistic about the meeting. “Some folks who were not as enthusiastic at first got to talk to people who were involved and engaged and had good conversation, so I think they left more hopeful than when they came in,” said Massey.
Massey stressed the importance of getting ready for future meetings about development in the neighborhood and how gathering at FUMCOG was one way to do it.
“Hopefully, what we accomplished is we got people to think strategically and tactically about how to go into meetings like this,” Massey said. Massey noticed that at the redevelopment meeting about the Germantown YWCA, it felt like questions overlapped, and emotions may have blocked getting more productive answers that night.
“So really taking that step back to organize can help the community get more out of all of these projects,” said Massey.
Reverend Stacey Jones-Anderson of Janes Memorial Church, right next to the former Germantown High School and Servants of Christ UMC, led the evening’s final prayer, bringing everyone together with faith for a future in God and the community’s hands.
The Germantown High School Redevelopment Town Hall will be hosted by Councilperson Cindy Bass on Thursday, November 16, 2023, from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. at Center in the Park (5818 Germantown Avenue). The registration link is here.