As a dissertating Drexel University PhD student in the Dornsife School of Public Health, Samantha Rivera Joseph (MPH ’12) is researching community trauma, and measuring its structural determinants.
These include factors like vacant and abandoned buildings and lots; the use of public and green space, and how they comingle with things like incidents of violent crime; prevalence of gentrification and the displacement, cost of living increases and breakdown of community that come along with it.
“These are all things that are beyond the individual’s control and contribute to the trauma they experience,” Joseph said. “These things are happening onto them because of the way their communities or neighborhoods are structured. That's what I'm really passionate about.”
In her own neighborhood of Mt. Airy in Northwest Philadelphia, Joseph has taken that passion beyond research, and turned it into action. She and her husband, Antoine Joseph, have launched their personal crusade to “Save the Sun Building” — a historic, two-lot structure on the 6600 block of Germantown Ave. — that they are quickly building into a community endeavor.
The Josephs have lived right off of Germantown Ave. for the past six years, and have seen their neighborhood steadily change shape as older buildings are demolished and replaced with new, modern developments erected without consideration for the local characteristics or people.
Then last spring, following the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, they saw that the building right next to the Sun Building had been knocked down, and reasoned that the former home of the Philadelphia Sunday Sun newspaper, which had lay vacant since 2019, would be next.
“My husband grew up in the neighborhood, and he knows a lot of the history. He knew the newspaper used to run out of there. He remembers it being an active building,” said Joseph, adding that it has also been a historically Black space since at least 1969, when community leader Malcom Ford opened an antique shop called Heritage Pieces, until its most recent use as the headquarters of the Philadelphia Sunday Sun newspaper highlighting the local Black community. “So we started just thinking about what we can do? We wanted to draw attention to it. We want to try to save it. … We realized that, you know, we do have an opportunity. We can try to buy it ourselves. That's the best way that we can ensure that it doesn't get bought by a developer, potentially knocked down and replaced by another new development that doesn't necessarily fit the community.”
The current and the proposed new facade of the Sun Building.
The Josephs plan to buy and renovate the Sun Building in a way that honors its rich history. Then, within a year, they’d like to turn it into a community meeting and event space, with two reasonably priced apartment units on the second floor.
“We want to make sure that it's a space where we can actively engage the community, and have it be a space that celebrates collaboration and honors Black history,” she said. “There's a lot of monumental things that happened on Germantown Avenue, especially on this block, that we don't want to disappear with the new development.”
Even at Drexel, Joseph isn’t one to remain on the sidelines versus taking action like she has with this endeavor. In addition to her PhD candidacy with Dornsife’s Department of Community Health and Prevention, she is also a doctoral research fellow with the Drexel Urban Health Collaborative and a graduate research fellow with the West Philadelphia Promise Neighborhood. Additionally, she acts as treasurer for the Latino Caucus for Public Health and as a co-chair for the Community Engagement subcommittee of the Anti-Racism Task Force.
But despite her personal inclination to get involved, Joseph said she and her husband don’t want saving the Sun Building to be about them. It’s a project for the community, and they are relying on community support to get them to the finish line — and fellow Dragons are heeding the call.
The closing date set for the building is April 30, and the total cost for its title and planned construction is over $500,000, Joseph confirmed. She and her husband have devoted all of their personal savings, as well as family gifts and loans, encompassing about 30% of that total budget. They have also taken out an aggressive bank loan covering over 50%.
“Once this project is running smoothly, then we'll worry about our personal finances again,” Joseph said. “But we are invested. All of our savings is in here, plus our parents. My dad took money out of his retirement fund.”
A rendering of the proposed community living room meeting space inside the Sun Building.
They are looking to the community to make up the other 20%, or $100,000 needed in contributions, via the GoFundMe campaign and other arrangements. And most urgently, they are pushing for the campaign to reach $45,000 by April 21 in order to close on the building without having to take out more loans.
Supporters of the project have come out of the woodwork financially, but also with their talents. Ryan Cole, Bachelor of Architecture ’13, saw local news coverage about the Save the Sun Building project and immediately reached out to the Josephs offering pro-bono architectural support. He said the economic constraint for projects like this to harness such support is at odds with architecture’s mission of stewardship and humanism, which is why he was compelled to lend a hand.
“Being able to bring the skill set and experience of an international design firm back to our streets and neighborhoods, and removing the economic barrier to this service, is a true blessing and one that I'm continuously thankful to the Josephs for providing,” Cole said.
Cole brings with him a whole design team for the project, and Joseph said other specialists have stepped up to donate time supporting legal and marketing — sharing that same passion that spurred her to take action. Now, she is excited and thinks it’s important for people to see and support this community-driven, rather than capitalism-driven, project — as well as realize they can also make an impact in their own communities.
“Efforts like Save the Sun Building are the last line of defense against the privatization and gentrification of our cities,” said Cole. “Don't get me wrong, I'm glad to have a Starbucks or La Colombe nearby pretty much anywhere I go. But market-driven development cannot be the only kind we have.”
“It's hard, but you don't have to sit back and let somebody else come in and fix up your community,” Joseph added. “That can be your responsibility.”