*This article was written by Scott Hearn and was originally published on the Public History Year in Review webpage.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Kensington section of Philadelphia was home to many of the city’s textile manufacturing companies. As Philadelphia deindustrialized, and families moved to the surrounding suburbs, those left behind in these former industrial neighborhoods saw crime increase and the former factories deteriorate. The Orinoka Mills at East Somerset Street and Ruth Street sat unused for decades and the nearby corner of Somerset Street and Kensington Avenue became the number one drug market in the city. While the area of the Orinoka Mills continued to decline throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Frankford Avenue corridor in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia began to change. As the Frankford Avenue corridor has become a place of rising development in Philadelphia, the Orinoka Mills are now set to serve as the building block for the revitalization of the neighborhood north of Lehigh Avenue.
The organization looking to achieve this transition at the Orinoka Mills began its work in Fishtown in 1985. The residents of Kensington formed a Neighborhood Advisory Committee, which focused on housing counseling, energy assistance, real estate development and housing rehabilitation. The organization known as the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC) hit its stride in 1995 when it launched a strategic plan to help redevelop the Frankford Avenue corridor. Within the 1995 boundaries of NKCDC’s operations were over 1,100 parcels of vacant land ranging from small lots where wood-framed homes once stood to the numerous empty factories. The NKCDC focused on cleaning up the vacant lots but soon realized that spurring redevelopment and attracting private investment would require redeveloping one of the former industrial spaces. A former textile mill on Coral Street between East Letterly and East Haggert Streets became the Coral Streets Arts House, a twenty-seven-unit housing complex for low-income residents with a focus on artists. Since the Coral Street Art House was finished in 2005, the area surrounding it has seen 40 percent of the vacant industrial land either renovated or developed.
After the success of the Coral Street Arts House, the NKCDC faced a dilemma: its work had brought in the private investment they desired. As Sandy Salzman, the executive director of the NKCDC, stated, “The job of a good Community Development Corporation is to put itself out of business.” Yet, the NKCDC staff realized work remained to be done and began to consider crossing over their northern border of Lehigh Avenue. This area north of Lehigh Avenue had been the hardest hit through the deindustrialization as the lack of jobs left the residents with few options. The Orinoka Mills became the NKCDC focus, in the hope that it might have the same impact as Coral Street Arts House on the area south of Lehigh Avenue.
The Orinoka Mills initially consisted of three buildings: the original building constructed in 1880 of heavy timber, a second building constructed in 1900, and a concrete building constructed in 1920. Over its years of vacancy, the property had racked up over $1 million in city fines for unpaid taxes and other property violations. The city took ownership of the land and, while the NKCDC worked to find funding for redevelopment, demolished the 1880 and 1900 buildings. While the loss of these historic buildings was not ideal, it had the positive effect of making redevelopment of the 1920 building much more affordable.
In 2013, the NKCDC released its North of Lehigh Plan, which included the vision for transforming the Orinoka Mills. Community members were initially skeptical because numerous organization in the past had promised similar changes but never followed through. However, the numerous members and volunteers of the NKCDC were capable through their previous successes and personals connection to the area, having witnessed the decline of this area and their desire to revitalize the area, which they remember as a thriving community, built support for the plan. The NKCDC began to stabilize the community by working with the Philadelphia Police Department and District Attorney’s Office to remove the drug market at Somerset Street and Kensington Avenue and the drug camp by the aqueduct behind the Mills site. Additional efforts cleaned up the Somerset stop of the Market Frankford Line to create safe access to the area by public transportation.
When the NKCDC redeveloped the Coral Streets Art House, the building was classified as historic preservation and the tax credits associated with that designation allowed for maintaining its original wood-framed windows and its appearance from its first construction in 1880. The Orinoka Mills, which lost its historic integrity from years of neglect, will not have the same fate. Although the Mill is located within a historic district and both the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Philadelphia Historical Commission advocated a historic restoration, the financial burden would have been too much for the NKCDC. The commissions faced the choice of pushing for a historic redevelopment, losing the NKCDC, and more than likely seeking the city demolish the deteriorating building, or allowing changes and upgrades to be made to rejuvenate the Orinoka Mills, albeit in a new form. The commissions chose to let the NKCDC redevelop the Mill and rename it the Orinoka Mills Civic House.
Tentative plans for the Orinoka Mills Civic House are featuring 51 one-and two-bedroom units for lower-income residents. Outside of the housing on the upper floors, the NKCDC looks to create an outdoor community space and a coffee shop. The NKCDC will also relocate their headquarters to the Orinoka Mills Civic House to help spear head other community development initiatives. To retain the Orinoka Mills place in Philadelphia and the neighborhood’s history, there are plans for murals to show how it used to appear. The condition of the mill was thoroughly documented before construction begins, to help illustrate how far the building has come.
Ultimately, whether Orinoka Mills looks as it did in the early 1900s or not, the history of the building still carries an important meaning to the neighborhood. The Orinoka Mills were the main focus of the neighborhood when it experienced its highest point, and then became a physical representation of what the community experienced as it slowly deteriorated. The new Orinoka Mills Civic House will not only provide housing and common space for the community but will also serve as a living memory of the rich history of the neighborhoods north of Lehigh Avenue.
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