Left: After the bombing. Right: A more recent photograph of the rebuilt, but still beleaguered block.

Left: After the bombing. Right: A more recent photograph of the rebuilt, but still beleaguered block.

Philadelphia Evening Bulletin via Temple University Archives/Keith Riley

Why Philly’s MOVE bombing historical marker is only temporary

Students will celebrate the new marker this weekend, but a disagreement over paperwork has delayed permanent installation.

Left: After the bombing. Right: A more recent photograph of the rebuilt, but still beleaguered block.

Left: After the bombing. Right: A more recent photograph of the rebuilt, but still beleaguered block.

Philadelphia Evening Bulletin via Temple University Archives/Keith Riley
Cassie Owens, Reporter/Curator

Philly will celebrate the long-planned historical marker for the MOVE bombing site Saturday, but the marker won’t actually be installed. The Jubilee School, whose students successfully applied for the marker, has struggled to secure a permanent location for it. Organizers say there’s been resistance to installing it on city property. City officials disagree. But tomorrow’s celebration will move forward.

The marker was the result of a two-semester effort from middle school students and alumni of Jubilee School at 42nd and Chester. In May 1985, Philadelphia Police bombed the residence of controversial activist collective MOVE following a standoff with officers on the 6200-block of Osage Avenue. The fire claimed 11 lives and engulfed the block, destroying roughly 60 houses. Jubilee students rallied behind getting a historical marker there after learning about the bombing in class.

The dispute over the marker’s placement stems from missing paperwork. Organizers say they aimed, and filed, to have the marker installed near Cobbs Creek Park. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell said she isn’t aware of those documents.

Jubilee principal Karen Falcon said they had been working with Blackwell’s office to have the marker installed on the Parkway, across the street from the block that burned, but couldn’t get it confirmed on city property for unclear reasons.

“I don’t really know where the resistance is coming from,” she said.  “It still feels like the city isn’t fulling owning up to it in some sense.”

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission requires that marker sponsors file a permissions form once they’ve secured a location. “We have not received that as of this morning. Completing that form does not replace any local permitting/approvals that may be required,” PHMC spokesman Howard Pollman said via email on Friday.

Falcon has not filed a permit to the Streets Department for installation. She said in an email she was not asked to:

“I didn’t send anything directly to the Department of Parks…I thought it was the City, through the Councilwoman’s office, that would get it done. They never suggested I go to the Parks Department, or asked for anything more than what I gave them, which was the whole packet. As far as I know, the City has jurisdiction over the Department of Parks.”

“What do you do when something like this happens?”

City spokeswoman Ajeenah Amir denies Falcon’s claim that the city isn’t doing its part, and also pointed to Blackwell’s office, stating in an email that the councilwoman has been trying to “to get more details of their request for placement and provide assistance to get the marker placed permanently. There is no resistance from the City in having the marker placed on city property.”

The city has not provided Billy Penn clarity over the necessary process to install a marker on city property after multiple requests for comment. The Streets Department currently has the marker, but their spokeswoman said, “We’ve been asked that we not share the image prior to unveiling.”

Falcon, who lives in West Philadelphia and saw the smoke from her home that day in 1985, said she’s felt horrible about it for all of these years. She agreed that a lot of adults who bore witness don’t like discussing it.

A neighbor in 1985, across the street from the damage.

A neighbor in 1985, across the street from the damage.

Philadelphia Evening Bulletin via Temple University Archives

“It was our first black mayor, and at the time that was a really exciting thing… I think people were hesitant about bringing up things that might harm him— I don’t know. But it was a sense of powerlessness, at least from my perspective. What do you when something like this happens?” she asked. “I think the city— this is my opinion— has not wanted to face it. There are people still alive and still  in power who don’t want to offend people.”

Blackwell also denied Falcon’s claim that the city doesn’t want the marker on its property:

“I’ve been around since the MOVE stuff began and we’ve always worked with these folks. I’ve spoken to [MOVE member] Ramona Africa on this. I know there’s been some talk about whether or not it should be in the park, but we’re trying to work this out and honor Ms. Falcon. We don’t have any problems.”

How the marker project began

By spring 2015, Jubilee’s fifth- and sixth-grade students had spent the year studying social movements. The class was also engaged in a campaign to combat police brutality.

“I was like, ‘This is a case you have to know about,’” Falcon said. She taught them about the MOVE bombing, and the students began researching the incident in-depth. They amassed a wealth of material from articles and films about the tragedy. The school invited experts and witnesses, including Ramona Africa, to visit with students, and they worked collaboratively on a research paper. When the 30th anniversary of the bombing drew near, Falcon asked the kids what they’d like to do for it.

“They wanted to go to Osage Avenue, bring flowers and read poetry,” said Falcon. The students had been writing poetry as part of their activism. “We did that. And while they were there, they noticed that there was no historical marker.”

