Philly Burbs (USA Today Network), Kelly Powers
CHELTENHAM, Pa.— They may have never heard of it.
For one thing, these doors hadn’t been open to the public in roughly three years. And this is a small neighborhood, a tight, half-dozen blocks tucked north of Philadelphia. It has anchored a quiet, middle-class, predominately African American community for decades.
Several state representatives filed into the stone building at one corner of Willow and Sycamore avenues. For those who knew it that morning, they crossed the same land soldiers marched.
La Mott Community Center, over 12 miles from Center City, shares ground with what was once the largest federal training camp for Black troops in the American Civil War: Camp William Penn.
The center closed in October 2021, as failing infrastructure stacked onto pandemic shutdown. Cheltenham Township didn’t have answers. Residents rallied to save their staple of neighborhood identity, generations of memory and national history.
The center's future was thrown into question. But now, there's hope federal money can save it.
U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean put forward a congressional appropriation request this spring, seeking over $3.8 million in federal funds for the rehabilitation of the community center.
Another April application hopes for nearly $300,000 in Community Development Block Grant Program funds in fiscal year 2023, while Township Manager Alyson Elliott said Cheltenham has been working to submit several applications totaling over $4 million for center renovations.
On May 9, a table of elected officials stared back at local leaders, press and residents.
"What we're going to be talking about is an awful lot of the history that is the Cheltenham community’s, La Mott neighborhood’s specifically,” Rep. Nepoleon Nelson (D-Montgomery) told a small public hearing in La Mott Community Center, flanked at each side by over a dozen members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
Below them dark mold still met crumbling walls, rusted piping and dilapidated boilers.“But some of this is really just American history — that we need to make sure we are preserving, that we need to make sure is told.”
What happened in La Mott?
Camp William Penn volunteers would have walked among thousands of men, some having escaped slavery in nearby states, to pour through the gates and enlist in the Union Army. Some 11,000 men, 11 infantry units, would cross these grounds, landing on battlefields across the country and earning medals for their service.
The camp was demolished after the Civil War. And only after that war did a strong Black community begin to grow in present-day La Mott.
In this stone building, a school came in 1879. A community center filled the same walls by 1941.
Residents have gathered here for decades. This corner has hosted bridal showers, birthday parties, Girl Scout meetings, dance classes and summer camps. Its walls have heard school bells, wedding bells and the drumming of basketballs.
Then, doors were sealed shut.
“We were so messed up by the fact that the center was closing for the community,” resident Geraldine Brown told the crowd. “They had nowhere to go. The kids had no camp. They had nothing.”
Her yellow “La Mott Citizens United” shirt reminded many of a struggle still felt.
Residents had to listen for months as officials debated whether the center would be deemed worth the cost of renovation. Even in an area bearing one of the highest tax burdens in Montgomery County, they were told about 15 other facilities demand similar repair.
The township had to hire an architecture firm in summer 2022 to study the myriad infrastructure shortcomings and feasible renovations. Results were expected before the New Year. Now, possibly in coming weeks.
But optimism was in the air in early May.
"This community center is a very critical portion of this township," said Commissioner Mitchell Zygmund-Felt. He told the group Cheltenham's elected officials must acknowledge they failed La Mott.
"We've neglected the repair and maintenance. And that's part of why we're hoping you can help us start to give it the life that it deserves."
He knows more could be needed. Community Development Block Grants are competitive, with many municipalities hoping to address needs from infrastructure and housing to community facilities. The window for this fiscal year is set to close at the end of June. The federal appropriation request would take over a year, according to Zygmund-Felt.
State Reps. Melissa Cerrato (D-Montgomery), Melissa Shusterman (D-Chester), Ismail Smith-Wade-El (D-Lancaster), Ben Sanchez (D-Montgomery), Mary Jo Daley (D-Montgomery) and many more joined an advisor from the team of Congresswoman Dean and several township commissioners. They listened to local speakers, toured certain safe portions of the center and walked to the nearby Camp William Penn Museum.
Brown stepped away from the group for a moment as tours began.
“People are listening now.”
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