The neighborhood surrounding Bok Technical High School is transforming, but that is nothing new. For years, the South Philadelphia community where the school is located has periodically changed complexions. Through it all, the school was a constant presence. But that presence is about to disappear.
Bok, one of 23 Philadelphia public school buildings that will permanently close when the school year ends this Friday, is the subject of the next Schoolhouse Watch forum today at 6 p.m. at New Hope Temple Baptist Church, 711 S. 12th St. The forum, hosted by AxisPhilly and NBC 10, will bring together leaders, neighbors, and community organizations to discuss future uses for the building. As always, this will be a difficult conversation, because Bok is so much more than a 75-year-old building. It is home to generations of memories
Those memories mean little with the Philadelphia School District facing a $304 million deficit. Bok and the other 22 closing school buildings are set to be sold or repurposed even as alumni with longstanding ties to the school hold out hope for Bok to remain open. Neighbors and community groups say they are sympathetic to the school closure, but their priority now is keeping Bok’s 2.2 acres from becoming a vacant eyesore.
“You don’t want people to start camping out and have illicit activity start taking place in the building,” said Michael Bell, who lives in South Philadelphia and works with neighborhood youth as EPIC Coordinator at the Houston Center, a community center a few blocks from Bok.
That concern is a real one, because thus far, neither the city nor the School District has revealed a comprehensive plan to keep Bok and buildings like it from becoming vacant properties. With the closures just days away, we know only that Bok and the other 22 school buildings will be sold or repurposed in a process headed by Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger. How this will be accomplished is not yet known, and the formation of a comprehensive plan on school sales could be the subject of City Council hearings proposed by Councilwomen Jannie Blackwell and Blondell Reynolds Brown.
Even with a plan, however, the building that has housed Bok High School since 1938 could prove difficult to sell or repurpose. Valued at $17.8 million and located in an up and coming community, the building could be attractive to a developer under the right circumstances. But the building is in need of a whopping $55 million in repairs, updates and code compliance, according to School District records. And its heating system is connected to Southwark Elementary, a school that sits on the other side of 9th Street. Southwark, by the way, is not closing.
“You have a boiler in the school that heats Southwark,” said Councilman Mark Squilla, who represents the First Councilmanic District, where Bok is located. “Any new use [for Bok] would have to work in conjunction with some kind of agreement with the School District. That’s a very complicated issue.”
An email to the School District requesting comment about the boiler issue wasn’t answered by publication time. However, the boiler problem isn’t the only challenge. There is also the building’s size.
Bok, a career and technical school that primarily educates South Philadelphia students but also takes students from other parts of the city, is eight stories tall and takes up an entire block. In a neighborhood that consists primarily of two-story rowhouses, Bok dwarfs nearly everything else in the community. As Penn’s School of Design noted in its study, New Life for Old Schools: Philadelphia School Reuse Studio, the building’s size and density make it hard to tell which redevelopment opportunities are plausible.
“While there has been increased residential demand around Bok,” the Penn study said, “it is unlikely that there is enough demand to convert the school solely into housing. This stresses the point that poor building design may prove to be a greater challenge than weak market location for some buildings.”
As many observers have pointed out, however, the building design, while it may not fit the aesthetic of the rest of the neighborhood, is beautiful in spots.
The auditorium, with its Art Deco design, has the potential to be the anchor for a cultural center where the arts can thrive, said Squilla. That’s an assertion that’s been echoed on Bok’s Schoolhouse Watch page.
The suggestion of converting the building into a cultural center is somehow fitting, given Bok’s location in a community that’s been home to numerous cultures. Councilman Squilla, who grew up in South Philadelphia, remembers the community as a Jewish enclave that became primarily African American prior to an influx of Latinos, Cambodians and Laotians. Such cultures are still reflected in the school’s population, which is 72 percent African American, 13 percent Asian, 8 percent Latino and 5 percent white.
That diversity is a strength, and it has been for a long time. That’s what drew alumnus Genevieve White to choose Bok in the late 1980s, even though she lived in North Philadelphia at the time.
“We lived on the same block as Dobbins High School, two blocks up,” White said. “But I chose to go to Bok. I wanted to be able to experience other things, meet new people, and be in a different environment. The journey, the four years I had at Bok, it was wonderful. I learned a lot. I gained a lot of experience. I don’t think I’d be where I am now if not for Bok.”
White studied nursing at Bok, and graduated in 1993. Now a human resources professional, she helped to organize a final tour of the building for alumni that took place last week.
Seventy-nine-year-old Charles E. Carter Sr. also attended Bok, and remembered his classmates doing well after graduation because of the skills they learned there. Carter, who lived on Winton Street near 8th & Snyder as a high school student, said the trades they learned at Bok helped them to survive when the economy went sour.
Current students, meanwhile, are worried about the future. Asian students are wary of leaving Bok for nearby South Philadelphia High School because of racial incidents in which Asian students were targeted there two years ago. Those types of incidents have been eradicated under the leadership of principal Otis Hackney, but for Bok students who are unfamiliar with the changes, the fear remains.
For other Bok students, however, there is not a sense of fear, just melancholy, because many of them chose to attend Bok, and now those choices seem to be in vain.
“When I first applied they denied me,” said Ameer Brown, a 10th grade Bok student. “But with the help of my mom and school counselor writing letters on my behalf I got accepted at Bok. So it saddens me that my school I fought hard to get into is now closing.”
The question, both for Bok’s students and for the building is, “What’s next?”