With the construction of the Yorktown neighborhood in North Philadelphia over 50 years ago began a neighborhood legacy of community bound together by power of place and a strong sense of resident stewardship. In 1960, the Denny Corporation acquired 153 acres of blighted blocks assembled by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and produced 635 homes that were eventually marketed to and purchased by African-American (primarily first-time) homebuyers with children.
Since that time, Yorktown has served as a model in urban redevelopment and set a precedent for homeownership by African-American families in Philadelphia who were largely locked out of the real estate market in many segregated neighborhoods by discriminatory real estate and lending practices at that time.
Accompanying these socially progressive ideals was an equally progressive urban form for the time. The reconfiguration of the blocks that became Yorktown created a series of shared public spaces and right-of-way elements that made the neighborhood physically distinct from its context. The houses are clustered around six interior-block courtyards ranging in size from 5,000 to 10,000 square feet, each courtyard abutted by two cul-de-sacs featuring “circles” of plantings.
Underlying Yorktown CDC’s (YCDC) motivation for embarking on this neighborhood strategic plan at this stage of the community’s history were concerns reflected in the title of the plan itself: survival and sustainability. The neighborhood’s aging infrastructure, along with changes occurring both within and around Yorktown, became perceived as threats to the future of the neighborhood. YCDC initiated Yorktown 2015: A Blueprint for Survival and Sustainability to celebrate Yorktown’s legacy and its great significance in the history of Philadelphia by setting forth public realm improvement priorities and creating strategies to preserve the many strengths found within the Yorktown community.
Interface's community-driven planning process engaged Yorktown residents through meetings, interviews, surveys and a custom-built story telling booth in prioritizing a comprehensive set of actions to be taken in the next five years to preserve and enhance the Yorktown neighborhood. In April 2011, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission adopted the plan as the official neighborhood plan. Less than a year after the plan's completion, early implementation efforts brought investments of over $70,000 into the community by multiple agencies in partnership with YCDC and Yorktown residents. What began as a model for African-American homeownership is now a model for grassroots activism and implementation.
In addition to robust traditional community outreach and engagement components (including committee meetings, community-wide meetings, focus group discussions, and interviews), Yorktown 2015 participation was enabled through a more innovative method. Interface Studio designed and fabricated a storytelling booth—the Yorktown Chatter Box—that invited community members to step inside and speak into a soup can telephone (retrofit with an audio recording device) to tell stories about their memories of Yorktown, share their hopes for the future of the neighborhood, and describe the characteristics of the neighborhood they feel would be most important to preserve. Cans hanging from the booth’s exterior were functional speakers, each looping recordings made inside the storytelling booth. The recordings were organized and archived, to be included with other recorded material in the preparation of a parallel oral history project.
The American Planning Association honored Yorktown 2015: A Blueprint for Survival and Sustainability with the 2012 National Planning Excellence Award for a Grassroots Initiative for its efforts to engage the community and preserve and build upon the many strengths of this unique neighborhood. The APA's summary video is viewable below and the executive summary is available HERE. Listen to WHYY's newsworks story on the plan HERE.