Proposals have been floated for establishing a monument of some type, but Falcon said the class wasn’t thinking in that direction.

“It wasn’t about a monument. It was about: ‘It needs to be explained why this block looks the way it does.’ This was this horrendous thing that happened in history and it needs to be recorded,” said Falcon.

aerial view of MOVE HQ after bombing
PHILADELPHIA EVENING BULLETIN VIA TEMPLE UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES

Philly’s relationship with the MOVE bombing

Their efforts soon transitioned from a research-based student assignment to a volunteer project. The sixth-graders graduated from Jubilee, but some returned to continue their work. A core of five sixth- and seventh-graders pulled the application together for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, working after school and on weekends. By fall 2016, the children had all the research they needed, but the state application had more constraints than their previous assignment, which gave the students freedom to express their thoughts on the bombing.

“I think the most difficult part about writing the proposal was that it was supposed to be totally objective. And they had some strong feelings about it by then,” said Falcon. “We just decided to tell the facts, and let the facts speak for themselves. The facts are pretty straightforward.”

The students went knocking on doors in the neighborhood, asking residents to sign a petition in support of the marker.

“They took it around a lot of places in West Philly,” said Falcon, “and they were really shocked to find that a lot of people didn’t even know that it happened.”

Philadelphians regularly express surprise that more people, in the city and beyond it, aren’t aware of the events surrounding the bombing. Two years ago, I reported on this generational rift for Philadelphia City Paper. Julie Odell, a Community College of Philadelphia professor who teaches the tragedy, told me that year after year, students learn of it for the first time in her class.

“Students over 40 tend to know, but anyone under 40 really does not know,” she said. “People don’t like to talk about it. Adults that were around that time — it’s difficult, it’s sad.”

MOVE_headquarters_ruins
Philadelphia Evening Bulletin via Temple University Archives

Falcon said she’s still waiting on clarity from the city about a location for the marker.

Arnett Woodall, a community activist and the owner of West Phillie Produce, asked a neighbor if it could be placed in front her home at Cobbs Creek Parkway and Osage Avenue. Woodall told Billy Penn the neighbor agreed just this past Tuesday night.

Missing paperwork and community support

Woodall helped rally community support. “It was through the winter, me and my children, and the children from the Jubilee School got the petitions filled out,” he recalled.

“They’re saying the paperwork got lost,” said Woodall. He’s confident that Falcon submitted the paperwork to the city. They applied for parkside installation, he explained, because they don’t want the marker’s visitors to be too much of a bother to residents. “We don’t know what the problem is. But it would’ve been better for the community [by the park.]”

The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority selected a developer to rebuild blocks affected by the bombing earlier this spring. Many of the homes that were previously rebuilt there have been condemned and abandoned since 2000.

Amir didn’t comment on whether a petition had been processed for city property, but said the following in an email to Billy Penn late Thursday: “We know that the nominators need to get consent from property owners for permanent placement… We are willing to allow the marker to be placed wherever the nominator wants, but we also want to ensure that the community around Cobbs Creek Park is supportive of the placement, as well.”

Blackwell’s chief of staff Marty Cabry has been on leave for hip replacement recovery since late April. But he went to the office anyway Wednesday to tend to the marker discrepancy. He said that Falcon explained to him recently that the paperwork for permits had been filed a month and half ago. Having been away, Cabry won’t go as far as to say that she didn’t. But he says he can’t find that paperwork.

Per emails shared with Billy Penn, Falcon began contacting Blackwell’s office in mid-April. She sent a packet of PHMC forms confirming the marker’s approval, along with a photograph of the requested installation location. She re-sent the forms in early May, after receiving no apparent response. Falcon also shared the petition with signatures that they collected. In early June, she followed up by email once again, to check in on the installation permit’s status.

“In any case,” Falcon told Billy Penn in an email, “as you can see, between April 12th and now, they had plenty of time to ask for more information, or redirect me to get permission elsewhere.”

The office did have the petitions, but Cabry claimed there aren’t enough signatures from Osage Avenue residents. “We need to get a little more information on where the people in the neighborhood are on this,” he said.

Celebrating a temporary marker

Cabry and Falcon had different stories about whether the two spoke recently about pushing this weekend’s event back, but Cabry has since been assisting in filing the permits to shut down the street, and has arranged for a temporary stand for the marker.

“I did everything but stand on my head for her,” said Cabry. “I think she’s very frustrated and dealing with the city can be difficult.”

Blackwell insisted her office has shown willingness all along for the project. “We’ve been trying to satisfy the teacher and their whole project,” she said. “Well, in a final analysis, we’re doing the temporary set up on Saturday because that’s when Ms. Falcon set it up for.”

MOVE Bombing historical marker ceremony, Saturday at 3 pm, Cobbs Creek Parkway and Osage Avenue