Linda Richardson, savior of North Philly’s Uptown Theater, dies at 73

The nonprofit founder’s family is committed to carrying on her legacy — starting with a GOTV event on Election Day.

Linda Richardson made it her mission to revitalize the Uptown Theater — and North Broad's Black community

Linda Richardson made it her mission to revitalize the Uptown Theater — and North Broad's Black community

Theater: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn; Richardson: Bas Slabbers / WHYY

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The force behind the revitalization of North Philadelphia’s historic Uptown Theater died unexpectedly over the weekend. Linda Richardson spent nearly three decades dedicated to her mission: restoring the stunning 1927 concert hall on North Broad after years of decay.

Luckily for the theater, Richardson left behind a big family that is committed to advancing her legacy.

Honoring Richardson’s efforts in the community starts on Election Day. She had planned a big Get Out the Vote event outside the Uptown Theater from 3 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday — and it will continue as planned, her daughter Monifa Young told Billy Penn.

Its goal is to generate enthusiasm by helping neighbors find their polling places, and passing out sandwiches and snacks to those who might have to wait in line to vote.

“We’re able to use the theater as a platform to tell people the importance of civic engagement,” Young said. “[My mother] worked very hard at this event, and we wanted to make sure we still carried out the vision.”

Richardson was a force in her native North Philadelphia. Since she took over the Uptown in ’95, she raised $5 million to restore the historic art deco building and restore the institution to its former glory. In the last few years, she was able to have the structure stabilized, and started patching parts of the roof.

After a relatively normal Halloween weekend with her children and grandchildren, Young said, Richardson had such a bad asthma attack Monday morning that she went into cardiac arrest, and died suddenly at 73 years old.

It came as a huge shock to family members, who have already refocused on continuing her mission.

“I don’t want anybody to think that because she’s no longer with us, the world stops,” said 42-year-old Young, who lives in South Jersey. “It’s just fuel for us to make sure we carry the project out to fruition, which is what she was desperately working to do.”

A restoration event was held during Philly Free Streets 2018

A restoration event was held during Philly Free Streets 2018

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

‘The glue’ for her family, and on North Broad

Richardson’s lifelong passion was funneling resources into North Philadelphia’s Black community. It was second only to her dedication to her own family, those who knew her said.

She was raised at 17th and Norris, and though she went on to live in Southwest, South Philly, and across the river in New Jersey, Richardson always kept her native North Center neighborhood close to her heart.

She was among the first to zero in on the revitalization of North Broad Street, with a vision that included the Black community at every level. In 1982, she founded the Black United Fund, which offered financial help to Black-owned enterprises in the neighborhood, like the former Philadelphia Doll Museum and the Blues Babe Foundation.

In 1995, her organization took ownership of the Uptown Theater, and its mission shifted.

Richardson renamed the nonprofit the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation, and she dedicated herself wholly to the historic venue’s recovery.

“As a small, community-based organization, we have managed to keep a building intact, where other venues in the city have not been able to do that,” Richardson told Billy Penn in 2018. “We want to be able to preserve that history.”

In the two years since, Richardson raised $5 million to stabilize the building and fix its roof. She opened a radio station inside, WJYN 98.5. She got the Uptown into good enough condition that folks could finally enter the lobby again.

She had visions of turning the space into a theater again, primarily for independent artists. Richardson fantasized about a recording studio where musicians could make career moves. She also wanted neighborhood kids to be able to get a STEM education on site. The whole thing, she believed, could produce 200 new jobs for the immediate North Philadelphia neighborhood.

Passion, care and devotion of this intensity were always characteristic of Richardson, according to her daughter.

The oldest of seven siblings and a mother of five, Richardson was ever nurturing. When times were tough, she took in a nephew on her husband’s side and raised him as her own child, to prevent “yet another Black child ending up in the foster care system,” Young said.

“She touched so many people in her circle,” Young added. “She really has been the glue to hold our family together.”

That energy won’t end just because Richardson has passed, Young insisted. She’s going to run the GOTV event today as planned. She said she and her siblings were talking this morning about how to fulfill their mother’s theater dreams.

“We all have to put our heads together to figure out what the future of the Uptown looks like,” Young said. “But I think my mom laid a beautiful blueprint.”

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