Archive Image Circa 1910
The Julia De Burgos Bilingual Magnet Middle School, which is located at 8th Street and Lehigh Avenue in North Philadelphia, officially closed its doors in 2002 after 112 years of educating (or attempting to educate) the area’s adolescents. The four-story castle-like building (complete with gargoyles) opened as the all-male Northeast Manual Training High School in 1890. Fifteen years later it became the Northeast High School for Boys, then Thomas A. Edison High School. When all the white people fled the area, the school’s name was changed to that of famous Latina poet Julia De Burgos to better reflect the Fairhill Neighborhood’s 70% Hispanic/Latino population.
In her article Emergency Classroom, Julia A. Seymour describes the experience of former sixth grade educator at De Burgos and Times reporter Christina Asquith: “Now imagine that the building was crumbling and rat infested, your 6th grade class was struggling with illiteracy, you had no textbooks, curriculum or guidance, and violence and obscenities were daily phenomena.” The images of the present-day structure that Asquith depicts in her book The Emergency Teacher are far-removed from the glorious Gothic Revival architecture that was erected to accommodate the textile workers’ sons in the late 1800s.
The building’s windows have steadily been smashed or weathered away, leaving only the skeletal infrastructure of brick and mortar. We unknowingly step over one homeless (homeless? this is his home.) man’s legs to enter, asking permission to look around to the response of a mumbled agreement and a welcoming gesture. The wooden floors are giving way beneath us to reveal vast expanses of nothingness below. Within minutes Megan’s foot proves to be too much for the auditorium floor to handle, yet she managed to extract her limb from the building’s grasp. The pages of many forsaken books and magazines are weathered together, the desks are rusting, their contents and drawers and paperwork and film reels are scattered throughout the crumbling corridors. Our ominous post-apocalyptic surroundings are complemented by an ice-cream truck jingle on repeat and children’s hopscotch laughter outside.
We are not alone. Another homeless gentleman, who appears to be no older than 25 with short dreadlocks and a chiseled face, turns the corner into the locker-lined hallway, carrying his bed overhead. Ian offers to help him, and he seems surprised at the gesture: “God bless you, man.”
A group of children run screaming, laughing through a hallway as if it were 2002. They chase each other like children do, panting, exhilarated, wailing through the rubble of overturned desks and insulation. Mosaics and murals are disguised by a range of graffiti tags, some impressive full-color expressions, others throw-ups reading things like “Bad Boy” and “I will not deface,” which was written repeatedly on a slate chalkboard.
I wonder how the former sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students of this school feel. Its presence is so daunting, so overbearing on the arterial Lehigh Avenue, eight blocks from the second leading drug corner in the city of Philadelphia at 3rd Street and Indiana Avenue. How could you overlook it? I was in sixth then seventh grade in 2002, how would I feel having attended that school and passing by her decrepit structure now –
Memories enduring what the physical building cannot.